The Armed Libertarian Revolution in Mexico

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The Mexican Revolution is likely the most important chain of events in the history of Mexico, perhaps more so than Mexico’s war of independence.  Its crowning achievement is the 1917 Constitution, still in effect today.  One of the leading attributes of the Mexican Revolution is the rise of citizen armies, what U.S. legal tradition recognizes as the ‘unorganized militia’ of able-bodied armed men organizing into military units.  Though the grievances, politics, motives, and goals of the different revolutionary factions and leaders differed, there’s much about the Revolution to be seen from a libertarian point of view.

One of the central themes of libertarian political theory is that government is at best inefficient and incapable of adequately governing and providing for the people, and at worst a predatory criminal organization.  This is why the minarchist libertarians believe in a very limited ‘night watchman’ government under a strict interpretation of the Constitution that favors the liberty of the people, and why anarchist libertarians prefer no government at all and all power to the individual.  The minarchist grievance against the thirty-five-year Porfirio Diaz regime is the lack of free elections, repression of dissident press, and crony capitalist policies favoring well-connected big businesses over independent honest businesses. 

The anarchist libertarian scholar Murray Rothbard breaks down the state to its most basic components in Anatomy of the State.  The example he gives is the bandit gang that occasionally robs an unarmed village population, which then decides they would profit more if they lived among the conquered people as rulers and collected regular payments.  The bandit chief declares himself king, his bandit leaders are the lawful nobility of the realm, and a new state is born.  This is what Columbus was to the Arawak people, what Cortez was to the Mexican Indians, and what the Mexican state was to the peasants and the Indians.

While Americans debate over the issue of women in combat, the Mexican Revolution sorted out that issue over a century ago with the ‘soldaderas’, the women soldiers of the revolutionary armies.  The soldaderas served as rear-guard militia, nurses, couriers, spies, sentries, regimental cooks, and frontline light infantry.  Without the participation of women in logistical and combat roles, the revolutionary armies wouldn’t have been able to mount prolonged resistance against the federal government and later, against the corrupt revolutionary state.  The prevalence of revolutionary wives and sweethearts, especially Francisco “Pancho” Villa’s Northern Division, is likely the reason why desertion was so low in revolutionary armies.  Women’s participation made them equal stakeholders in the Revolution, and evidence that gun rights and the natural right to self-defense aren’t restricted to one country, gender, or one special class of people.

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The anarchist grievances of the Mexican Revolution include the rampant state using eminent domain to steal land from its rightful owners, federal military conscription as kidnapping, taxes as institutionalized theft, and the constant imprisonment and murder of dissidents.  One faction of outright anarchists rose up in 1911.  The Magonistas were a battalion-sized volunteer army of anarchist Mexicans and Anglo-Americans who conquered several cities and towns independently of the Maderista’s war against the Diaz regime.  Although they were anarcho-communist, their attempts to establish a micro-state in northern Baja California represent the libertarian ideals of secession and political decentralization.  Moreover, the wary and apolitical general population were likely to receive better representation and public services under the Magonistas' micro-state than under the Mexican government.

Apart from the Magonistas, two nations were fighting to preserve their autonomy.  One was the Maya people of Southern Mexico, who fought a long guerrilla war against Mexico until 1933 in the Yucatan region.  The Yaqui people in the North joined almost every revolutionary faction in their well-based hatred of the Diaz regime, but they served Alvaro Obregon’s Constitutionalist Army with distinction, with the understanding their service would earn their autonomy and right to resettle along the Yaqui River.  When the revolutionary state ignored its promises to the Yaquis, they revolted in 1920 and fought on until 1927.  They had a legitimate grievance in 1910, and they had kept up their end of their contract with the Constitutionalists. They had an entirely new and entirely legitimate grievance in 1920.

One state where Rothbard’s bandit analogy is taken very seriously is Morelos, the home state of Emiliano Zapata.  Emiliano Zapata was the beloved gentleman soldier of Morelos as Robert E. Lee was to Virginia.  Zapata was a property owner and a business man from Anenecuilco, but he was also a man of the people and one of the greatest libertarians who ever lived.  Though the communitarian culture of rural Morelos made him sympathetic to socialist ideas, his words and actions drip with key libertarian principles.  “It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”  He had a profound respect for the land as the source from which he and most of his home state earned their income and put food on the table.  He was kind and respectful to the peasants and the Indians and had a reputation for arguing peasant grievances to the government, for which he was widely popular.  One year before the Revolution of 1910 broke out, Zapata was elected chief of the Defense Committee by village leaders, in the tradition of the early American militias electing their officers. 

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The agrarian demands of Morelos reflect a very libertarian grievance of eminent domain and slavery.  The villages had titles to the land dating back to the colonial era.  The peasants were the rightful property owners and legally equal shareholders in the local agronomy.  In many cases, the land had been stolen from the villages by the government through eminent domain and given to a well-connected private enterprise.  In many other cases, the land was stolen through extrajudicial forced evictions which the authorities conveniently ignored.  The hacienda system featured court-sanctioned debt-servitude which allowed the haciendas to turn the working class into slaves working on the plantations.  In one or two generations the government had turned property shareholders into tenants and debt slaves.  The collusion between the Mexican state and select corporations turned the planters into feudal lords with total power over their de facto serfs, and the plantations operated as feudal states like medieval Europe.

The grievances and tactics of the Zapatista army are almost identical to those of the Green Mountain Boys in the Vermont Revolution, led by Ethan Allen.  A decade before the British fired the first shots at Lexington, the Green Mountain Boys fought a low-level guerrilla war against the Royal New York government in the New Hampshire Land Grants.  The New Hampshire colonial government had made land grants to settlers leaving New Hampshire to settle west of the Connecticut River.  These settlers worked the land for nearly a generation, earning a living and creating a functional and self-sufficient economy out of the wilderness.  When the New York government claimed the Land Grants for well-connected cronies and attempted evictions, the revolutionaries fought back, showing a remarkable degree of restraint to avoid collateral damage (See Rothbard's Conceived in Liberty, Volume 4).  As Ethan Allen was a man of the people and a charismatic leader largely responsible for his success in defending the property rights of the working class, so was Zapata to the peasants and Indians of Morelos who had never before been able to organize effective resistance.

From 1910 to 1919, Zapata led the Liberation Army of the South and is responsible for Morelos’ period of autonomy until his murder under a false flag of truce.  Like Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys, and also like the irregulars at Concord and Boston, the Zapatistas fought a prolonged guerrilla war with the popular support of the public throughout Morelos and in parts of Puebla and Mexico State.  Like the Green Mountain Boys in the New Hampshire land grants, like the American Sagebrush Rebellion, like the militants at the Bundy Ranch standoff and the Oregon wildlife refuge standoff, and like the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas today, the government called the original Zapatistas criminals and terrorists when they took up arms to resist eminent domain. 

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Pancho Villa is a controversial figure in the Mexican Revolution.  People from Northern Mexico still revere him as a man of the people, while the descendants of his enemies still revile him as a gangster.  The truth is that he was somewhere in between the two.  Testimonies of Villista veterans and civilians testifies that the Northern Division really did often provide food and badly needed public services to the civilian population.  In this sense, the exploited population were less exploited under the revolutionaries than they were by the federal and loyalist state governments.  However, Villa did have the ability to be brutal and have people executed at the drop of a hat.  Part of the brutality known among Villa and his lieutenants comes from having been gangsters. 

Villa never particularly wanted to be a gangster, but it came out of necessity.  His career as an outlaw began in his teenage years when he had to flee his native Durango after killing the local boss.  The feudal lord was in the process of sexually assaulting Villa’s sister when the boy intervened and killed the man.  Modern courts would recognize this as a justifiable homicide, and the rape of a maiden was certainly a crime in a conservative Catholic country.  Unfortunately, in those days, peasants had no rights in court.  Doroteo Arango, his underground name Francisco Villa, became a criminal when he decided not to let his sister be raped.

Villa was by no means a libertarian--his violent streak and willingness to "liberate" property attests to that.  Zapata was the libertarian, not Villa, but Villa and the Villistas had a series of magnificent libertarian moments and a long list of libertarian grievances.  Despite his record as an outlaw and later as a warlord, Villa was an underdog and a victim of circumstance like millions of other working men and women.  Villa reorganized his cattle rustling gang into a guerrilla army and, through victory and innovation, this militia quickly transformed into a professional army.  Villa’s army represents a true people’s army, recruited from a population hostile to the federal government and loyal to their local underdog whom songs and newspapers were describing as a Robin Hood figure.  The career of Pancho Villa is significant to so many Mexicans because Villa symbolizes victims finally getting back at their oppressors after suffering so long.

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One of the most libertarian moments of the Mexican Revolution came when Zapata and Villa occupied Mexico City.  For the first time ever, the residents of the Federal District saw genuine people’s armies.  Pancho Villa’s troops all wore distinct uniforms, had northern accents, and were known for partying and looting.  The Zapatistas were a bona fide peasant army and shocked the nation with their self-discipline and good manners.  They wore large straw hats, the clothing in which they worked the fields, sandals on their calloused feet, and carried whatever hunting rifles, muskets, or enemy weapons they could scrounge.  The Zapatists were remarkably respectful of private property, noted for knocking on doors and asking if the residents could spare a tortilla or a cup of water.

During the brief occupation of Mexico City, Villa and Zapata sat in the Presidential Palace.  Both revolutionary generals agreed that neither one of them should be President of Mexico.  As Villa said, “This ranch is too big for us.”  While Villa arguably craved some degree of power and prestige, he was happiest among his troops in the North and had no national political ambitions.  Zapata had no desire whatsoever to rule over Mexico.  Both generals and their armies left the capital and went home.  George Washington is praised for setting the precedent of stepping down from the presidency, but Villa and Zapata literally had it under their seats and chose to walk away.

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Scholars and veterans of the Mexican Revolution agree that the Revolution was hijacked and corrupted.  The 1917 Constitution promised significant land reform to the peasants, but the Constitutionalist regime had no intention of expropriating the land from their wealthy backers.  The national revolutionary labor union, the CROM, mirrored the large unions in the U.S. and transformed from a platform for improving wages and working conditions into a cattle pen for delivering workers to state-backed enterprises.  The extreme anti-clerical measures against the Catholic Church went beyond justice against a politicized religious organization, and went so far as to outlaw the practice of Catholicism.  The vast and overwhelming majority of the population is devoutly Catholic, so it’s hardly a surprise that persecuted Catholics would rebel against the Plutarco Elias Calles regime in the 1920s.  Today, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) dominates most of the government, although both Revolutionary (PRI) and National Action Party (PAN) candidates and elected officials are often bought and threatened by drug lords.

Today, there are three fronts for advancing liberty in Mexico.  One is formed by the guerrillas, including the Zapatista National Libertion Army (EZLN) in Chiapas, who continue to resist eminent domain and illegal forced evictions. Another is formed by libertarian organizations like the Libertarian Party of Mexico (PLM), which openly advocates for limited governments and free markets, and organizes networks of people sympathetic to libertarian ideas.  These people are usually those with grievances against the government or against government-backed cronies in the private sector.  Finally, the third front for liberty in Mexico is formed by the various Community Police and self-defense militias operating throughout Michoacan, Guerrero, parts of Chihuahua, and in other Mexican states.  The most effective civilian militias with the greatest success in fighting the violence and predation of the drug cartels have been those who have not cooperated with the government.

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For further reading:

"The Upising in Baja California"

Frank McLynn, Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution

Friedrick Katz, The Secret War in Mexico: Europe, the United States, and the Mexican Revolution

The Storm That Swept Mexico (documentary film)

The Last Zapatistas: Forgotten Heroes (documentry film)

And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (biopic)

Zach Foster, "Civil War in Mexico: Re-Examining Armed Conflict and Criminal Insurgency"

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'From the Dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz to the Revolution' painting by David Alfaro Siquieros

'Las Soldaderas' (1938) painting by Antonio Gomez.

Villa and Zapata riding in front of the Zocalo photo courtesy of Siempre magazine

Other images courtesy of Pinterest