A broad examination of the military aspects of the earliest phase of the agrarian insurrection in the

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Localized events and processes in the state of Durango profoundly affected the nature of the Northern Revolution that, in one form or another, dominated Mexico from 1910 until the 1930s. Spontaneous, energetic, localized agrarian uprisings--especially those that originated in the Cuencamé district of Durango--enabled Francisco Madero to defeat Porfirio Díaz in the first six months of 1911. When the Madero regime tried to roll back the local gains of agrarian revolutionaries in Cuencamé in 1911 and 1912, Durango exploded in successive waves of agrarian violence that transformed, at least momentarily, the structure of political, economic, and social relations in the countryside.1 While much of Central and Southern Mexico experienced the Revolution as something imposed from outside, as early as February 1913 the agrarian revolution in Eastern Durango was already in full flower when Victoriano Huerta's coup brought a premature end to the Madero government. Rural people in communities like Cuencamé, Pasaje, and Peñón Blanco had already formed militias, taken control of local town governments, and attacked and dismembered the largest estates in the region. Agrarian insurgents from Cuencamé constituted a vital element in armies that three times defeated Federal forces holding fortified positions in the key rail center of Torreón, the single most strategic military target in the revolutionary campaigns of 1911 to 1914. Later in 1914 and 1915, in settings like Santiago Papasquiaro, Monterrey, Guadalajara, Celaya, and León, Cuencamé’s insurgents (as the Brigada Juárez and Brigada Ceniceros of Pancho Villa’s Division del Norte) fought the armies of former Constitutionalist allies like Domingo Arrieta, Pablo González, and Alvaro Obregon who sided with Venustiano Carranza in the bloody contest for national power.2

A broad examination of the military aspects of the earliest phase of the agrarian insurrection in the partido of Cuencamé during the Maderista Revolt, this essay analyzes and describes essential elements of that military effort related to recruitment; weapons, tactics and strategies; strength and disposition of opposing forces; and logistics. Militarily, the rebels in Cuencamé succeeded because they were opposed by weak and ineffective government security forces. When the elements of rural society in localities such as Cuencamé that had at least passively supported the Díaz government abruptly withdrew that support in 1910, the central government lacked the physical, coercive means to impose its will by force. A united countryside overwhelmed the few military elements which the Díaz regime and the state government could muster to suppress the insurgency. Ironically, the Great Estates of Cuencamé, whose abusive use of state police and Federal military forces had finally undermined local support for the Porfirian regime, also (involuntarily) provided the manpower, arms, food, money, horses, and forage that made a rural insurgency in Cuencamé feasible. Figure 1 shows the Partido of Cuencamé in 1910. 3

From the very beginning, insurgents in Cuencamé demonstrated an ability to move themselves quickly and effectively throughout the region. Wisely, insurgent commanders chose not to engage the smaller, better-armed Federal cavalry units which often pursued, but were never able to overtake and destroy the retreating rebel bands. Equipped with excellent arms and equipment and commanded by professionally-trained officers, Federal military forces initially possessed significant (but by no means overwhelming) tactical advantages in most engagements with their insurgent adversaries in 1910 and 1911. Eventually, however, most of those Federal advantages were neutralized by the tactical adaptations of insurgent commanders, by organizational deficiencies specific to the Federal Army, and by the sheer size and strength of the opposing forces. Insurgents, although initially handicapped by the lack of appropriate arms and sufficient ammunition, still managed to maintain an uninterrupted logistical access to the countryside and in the months between February and May 1911 became progressively larger and more powerful while Federal and state forces grew smaller, weaker, and less effective. By May of 1911, the movement based in Cuencamé, which became operationally active in early February 1911 with only a few dozen armed followers, commanded a force of two thousand insurgents and controlled all of Eastern Durango. As the Maderista Revolt drew to a close, Cuencamé’s armed forces (which constituted about half of all Maderista forces in the state) were opposed by the less than the two hundred Federal soldiers who were stubbornly defending the last major government strong point, the state capital, Durango city. The Madero Revolt ended abruptly in late May 1911 with the abdication and exile of Porfirio Díaz, before it was clear whether or not Durango’s rural insurgents possessed the means to carry the war to a new level of intensity by defeating the Federal Army in fortified positions in settings such as Durango city and Torreón. That question would not be resolved definitely until 1913-1914.


Recruitment in insurgent Cuencamé was built upon Porfirian political precedents and practices.4 Although virtually all state and federal elections conducted in the partido of Cuencamé during the Porfiriato were staged affairs, with the outcome always assured by the intervention of the jefe político and other cooperative functionaries, neither Porfirio Díaz nor any of the various Governors of Durango were unconcerned or apathetic about public opinion, for or against the official candidates. Few, if any, of the favored candidates themselves ever traveled in or around the partido to address crowds or to promote their election directly with voters. Instead, Porfirian functionaries and clients organized and participated in election campaigns on behalf of favored candidates or against unfavored candidates. Since the final vote tallies themselves were nearly always artificial anyway, the purpose of campaigning was not to mobilize the public to vote for specific candidates, but rather was intended to generate popular support for, or at least to assure acceptance of, the outcome of elections. Given the nature of the populace, overwhelmingly rural, parochial, and illiterate, political clubs played the role of information dissemi­nators and opinion-shapers in their communities. Newspapers and the other printed media of the day could only be accessed by a minority of the populace. Political clubs provided a medium for tapping the labyrinth of family, personal, and business networks that the members of these organizations placed at the service of their patrons. The purpose behind the repression of anti-Porfirian political clubs was not merely to prevent the regime’s enemies from doing well at the polls, but more fundamentally to deny to them the ability to shape local political attitudes and beliefs. By favoring the interests of those who controlled the state and national governments, the organizers and constituencies of political clubs in rural towns like Cuencamé and Peñón Blanco advanced their own self-interests and careers, since such service was itself one of the fundamental prerequisites for access to the rewards of patronage from above. Consequently, the membership of these political clubs was composed of nearly all the politically-active and politically-ambitious individuals within a community, including all local functionaries, as well as others who informally represented various individual and composite political interests and constituencies within the partido.

The unrelenting subversion of the local administration of justice by the managers and absentee owners of large estates such Sombreretillos and Santa Catalina del Alamo y Anexas eventually undermined the legitimacy and popular consensus that was the social base of paternalistic Porfirian politics in the small towns and villages of this rural district. Or put another way–when justice was denied over and over and when the very survival of the community was at risk--the moral economy that had previously supported (if only passively) the political structure abruptly collapsed, creating an opportunity for local insurgencies to attempt to reform and reshape local political and economic arrangements. The intervention of Federal troops on behalf of Sombreretillos in May 1910 illumi­nated the failure of Porfirio Díaz to act as a just ruler and patron to protect his loyal, property-owning subjects like the indigenous cultivators of Santiago and Ocuila and the mestizo llaneros (livestock raisers) of Cuencamé, and so finally and irrevocably undermined the previously strong support for Díaz that had been demonstrated by local functionaries and the politically-active population in Cuencamé as recently as 1908. What made it possible to recruit so many volunteers so quickly for the insurgent cause after 1910 was not the well-documented crisis at the highest levels of the political order–questions relating to the Presidential succession or the contested election of 1910–but rather it was the absolute collapse of local support for the regime in rural settings like Cuencamé.5

Instead of unraveling most of the old rural social structure, the insurgency in Cuencamé relied upon existing relationships. For the most part, with a few notable exceptions, the native-born Maderista-era (1911-1913)and Constitutionalist-era (1913-1914) functionaries who served the insurgent cause in 1910 and 1911 were originally Porfirista functionaries like Manuel G. Bocanegra and Severino Ceniceros who worked as members of the Ayuntamiento (town government), as judges, as legal aides, and as agrarian activists in the district before 1910 or they were individuals previously active within the informal political realm like Calixto Contreras As a respected leader of the villagers of Ocuila, Contreras promoted agrarian interests and organized community associations in the region more than a decade before the Madero Revolt. The fruits of his labor, the Sociedades de Condueños in Porfirian Cuencamé and Peñón Blanco allowed villagers and townspeople to pool their resources to sponsor litigation and to seek the paternalistic intervention of political authorities to protect and/or to recover the properties of local residents threatened by the abrupt revival of large-scale estate agriculture in the 1890s. The agrarian militias of Cuencamé and Peñón Blanco that became the backbone of the agrarian insurgency here in 1910 and 1911 evolved directly from these Sociedades de Condueños. In the end, when estate owners and managers continued to use illegitimate means and coercive violence to take disputed lands, and when justice was not forthcoming from either state or national political authorities, villagers and townspeople adapted these and other local institutions to respond to violence with violence.

Although persons of consequence in the villages of Ocuila and Santiago and in the towns of Cuencamé and Peñón Blanco quickly persuaded their own friends, family members, business acquaintances, employees, and such to join the insurgency, had not the much larger majority of the partido’s populace who resided on the Great Estates also joined the rebels, then the outcome of the armed conflict in Cuencamé in early 1911 might have been different. Francisco Gómez Palacio, the general administrator of Santa Catalina del Alamo y Anexas, understood all too well that rebels drew support broadly within the partido, while the Great Estates had no popular support:

La situación en que actualmente se encuentran las haciendas del Partido de Cuencamé, y especialmente Sombretillos y Santa Catalina, es sumamente grave. La cabecera del Partido y la Municipalidad del Peñón están en poder de los sediciosos; mejor dicho, de los elementos más desordenados, más viciosos, ignorantes y corrompidos que hay en el mismo Partido. Contra todas las haciendas de su circunscripción hay más ó menos rencillas de los sirvientes para los empleados superiores, antiguos agravios que vengar y odios personales motivados por los castigos que, aunque hayan sido merecidos, se los han debido á los administradores, dependientes y mayor­domos. Esto es general contra todas las haciendas y ya estamos palpado los resultados y sufriendo las consecuencias. De todas han tenido que huir los administradores, porque se les ha amenazado con la muerte. Pero estos males que son comunes, suben de punto tratañdose de las dos haciendas que he mencionado, Sombre­retillos y Santa Catalina, porque contra las dos hay el pretexto de que tienen usurpados terrenos; contra la primera los indios de Ocuila, quienes han destruido no solamente los cercados, sino que han arrasado las casas, apoderándose de cuanto encontraron; semillas, mercancias, todo lo que pudieron llevarse, y del campo han estado llevandose los ganados menores y los caballos. Por últimos, han mandado que salgan de la hacienda todos los sirvientes con sus familias, con amenazas de matar á los que no obedezcan, si los encuntran cuando vuelvan. Mencione estos hechos, porque son la muestra de lo que pasará en las diversas fincas de Santa Catalina, que se encuentran en circunstancias parecidas; en Santa Catalina hay las rencillas con la congregación de Sauces; en el Alamo con el pueblo del Peñón y en Covadonga con el mismo y con el de Nazas; en Pasaje con Cuencamé, por los linderos, y en Cruces y Guadalupe con la congregación de la Uña.6
In Cuencamé, along with the pull of family and personal loyalties, the push of the shared material interests of resident small property owners and livestock raisers also explained the eagerness with which townspeople joined the revolt led by the villagers of Ocuila and Santiago.7 On the Great Estates, apart from the pronounced social estrangement between estate workers and residents and estate owners and managers, the attractiveness of the rebel cause was also enhanced by material forces–the assurances of insurgents that a victory over the Díaz regime would result not only in the recovery of contested lands from the Great Estates (which might also allow hacienda sharecroppers to work lands of their own), but also that wages and working conditions on the estates must also improve dramatically.

From the very beginning of the Maderista Revolt in Cuencamé, insurgent forces always outnumbered their local foes–the local and state police forces and the few auxiliaries and private armed guards who sided with the Porfirian government. Only the continued presence of Federal cavalry and other security forces garrisoned there prevented a generalized uprising by villagers and townspeople before February 1911. Initially, as the Madero Revolt took shape in the region, the earliest recruiting effort continued to be directed exclusively at villagers and townspeople. In early January 1911 the Jefe Político of Lerdo advised security forces in Cuencamé that Merced Gonzalez was en route to the town “con el objeto de organizar una guerrilla con gente de allí .”8 Although Gonzalez, who had been implicated and charged as a participant in a March 1910 uprising which had attempted to prevent the Hacienda of Sombreretillos from seizing lands belonging to the villagers of Ocuila and Santiago, was quickly arrested and jailed, this did nothing to undermine the growing insurgency because most of Cuencamé’s residents were committed to an armed struggle long before the Madero’s call to arms in November 1910. As the insurgency evolved afterwards, the villagers and townspeople of Ocuila and Santiago and the townspeople of Cuencamé, who constituted the principal leadership and who were the original instigators of the insurgent movement in 1910, became the highest ranking officers of Cuencamé’s Maderista militias, which were formally recognized in the Spring of 1911 as the 3 Regiment of the 2rdnd Division del Norte. Later, when Cuencamé’s armed forces were reconstituted as the Brigada Juárez (1913) and the Brigada Ceniceros (1914) of the Villista Division del Norte, the General Staffs of those two combat brigades were still comprised mostly of the same villagers and townspeople. Perhaps as early as April or May of 1911, the majority of the more junior officers in Cuencamé’s armed forces were hacienda workers or sharecroppers who had been recruited into the agrarian militias of Cuencamé or Peñón Blanco. These officers commanded many smaller rebel bands, comprised of friends and family members who like themselves were estate residents and workers. Those recruited on the estates, along with other villagers and townspeople from outside of Cuencamé who had a similar histories of conflict with the Great Estates prior to 1910, probably accounted for the majority of the 2,000 rebels of the 3rd Regiment of the Division del Noreste that Calixto Contreras commanded when hostilities ended in May 1911.

Given the fundamental role of kinship, fictive kinship (compadrazgo), and personal loyalty and affection in the recruitment process, formal revolutionary ideologies, although these were never absent, were probably not a major factor in generating or sustaining the armed insurgency that originated in the towns and villages of Cuencamé. Although the urban populace in Durango city, Lerdo, Gómez Palacio, and Torreón was probably exposed to more ideologically-based appeals and had already been at least partially mobilized by Francisco Madero’s abortive electoral challenge to Porfirio Díaz, the urban populace did not respond to Madero’s call to arms in November 1910, nor did they participate in the Madero Revolt in significant numbers at any time afterwards. Observers noted in March 1911: “Although it is a well-known fact that the revolutionists have many sympathizers in the large cities none have joined their cause; it is made up wholly of the country people.”9 Consequently, the political routine in the cities remained largely unaffected by the revolutionary contagion that was sweeping the countryside. For example, as rebels forces attacked and occupied the town of Cuencamé and raided the nearby mining center of Velardeña, in the city of Torreón the United States Consul reported: “ Today [March 21, 1911] is the anniversary of Juarez's birthday, and this morning the city officials and others formed a parade and went to the big tent on the plaza and held memorial speeches and music, and everything passed off quietly.''10

If the resident small property owners of Ocuila, Santiago, and Cuencamé were not ideologically driven, that does not mean that they eschewed the use of ideology as a recruiting tool, especially as they sought new recruits, many of them complete strangers who lived on estates relatively distant from the pueblos. As early as mid-February 1911, before rebels were strong enough to take a single town or village in the region, estate managers in Cuencamé complained that their workers were already joining the insurgency.11 When the first band of forty rebels, retreating into the Nazas River Valley from Velardeña and Pedriceña, arrived at the Hacienda Cruces on February 15, 1911 to forage for supplies, conspicuous among the rebels were several former hacienda workers, fired for various offenses and anxious to exact revenge.12 By mid-March 1911, the bands operating along the Nazas River valley included not only disgruntled, former employees of Hacienda Cruces and local residents like the villagers of La Uña and Conejo who had long struggled to retain possession of contested lands there, but also employees in good standing at Cruces, such as Severo García, the estate’s mechanic. After taking up arms, these worker-rebels often remained in the same general area and communicated frequently with friends and family left behind on the estates. While the arrangement gave estate managers useful intelligence about the composition and movements of the rebel forces, it also made it impossible for managers to hide valuable provisions from the roving bands.

With consequences much dangerous than the incessant and escalating demands for supplies, the Maderista recruiting campaign targeted at hacienda residents soon undermined the ability of managers and foremen to unilaterally determine wages and working conditions. Workers and sharecroppers who saw armed friends, family members, or casual acquaintances obtain needed supplies by intimidating and threatening hacienda managers and foremen (on an almost daily basis) were encouraged to make demands of their own. After surrendering still more money, food, and feed to rebel foragers on March 13, 1911, Thomas Fairbairn exclaimed:

The worst side of the whole affair is the way the peones are taking the opportunity to do what they wish without anyone to say to them nay. This morning they all refused to go to the fatiga [obligatory “free” labor to clean irrigation ditches], and said they would not give any fatiga in the future, and what can one do? If they make more demands, all one can do is grant them with the best grace possible. We have to have the water, and if the fatiga will not go, we will have to pay raya [wages]. If they demand unreasonable pay, I do not know what we can do, as if this keeps up they will certainly refuse to pay the Hda what they owe, and run things to suit themselves.'13

A few days later, Fairbairn noted: ''They seem to be getting out of hand worse every day . . . They see these Revoltosos coming and getting what they want and seem to think the Golden Age is here, and they will have to work no more.''14 In fact, the ideologically-based recruitment of hacienda residents served two practical purposes for the leaders of the insurgent movement in Cuencamé. It assured an almost unlimited supply of manpower for Cuen­camé’s agrarian militias and, at the same time, it helped to weaken the Great Estates themselves. Francisco Gómez Palacio described the traffic in subversive ideas, as rebels recruited new followers on the estates while actively encouraging insubordination among those who remained behind:

A esta actitud de insurordinación los han incitado los cabecillas que se dicen revolu­cionarios, diciéndoles que no son esclavos ni deben dejarse explotar por los ricos ambici­osos que hasta ahora los han dominado; que el objeto de la revolución es hacerlos ciudadanos libres y que deben emanciparse de la servidumbre reclamando lo que les corresponde y haciendo valer sus derechos por bien ó por fuerza; que la tierra pertenece, no al que la ha adquirido por herencia ni por compra, sino al que la trabaja y la hace producir con el sudor de su rostro; que por lo tanto deben hacer presente á los que llamaron sus amos, que en lo de adelante ellos son los dueños del terreno y no se lo dejarán arrebatar sino con la vida.15

In a note to the United States Consul in Durango city, the manager of the El Orito Mining and Milling Company voiced a rather different complaint about the consequences of the rebel occupation of Peñón Blanco since late February 1911–that his workers were not only disorderly, but also drunken.

[Since the rebels arrived]....there has not been any form of government in the town of Peñón Blanco, located at a distance of approximately 10 kilometers south of our mines. The people of the town having been having one grand carousal. As we obtain our workmen from this town, and are at the same time in danger from drunken Mexican (sic), I wish that you would draw the attention of the State Government to this fact.
In fact, there was a basis for this kind of complaint. Cuencamé’s Maderista insurgents routinely recruited followers not just with flowery political rhetoric and promises of the better life to come, but also practical demonstrations--joyous and festive celebrations that inevitably included enormous quantities of good food and ample drink, along with riotous music, singing, and dancing, that might last for days or even weeks. Hence complaints such as those of the manager of Pasaje, José Antonio Martinez, that when rebels descended on Pasaje in search of supplies, not only did they did carry off hacienda workers and sharecroppers as new recruits, but also that the recruitment process itself was too long, too loud, and too disorderly. During the first week of April, not one, but three separate bands drew supplies and recruited followers at Pasaje. The manager complained:

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