Venustiano Carranza Garza (1859-1920) was a Mexican politician, warlord and general. Before the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) he served as Mayor of Cuatro Ciénegas and as a congressman and senator. When the Revolution broke out, he initially allied himself with Francisco Madero's faction and independently raised his own army when Madero was assassinated. He became President of Mexico from 1917 to 1920, but was unable to keep a lid on the chaos that had plagued his country since 1910. He was assassinated in Tlaxcalantongo in 1920 by troops led by General Rodolfo Herrero.
Carranza was born into an upper middle-class family in Cuatro Ciénegas in the state of Coahuila. His father had been an officer in the army of Benito Juárez in the turbulent 1860's. This connection to Juárez would have a profound influence on Carranza, who idolized him. The Carranza family had money, and Venustiano was sent to excellent schools in Saltillo and Mexico City. He returned to Coahuila and dedicated himself to the family ranching business.
Entry Into Politics:
The Carranzas had high ambitions, and with the backing of family money, Venustiano was elected mayor of his home town. In 1893 he and his brothers rebelled against the rule of Coahuila Governor José María Garza, a crooked crony of President Porfirio Díaz. They were powerful enough to secure the nomination of a different governor, and in the process Carranza made some friends in high places, including Bernardo Reyes, an important friend of Díaz. Carranza rose politically, becoming a congressman and senator. By 1908 it was widely assumed that he would be the next Governor of Coahuila.
Carranza was a large, tall man, standing a full 6'4'', and he looked very impressive with his long white beard and glasses. He was intelligent and stubborn, but had very little charisma. A dour man, his lack of sense of humor was legendary. He was not the sort to inspire great loyalty, and his success in the revolution was mainly due to his ability to portray himself as a wise, stern patriarch who was the nation's best hope for peace. His inability to compromise led to several severe setbacks. Although he was personally honest, he seemed indifferent to corruption in those who surrounded him.
Carranza, Díaz and Madero:
Carranza was not confirmed as governor by Díaz and he joined the movement of Francisco Madero, who had called for rebellion after the fraudulent 1910 election. Carranza did not contribute much to Madero's rebellion, but was rewarded with the post of Minister of War in Madero's cabinet, which infuriated revolutionaries such as Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco. Carranza's union with Madero was always tenuous, as Carranza was not a true believer in reform and he felt that a firmer hand (preferably his) was needed to rule Mexico.
Madero and Huerta:
In 1913, Madero was betrayed and assassinated by one of his generals, a relic from the Díaz years named Victoriano Huerta. Huerta made himself president and Carranza rebelled. He drafted a Constitution which he named the Plan of Guadalupe and took to the field with a growing army. Carranza's small force largely sat out the early part of the revolt against Huerta. He formed an uneasy alliance with Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata and Alvaro Obregón, an engineer and farmer who raised an army in Sonora. United only by their hatred of Huerta, they turned on one another when their combined forces deposed him in 1914.
Carranza takes Charge:
Carranza had set up a government with himself as head. This government printed money, passed laws, etc. When Huerta fell, Carranza (supported by Obregón) was the strongest candidate to fill the power vacuum. Hostilities with Villa and Zapata broke out almost immediately. Although Villa had a more formidable army, Obregón was the better tactician and Carranza was able to portray Villa as a sociopathic bandit in the press. Carranza also held Mexico's two main ports, and therefore was collecting more revenue than Villa. By the end of 1915, Villa was on the run and the United States Government recognized Carranza.
Carranza Vs. Obregón:
With Villa and Zapata on the run, Carranza was officially elected President in 1917. He brought very little change, however, and those who truly wanted to see a new, more liberal Mexico after the revolution were disappointed. Obregón retired to his ranch, although the fighting continued, particularly against Zapata in the south. In 1919, Obregón decided to run for president, and Carranza attempted to crush his former ally, as he already had his handpicked successor in Ignacio Bonillas. Obregón's supporters were repressed and killed and Obregón himself decided that Carranza would never leave office peacefully.
Death of Carranza:
Obregón brought his army to Mexico City, driving Carranza and his supporters out. He headed to Veracruz to regroup, but the trains were attacked and he was forced to abandon them and go overland. He was received in the mountains by a local chieftain, Rodolfo Herrera, whose men opened fire on a sleeping Carranza late at night on May 21, 1920, killing him and his top advisors and supporters. Herrera was put on trial by Obregón, but it was clear that no one missed Carranza: Herrera was acquitted.
The ambitious Carranza made himself one of the most important figures in the Mexican Revolution because he truly believed that he knew what was best for the country. He was a planner and organizer, and succeeded through clever politicking where others relied on strength of arms. His defenders point out that he brought some stability to the country and provided a focus for the movement to remove Huerta, who was a monster.
He made many mistakes, however. During the fight against Huerta, he was the first to declare that those who opposed him would be executed, as he considered his to be the only legitimate government in the land after the death of Madero. Other commanders followed suit, and the result was the death of thousands who might have been spared. His unfriendly, rigid nature made it difficult for him to retain his hold on power, especially when some of the alternatives, such as Villa and Obregón, were much more charismatic.
Today, he is remembered as one of the “Big Four” of the Revolution, along with Zapata, Villa and Obregón. Although for most of the time period between 1915 and 1920 he was more powerful than any of them, he is today probably the least remembered of the four. Historians point out Obregón's tactical brilliance and rise to power in the 1920's, Villa's legendary bravery, flair, style and leadership and Zapata's unwavering idealism and vision. Carranza had none of these.
Still, it was during his watch that the Constitution still used today was ratified and he was by far the lesser of two evils when compared to the man he replaced, Victoriano Huerta. He is remembered in the songs and legends of the North (although primarily as the butt of Villa's jokes and pranks) and his place in the history of Mexico is secure.
Source: McLynn, Frank. Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2000.