Ten Tragic Days

The Ten Tragic Days (Spanish: La Decena Trágica) was a series of events that took place in Mexico City between February 9 and February 19, 1913, during the Mexican Revolution. This led up to a coup d'état and the assassination of President Francisco I. Madero, and his Vice President, José María Pino Suárez. Much of what happened during the ten days flowed from the crumbling of the Porfiriato system of repressive order giving way to chaos, and as such, these days' events were among the most critical of the Revolution's history. Madero's martyrdom shocked a critical portion of the population, and the unwelcome foreign intervention prepared the way for the growing nationalism and anti-imperialism of the Revolution. In many ways, then, it set the tone for the Revolution's most violent period, but it also prepared the way for an agenda of profound political and social change.[1]

Ten tragic days
Part of the Mexican Revolution

Rebel soldiers in action during the ten tragic days as they battle for Mexico City
Date9–19 February 1913

Rebel victory

Commanders and leaders
Lauro Villar
Ángel Ortiz Monasterio
Victoriano Huerta
Ángel García Peña
Felipe Ángeles
Félix Díaz
Bernardo Reyes  
Manuel Mondragón
Aureliano Blanquet
Gregorio Ruiz  
Victoriano Huerta
Henry Lane Wilson
Casualties and losses
5,500 dead
Victoriano Huerta switched from Pro-Madero to Anti-Madero during the ten tragic days

While the bulk of fighting occurred between opposing factions of the regular Federal army, the random nature of artillery and rifle fire inflicted substantial losses amongst uninvolved civilians.

Beginning of the tragedy

Following uprisings in Mexico in the wake of the fraudulent presidential election of 1910, Porfirio Díaz resigned and went into exile in May 1911. A brief interim government under Francisco León de la Barra allowed for elections in October 1911, and Francisco I. Madero was elected President of Mexico. Madero, a member of one of Mexico's richest families, had never held elected office before.

Within a few months, Madero began to lose support and came under criticism. Though Madero came from a wealthy background, the conservatives never forgave him for driving Porfirio Díaz out of office. Madero's supporters became disillusioned when he refused to implement their plans, such as the breakup of the large estates. Madero, at the end of his first year in the presidency, faced serious difficulties. The country was to a considerable extent unsettled, the treasury was depleted, and Madero's staff and supporters were only slightly less audacious than the hated Científicos of the Porfirio Díaz's era.

During the first year of Madero's term, four revolts occurred. The Zapata revolt in Morelos, which began in November 1911, was contained by Gen. Felipe Ángeles, but was not suppressed. The Pascual Orozco revolt in Chihuahua, begun in March 1912, and was handled by Gen. Victoriano Huerta, but Orozco and his Colorados remained at large. The revolts of Gen. Bernardo Reyes in Nuevo León, in December 1912 and Gen. Félix Díaz in Veracruz, in November 1912, were crushed, and the two generals were imprisoned in Mexico City.

Rumors of a pending overthrow of Madero were passed around openly in the capital, with only moderate enthusiasm. One vocal proponent of the removal of Madero was Gen. Manuel Mondragón, who had accumulated finances under the Porfirio Díaz regime as an artillery expert, and was under suspicion of theft and corruption. He had been entrusted with many purchases of arms, and had a scheme of putting his name on inventions and then collecting royalties. Gathering the support of his officers and staff, he persuaded the cadets of the Escuela Militar de Aspirantes Military School located at Tlalpan to join him. The cadets appear to have acted under the direct orders of their instructors and senior commanders who were largely drawn from the conservative upper-class families of Mexican society, who supported a counter-revolution. They were joined by infantry and cavalry units of the regular army, from the Tlalpan garrison.

On the night of February 8, 1913, the cadets entered the city in trolley cars. In the early morning, they gathered before the civilian penitentiary, where they demanded the release of Gen. Félix Díaz. After a brief parley (the commander was killed), Díaz was freed.[2] The cadets and soldiers under the leadership of their officers, proceeded to the Santiago Tlatelolco military prison, where they demanded and secured the release of General Reyes.

When released, Gen. Reyes mounted a horse and led part of the cadets and a column of soldiers to the National Palace, arriving there at 7:30 am.[3] Reyes appears to have had full confidence that he would be welcomed and that the Palace would be delivered over to him. He rode to its gate "as if on parade".

The assault on the Palace failed because Gen. Lauro Villar, the Commandant of the Palace Guard, walking in civilian clothes to his office in the early morning, observed a detachment of the cadets, dragging a machine gun with them, and thus was able to give the alarm and have his men in readiness.

Reyes was fired on, and fell mortally wounded from his horse; the men behind him scattered, and many spectators were killed in the confused shooting that followed. When the firing ceased 400 lay dead and over 1,000 were wounded; among them Gen. Villar, the military commander. A bullet had cut through his collarbone. The Mexican Secretary of War, Ángel García Peña, was shot through the arm.[4]

Pres. Madero was in his residence at Chapultepec Castle, three miles away from the initial fighting. He received word of the coup at about 8 am. Madero mounted a horse and, with a small escort including the Secretaries of Finance and Treasury, rode into the city. Arriving at the end of the broad Avenida Juárez and finding the narrower streets thronged, he dismounted and went into a photographer's studio opposite the unfinished Teatro Nacional (National Theater), to telephone for later news. There he was joined by a few citizens and army officers, among them Victoriano Huerta, then on inactive duty due to an eye condition. Huerta had been considered in disfavor and was known to be resentful at not having been made Madero's Minister of War. Madero on his part had reservations about Huerta, an efficient but brutal officer with serious drinking problems.

Huerta offered his services to Madero, and, since Gen. Villar and Secretary of War Peña were injured, his services were accepted.[3] Huerta was appointed Commander of the Army of the Capital. The commission was made formal on the following day. (Note that Huerta was appointed the commander of the Army of the Capital, not the supreme commander of the Armies of Mexico, as is often reported.)

The President stepped out on a balcony and made a speech to the crowd, Huerta standing by his side. He then went down, remounted his horse, and rode off, bowing to the cheering crowds, alone, far ahead of his escort, to the National Palace.

Gen. Felix Díaz had been more successful than General Reyes. As a result of the resistance at the Presidential Palace, Diaz had retreated to the city arsenal, the Ciudadela, a few blocks from the Presidential Palace. He took control of the armory without much opposition, and found himself in possession of a defensible fort, with the government's reserve of arms and ammunition.

That evening, Madero went to Cuernavaca, capital of the neighboring state of Morelos, where he conferred with Gen. Felipe Ángeles, then engaged against the forces of Zapata. He returned that night with Gen. Ángeles and a train-load of arms, ammunition and some men, and with the understanding that General Ángeles would be placed in command of the capital army. By Monday morning, Madero had a force of one thousand men.[5]

The Ten Days

On Monday, February 10, neither side made any significant moves; Madero had complete confidence that this revolt would be defeated, as had been the previous army revolts. Madero telegraphed Gen. Aureliano Blanquet to move his 1,200 men from Toluca to the National Palace, a distance of roughly fifty miles. Gen. Blanquet acknowledged that he was on the way.

Madero conferred with the Army staff and brought forward his idea that Gen. Ángeles should command the Capital Army, but the staff objected, stating that technically, the recently promoted Ángeles was not yet a general, as Congress had not yet confirmed his appointment.

11–12 February: bombardment of city

On February 11, at about 10 a.m., Huerta began the bombardment of the arsenal, which met with a vigorous response, and the city was heavily damaged. During the day, other government reinforcements arrived, along with a supply of ammunition, from Veracruz.

There was no movement of the mutineers from the arsenal, and no evidence of disaffection in the city at large. The American ambassador, Henry Lane Wilson, however, on this day told all visitors at the Embassy that the Madero government had practically fallen and telegraphed Pres. William Howard Taft, asking for powers to force the combatants to negotiations.

The mutual bombardment continued into the next day. Ambassador Wilson conferred with the Spanish and German ministers and, as his report to the State Department that day states, "protested against the continuance of hostilities." The President, continues Ambassador Wilson's report, "was visibly embarrassed and endeavored to fix the responsibility on General Félix Díaz."

Ambassador Wilson now took the view that President Madero, by not surrendering instantly to the mutineers, was responsible for the bloodshed. This view was congenial to the Spanish Minister, and to it were won the British and German ministers. Ambassador Wilson said that he called into consultation, on this and subsequent occasions, only his British, Spanish and German colleagues because they represented the largest interest here, and "the others really did not matter." At another time, Mr. Wilson explained that it would have been difficult to contact them all, so he consulted with those representing the largest interests.

The Austrian and Japanese legations, with all the Latin American representatives, including those of Brazil, Chile, and Cuba, took the view that the constitutional government was justified in maintaining its authority, and that it was no business of foreign diplomats to interfere against the constitutional government in a domestic conflict.

Following the call on Madero during which Ambassador Wilson, with the British minister Francis Stronge and the German minister Paul von Hintze told President Madero that they protested against his continuing hostilities, Ambassador Wilson, accompanied by the British minister, went to the arsenal, called on Felix Díaz, and as Ambassador Wilson reports to Secretary of State Philander Knox that day, 'urged that firing be confined to a particular zone."

13–15 February: fighting continues

On February 13, the battle continued, and the relative positions of the combatants remained unchanged. But distressing conditions increased in parts of the city within range of the fire. Ambassador Wilson told Pedro Lascuráin, Madero's minister of foreign relations, that Madero ought to resign; as reported to Sec. Knox. Ambassador Wilson's language became: "Public opinion, both Mexican and foreign, holds the Federal Government responsible for these conditions."

On February 15, Ambassador Wilson requested the British, German and Spanish ministers to come to the embassy. He did not invite the other members of the diplomatic corps. He reports to Secretary Knox: "The opinion of my assembled colleagues was unanimous." The Spanish minister was designated to visit the National Palace and inform the President of this unanimous opinion—which was, that he should resign. President Madero replied to the Spanish Minister that he did not recognize the right of diplomatists accredited to a nation to interfere in its domestic affairs; he called attention to the fact, which he feared some of the diplomatists had somehow overlooked, that he was the constitutional President of Mexico, and declared that his resignation would plunge the country into political chaos. He added that he might be killed, but he would not resign.

Later that same day, Ambassador Wilson went to the Palace, accompanied by the German Minister. Their objective, he says, was "to confer with Gen. Huerta." But, he goes on, "upon arrival, much to our regret, we were taken to see the President." Huerta was called in, however, and an armistice was agreed on. Returning to the embassy, the ambassador sent the American military attaché to the arsenal to obtain, as he did, Diaz's consent to an armistice, over Sunday.

16 February: armistice

On Sunday, February 16, Gen. Blanquet arrived with his regiment, having taken a week to come forty miles. It was soon apparent that he was not going into the fight.

Gen. Huerta had been in communications with Ambassador Wilson, by means of confidential messenger, and an understanding had been reached. During the Sunday armistice (ostensibly arranged for the burying of the dead bodies and the removal of non-combatants from the danger zone), the details of treachery were arranged, and before the close of the day, Huerta sent word to Ambassador Wilson to that effect. Mr. Wilson's report to the State Department that Sunday night contained the euphemistic words: "Huerta has sent me a special messenger saying that he expected to take steps tonight towards terminating the situation."

The plot could not, for some reason be carried out that night, but the messenger came again on Monday morning. This time, Ambassador Wilson took Secretary Knox a little more into his confidence: "Huerta has sent his messenger to say that I may expect some action which will remove Madero from power at any moment, and that plans were fully matured…..I asked no questions and made no comment beyond requesting that no lives be taken—except by due process of law."

17–18 February: Huerta/Diaz conspiracy

On the night of Monday the 17th, the ambassador told at least one newspaperman that Madero would be arrested at noon on Tuesday. Reporters were at the National Palace at the hour indicated, but they were disappointed. Nothing occurred at the Palace at noon.

At the Gambrinus restaurant, however, that noon, the president's brother, Gustavo A. Madero, was arrested, after breakfasting with Huerta and other men, who, at the conclusion of the meal, seized him and held him prisoner. The plan of seizing the person of the president was delayed only an hour or so. On Tuesday at 2 PM, Ambassador Wilson had the satisfaction of telegraphing the State Department: "My confidential messenger with Huerta has just communicated to me Madero's arrest."

On receipt of the messenger's report, that Tuesday afternoon, Ambassador Wilson sent a message to Félix Díaz at the arsenal, apprising him that Pres. Madero had been arrested and that Huerta desired to confer with the rebel chieftain. It was agreed to hold the conference at the American Embassy. At 9 PM Huerta arrived at the embassy.

Díaz, leader of the mutiny, Victoriano Huerta, the commander of Madero's forces, and the American ambassador spent the next three hours in conference in the smoking room of the American embassy, framing up a plan for a new government to succeed that of the betrayed and imprisoned Pres. Madero. Díaz pressed his claims for the presidential office, on the grounds that he had fought the battle. But Huerta's claims were stronger, for in truth, if he had not turned, the revolt could not have succeeded. (At this time, also, Huerta had command of more troops than Díaz.) Three times they were on the verge of parting in anger, said Ambassador Wilson, but his labors kept them together and they finally worked out what was represented as a compromise: Huerta would become the "Provisional President," but would call for an election in October and support Díaz for the permanent presidency. A cabinet was agreed on, Ambassador Wilson taking a leading part in this matter. The ambassador approved the appointment of Enrique Zepeda as Governor of the Federal District, and stipulated for the release of Madero's ministers. Ambassador Wilson made no stipulation concerning the president and the vice president.

That night, within an hour of the adjournment of the conference at the embassy, Gustavo A. Madero, the president's brother, was driven into an empty lot just outside the arsenal, his body riddled with bullets, and thrown into a hole in the ground.

18–19 February: Madero resigns

On the following day, Francisco I. Madero, in prison and threatened with death, signed his resignation at the pleading of his wife and mother, as she said, to save their lives, not his own. Vice Pres. Pino Suárez did the same.

The arrangement was that the resignations were to be placed in the hands of the Chilean and Cuban ministers for delivery only after the two 'retiring' officials and their families were safely out of the country. It seems, however, to have been necessary for the documents to receive the authentication of the head of the cabinet, the Minister of Foreign Relations, and, while they were passing through his hands, such pressure was brought to bear upon Pedro Lascuráin that he delivered the resignations directly and immediately into the hands of Madero's enemies.

Madero and Pino Suárez, however, had been promised release and safe-conduct for themselves and their families, out of the country. Ambassador Wilson has said that he had been consulted by Huerta as to the best methods of dealing with Madero, in particular, as to whether it would be better to deport Madero, or put him into an insane asylum. "I declined to express a preference," says the Ambassador. "All I said was: 'General, do what you think is best for the welfare of Mexico.'" Huerta decided, or pretended to decide, on deportation.

A train stood ready at a Mexico City railway station, to take Madero and Pino Suárez with their families down to Veracruz, where they were to go aboard the Cuban gunboat Cuba and be conveyed to a foreign shore. By 9 pm the families hurriedly prepared for departure, were gathered, waiting, on the platform. The Chilean and Cuban Ministers, who had spent the day with Madero, had announced their intention of accompanying the party down to the port, and they appeared at the station, announcing that the president and vice president would soon follow. They did not come. About midnight the Chilean Minister left the distressed women, hurried to the Palace, and asked to see General Huerta. The General send out word that he was very tired after a hard day's work and was resting; he would see the minister later. The minister waited until 2 am and was still refused admittance to Huerta. He could do nothing but return to the station and advise the party to return to their homes.

In the morning, claims were made that the delay had arisen because the military commander of the port of Veracruz had received telegrams from Mrs. Madero, which had led him to respond unsatisfactorily to Gen. Huerta's instructions. The commander is reported to have said, "By whose authority? I recognise only the authority of the constitutional President of México." It was believed by Maderistas, however, that it was the decision of the Chilean and Cuban ministers to accompany the party that cancelled the departure of the train, the plan having been to blow it up on the way to Veracruz.

The wife and mother of Madero, and the relatives of Pino Suárez, relieved to learn that the men were still alive but fearing the worst, now appealed to the American ambassador to grant the two political leaders asylum in his embassy. However Huerta announced that they would be transferred to more comfortable quarters — from the Presidential Palace to the main penitentiary of Mexico City.

20 February: Huerta becomes president

Gen. Huerta assumed the presidency on Thursday, the 20th of February, carefully observing formalities which are held to establish the legality of his rule. The president and vice president having resigned, Madero's Minister of Foreign Relations, Pedro Lascuráin, was recognized as President for the few 45 minutes necessary for him to appoint Victoriano Huerta Minister of the Interior, and then resign, leaving Huerta to succeed him as president, according to the Constitution.

On the evening of February 20, an artillery barrage was directed against the Ciudadela barracks where Félix Díaz had established his base of operations. Three hundred rurales (mounted police) of the 18th Corps then rode down Balderas Street to attack the Ciudadela but were met by machine gun fire and scattered after losing 67 dead and wounded. It remains unclear whether the destruction of the 18th Corps was the result of a tactical blunder or a measure deliberately engineered by Huerta to weaken the forces loyal to Madero.[6]

21 February: killing of Madero

At 9 PM the next day, the warden of the penitentiary was visited by Col. Luis Vallesteres with an order directing that the warden turn over the command of the prison to him. The retiring warden went to his home in the automobile that had brought his successor. Close to the hour of midnight Francisco I. Madero and José María Pino Suárez were killed. Ambassador Wilson reported to Washington the following morning that, as nearly as he could ascertain, they were killed as a result of an attempt at rescue as they were being transferred from the National Palace to the penitentiary. "I had recommended their transfer to more comfortable quarters," he explained. The story of the attempted rescue was abandoned, almost as soon as it was put out. Resort to 'ley fuga', with its legend against the names of victims "killed while attempting to escape", has been a favorite method for centuries in Spanish countries, but it has never been pretended as more than a convenient fiction.

Newspaper reporters waiting outside the Palace had observed that Madero and Pino Suárez were put into two automobiles, one in each, at about 11:45 pm, and were driven in the direction of the penitentiary, escorted by a dozen soldiers, under the command of Maj. Francisco Cárdenas of the Rurales. The vehicles did not go to the door of the penitentiary, but passed the street leading to it and went on to a vacant space back of the building. Here the automobiles stopped and shots were heard. What had actually occurred will probably never be known exactly.[5] When reporters, who had followed the small convoy on foot, reached the scene they found the bodies of Madero and Pino Suárez lying near the cars, surrounded by soldiers and gendarmes. Major Cárdenas was still present and claimed to an American correspondent that a group of armed men had fired on the vehicles. The two political leaders had leapt from the cars running towards their presumed rescuers. They had then been killed in the cross-fire. This account was greeted with general disbelief, although Ambassador Wilson professed to accept it.[7]

Subsequent Events

Both Huerta and his Minister of Foreign Relations stated that a formal inquiry would be made into the death of Madero.[5] This was not however undertaken. Maj. Cárdenas was put under arrest, but was soon released, and promoted to lieutenant colonel. He was then placed in command of rurales in Michoacán. Later Cárdenas fled to Guatemala when the Huerta government was overthrown. In 1920 the post-revolutionary Mexican government requested the extradition of Cárdenas for the murder of Madero.[8] Cárdenas committed suicide before this could be undertaken.[9]

Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson never made any demand for an investigation. Instead, the ambassador criticized Madero and his family. He boasted that he had consistently predicted Madero's overthrow. In reply to questions as to whether it had been proper for a foreigh diplomat to preside at a conference of two rebel generals and to help arrange the details of a new presidency, when the constitutional president, to whom he was accredited, was held prisoner, the Ambassador replied that it was necessary for the good of Mexico that Madero be eliminated.[5] To the question as to the responsibility for the deaths of Madero and Pino Suárez, Ambassador Wilson said they were private citizens when they died, and that it would be impolite for a foreign power to demand an investigation into a purely domestic matter. He claimed that Madero had killed hundreds illegally, and it was no concern of his as to how the man died. “In fact, the person really responsible for Madero’s death was his wife. She was the one to blame. Madero had to be eliminated. By her telegram to the commander at Veracruz, she made it impossible to allow him to leave the capital.”[5]

It is hardly a matter of conjecture — it is a conclusion to which all facts point — that without the support of the American ambassador given to Huerta's proposal to betray the President, the revolt would have failed. On Monday the 17th, the last day of the fighting, Madero was in undisputed possession of the entire city, except the arsenal and three or four houses near it still held as outposts. The mutineers had ventured on no sorties, and nothing whatever in sympathy with them had appeared in any part of the city. The people had refused to rise. No sympathetic uprisings had occurred in the country. The Zapatista rebels, in possession of the nearby state of Morelos, had not come in, though Ambassador Wilson had daily telegraphed to Washington that they were coming. Instead, Zapata had sent word to Madero that they would suspend operations against the Federal Government until it had disposed of Félix Díaz. In brief, it has now been definitely ascertained that the Madero government had to deal with a small group of a few hundred men, surrounded and confined in a fort, the reduction of which was only a matter of time.[5]

There was not a moment during the “Decena Trágica” when it would not have been possible to “end the distressing situation”, “put a stop to this unnecessary bloodshed” by stern warning from the U.S. Embassy to the traitorous army officers that the United States would countenance no methods but peaceful constitutional ones and recognize no government set up by force.[5] President Madero was not betrayed and arrested by his officers until it had been ascertained that the U.S. ambassador had no objections to the performance.[5] The plan for the immediate setting of a military dictatorship would never have been formed except in the U.S. embassy, under the patronage of the Ambassador, and with his promise of his government's prompt recognition. Madero would have never been assassinated had the U.S. Ambassador made it thoroughly understood that the plot must stop short of murder.[5]


  1. Hidalgo, Dennis R. (2007). "The Evolution of History and the Informal Empire: La Decena Trágica In the British Press". Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos. 32 (2): 317–354.
  2. Heribert von Feilitzsch, In Plain Sight: Felix A. Sommerfeld, Spymaster in Mexico, 1908 to 1914, Henselstone Verlag LLC, Virginia, 2012, ISBN 9780985031701, p. 234
  3. Heribert von Feilitzsch, In Plain Sight: Felix A. Sommerfeld, Spymaster in Mexico, 1908 to 1914, Henselstone Verlag LLC, Virginia, 2012, ISBN 9780985031701, p. 235
  4. Stanley Ross, Francisco I. Madero, Apostle of Democracy, Columbia University Press, New York 1955, p. 284
  5. Confidential report to Pres. Woodrow Wilson by William Bayard Hale published in the book Blood Below the Border, edited by Gene Hanrahan 1982
  6. Paul J. Vanderwood, "Disorder and Progress - Bandits, Police, and Mexican Development", pages 165-166, ISBN 0-8420-2439-5
  7. Ronald Aitken, pages 142–143, "Revolution! Mexico 1910–20", 586 03669 5
  8. Ronald Aitken, page 144, "Revolution! Mexico 1910–20", 586 03669 5
  9. Montes Ayala, Francisco Gabriel (1993). Raúl Oseguera Pérez, ed. "Francisco Cárdenas. Un hombre que cambió la historia". Sahuayo, Michoacán: Impresos ABC.

Further reading

  • Banwell, Julia. "Death and Disruption in the Photography of the Decena Trágica." Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Winter 2014), pp. 104–121
  • Album, Mexican Revolution This is an album of the Mexican Revolution by Manuel Ramos (1874-1945), which contains forty-three photographic prints illustrating damage in Mexico City during the February 1913 uprising against President Francisco I. Madero (1873-1913) also called La Decena Tragica.
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