April 10, 1919 – Assassination of Emiliano Zapata, Leader of Peasant Rebels in Mexico

On this day in history, Emiliano Zapata, an iconic figure in Mexico, was killed in an ambush.

Zapata was born on August 8, 1879 in the rural Mexican village of Anenecuilco, Morelos. Zapata’s family were mestizos, Mexicans of Nahua and Spanish ancestry.

General Emiliano Zapata, posing in Cuernavaca in 1911, with a rifle and sword, and a ceremonial sash across his chest. (Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico City. Archivo Fotográfico Díaz, Delgado y García)

After Porfirio Díaz came to the presidency of Mexico by a coup in 1876, the Mexican social and economic system was dominated by large estate holders who controlled much of the land and squeezed the holdings of independent communities. The concentration of hacienda lands was facilitated by three nineteenth-century land reforms: the Lerdo Law of 1856, the 1883 Mexican Executive Decree on Colonization, and the 1894 Law for the Occupation and Alienation of Vacant Lands.

The Lerdo Law, or Ley Lerdo in Spanish, is the common name for the Confiscation of Law and Urban Ruins of the Civil and Religious Corporations of Mexico. The Lerdo Law provided for the confiscation of the lands held by the Catholic Church and civil corporations and their sale to private individuals. It was expected to stimulate the market and generate government revenue through sales tax. However, the lack of capital among the lower classes meant that the main purchasers were large landowners or foreign investors, further concentrating land ownership.

The 1883 decree transferred responsibility for dividing vacant and national lands to be put up for sale. Land survey companies were granted up to one-third of the lands they surveyed. The rest was sold to foreign and Mexican settlers.

The 1894 law removed the limit of how many acres could be sold in each parcel.

The only individuals who could afford the state’s prices were the wealthy hacendados. As a result, a privileged minority controlled most of Mexico’s land. Thus:

Together these laws resulted in extensive disenfranchisement of numerous indigenous communities, who were stripped of their territories when their lands were identified as vacant and eligible for colonization.” (Carlos G. Vélez-Ibañez and Josiah Heyman, The U.S. – Mexico Transborder Region: Cultural Dynamics and Historical Interactions, 2017, p. 291.

Many peasants were subsequently forced into debt peonage on the haciendas. Díaz’s cronies were given offices around the country that allowed them to enforce changes in land tenure favoring the progressive concentration of land into the hands of fewer and wealthier landowners.

Community members in Anenecuilco, including Zapata, sought redress against land seizures. In 1892, a delegation had an audience with Díaz; Díaz had them arrested and Zapata was conscripted into the Federal Army.

Porfirio Díaz

The flawed 1910 elections were a major reason for the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Porfirio Díaz was being threatened by the candidacy of Francisco I. Madero. Zapata, seeing an opportunity to promote land reform in Mexico, raised an army of peasants in the southern state of Morelos under the slogan “Land and Liberty.”

Madero overthrew Díaz in May 1911 at the Battle of Ciudad Juárez. Under Madero, some new land reforms were carried out and elections were to be ensured. However, Zapata was dissatisfied with Madero’s stance on land reform, a measure which Madero did not really believe in. Zapata was unable, despite repeated efforts, to make him understand the importance of the issue or to get him to act on it.

As the history of Zapata on The Thought Company recounts:

When Madero’s promises failed to come to fruition, Zapata took to the field against his onetime ally. In November 1911 he wrote his famous Plan of Ayala, which declared Madero a traitor, named Pascual Orozco head of the Revolution, and outlined a plan for true land reform. Zapata fought federal forces in the south and near Mexico City. Before he could overthrow Madero, General Victoriano Huerta beat him to it in February 1913, ordering Madero arrested and executed.”

Before Huerta could act against him, Zapata joined with three other revolutionaries to oppose Huerta. Together with these men – Pancho Villa, Venustiano Carranza, and Alvaro Obregón – the “Big Four” succeeded in driving out Huerta.

Venustiano Carranza

Then, the four turned on each other. In early 1916, Carranza sent his most ruthless general, Pablo González, to track Zapata down and get rid of him. On April 10, 1919, Zapata was double-crossed, ambushed and killed by Colonel Jesús Guajardo, one of González’ officers who had pretended to want to switch sides.

The History Channel online observes that Zapata’s influence has endured long after his death, and his agrarian reform movement, known as zapatismo, remains important to many Mexicans today.

In addition, since 1994, a movement calling itself the Zapatista Army of National Liberation or EZLN has been active in the Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico. These “Zapatistas” have declared war against the Mexican state, mainly using the strategy of civil resistance. The group sees itself as heirs to Emiliano Zapata; nearly all EZLN villages contain murals with images of Zapata, as well as other revolutionaries.

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