When Alvaro Obregón became president of Mexico in December, 1920, agrarian groups, who expected him to provide them with land, constituted a major source of his support. Throughout his military campaigns he had been aware of the importance of land as an immediate reward to those who had fought for him, and he brought this understanding to the presidency. During his term he would use this powerful tool to cement the political base on which his leadership rested, and he would manipulate it in order to bring maximum political benefit to himself and his associates. Indeed, during the De la Huerta rebellion in late 1923, he would use the agraristas, those campesinos who had benefited from land distributions in various parts of the country, in the fight against the rebellious groups. In order to better appreciate the stability of the Mexican political system in the years following the Mexican Revolution, it is useful to examine the way that Obregón put into practice the most compelling of revolutionary goals, agrarian reform, within the framework of his plans for national reconstruction.

Obregón had established his credentials as an agrarian reformer during the military phase of the Revolution. He was aware of the importance of land to the Mayo troops who had followed him in 1912. As early as 1914, Obregón and Pancho Villa had requested that First Chief Venustiano Carranza formulate a policy of land distribution. The Convention of Aguascalientes, later that year, brought the agrarian question even more directly to Obregón’s attention as he pondered the Zapatista presentation of the Plan de Ayala. After the collapse of the convention, Obregón and a number of other Constitutionalist leaders formed the Confederación Revolucionaria and used this organization to compel First Chief Carranza to formulate a statement on the land question. The result was the Agrarian Decree of January 1, 1915, which promised that the Constitutionalists would provide land for those who needed it. Obregón continued to support land reform efforts during his fight against Pancho Villa and even provided funds and transportation for Sonoran land reformers in 1916 during his term as Secretary of War. At the Constitutional Congress of 1917, he encouraged the efforts of the so-called Jacobins who formulated the famous Article 27, positing agrarian reform as one of the prime constitutional principles of the Revolution. All of these steps had added to Obregón’s image as a social reformer, and at the same time gained him support both from those who had received land and from those who hoped to receive it. Carranza’s own timidity in pursuing an active land reform program reinforced the vision of Obregón as the champion of the rural masses, even though Obregón himself retired from public life between mid-1917 and early 1919. Thus, during his presidential campaign and his revolt against the Carranza government in 1920, Obregón was able to attract groups of agrarians, including the Zapatistas, to his cause.1

Once in the presidency, Obregón chose the Comisión Nacional Agraria (CNA) to handle the sensitive and urgent process of land reform. This agency had been formed by the Constitutionalist government in its January 1, 1915 decree. However, its progress on land redistribution had been considerably limited by Venustiano Carranza’s lack of enthusiasm. State leaders, in attempting to carry out reforms, had found that the national government moved slowly in ratifying their activities, and as early as September, 1916, First Chief Carranza had stopped provisional distribution of land by the states, requiring that each case await a definitive decision at the national level.2 New laws and decrees under Obregón and his colleagues would change the format of agrarian reform substantially. The Obregón government established an entirely new pattern of distribution of lands which was at once more orderly and more directly under the control of the national government and of the president himself.

As Obregón took charge of the distribution process, he attempted to subordinate to himself independent political groups such as the Zapatistas and the Partido Liberal Constitucionalista (PLC). For the most part the Zapatistas joined and supported him. The PLC, which had coordinated his presidential nominating convention in 1920 and had played a major role in his campaign, drifted into the opposition camp and its members helped supply a nucleus for the De la Huerta rebellion in 1923. By distributing land during his presidency, Obregón was, in fact, buying future support from agrarians against potential and very real opponents.

To understand the manner in which Obregón used land reform as a political tool during his administration, it is important to explore the legislation that was passed during his presidency, the way it was enforced, and the political context in which it was implemented. An initial struggle to control the Comisión Nacional Agraria was followed by a more significant battle between opponents and proponents of land reform itself. The areas in which heavy land reform programs were carried out are important indicators of Obregón’s actual or potential sources of political support. Obregón was further influenced by economic conditions which were complicated by Mexico’s proximity to the United States and the presence of U.S. and other foreign interests in Mexican national territory. All of these factors influenced the De la Huerta rebellion, and all helped condition the form that land distribution would take under Obregón’s presidential direction. Indeed, they would be critical in the development of the power of the presidential office itself.

The first major measure taken after the fall of the Carranza government was the Ley de Tierras Ociosas (the Law of Unused Lands) which was passed June 23, 1920, during the interim government of Adolfo de la Huerta. Designed principally to get unused land into production quickly, and thus to increase the country’s depleted food supply, it authorized municipal authorities to temporarily turn over privately held land not in production to individuals willing to work it. They, in turn, would pay rent, up to ten percent of the harvest, and would return the land at the end of one year, as soon as the last harvest was completed.3 The Ley de Tierras Ociosas was widely applied, and at times it was difficult for owners to recover the land from the temporary renters as will be illustrated below.

When President De la Huerta changed the membership of the Comisión Nacional Agraria, appointing Antonio I. Villarreal as chairman, the CNA itself began to institute some important changes from Carranza’s decree of September 19, 1916. Provisional distribution by state authorities was again permitted, and the CNA became very active under Villarreal’s leadership.4 During the six months of De la Huerta’s presidency, 166,335 hectares of land were distributed definitively and 28,156 provisionally. During the three years of Carranza’s administration, only 132,639 total hectares had been distributed.8

Only eight days after his inauguration, Obregón issued his own proclamation on land reform. Designed to put into practice the Law of January 6,1915, and Article 27 of the constitution, the Ley de Ejidos provided for the distribution of land to the villages. However, in its attempt to codify previous CNA circulars, it made the procedure for restitution so involved, and the definition of the nuclei of population eligible for land grants so vague, that it enormously complicated the legal process through which the people obtained the lands. Worse, it again prevented provisional distribution of land by the states and only permitted definitive resolutions of cases after review by the president, a provision that had to be changed in April 1921. It also began to cloud the legalities of restitution of ejidos to the pueblos, both for reasons of procedure and definition, resulting in increasing numbers of outright grants from the government. These changes subsequently would assume considerable importance in the politics of land reform. Moreover, the president himself became the ultimate authority in the granting of definitive titles.6

This unsatisfactory law was replaced by the Agrarian Regulatory Law of April 17, 1922, which liberalized the definition of population groups eligible to receive land through either restitution or grant. It also set up the legal process for distribution. The three agencies concerned were the Comisión Nacional Agraria at the national level; the Comisiones Locales Agrarias, the state agrarian commissions; and the Comités Particulares Ejecutivos, the local executive committees. The procedure for restitution or grant was also redefined. A petition would be made to the state agrarian commission which would forward its decision to the governor of the state. He would then send affirmative judgments on to the national level, where the Comisión Nacional Agraria would make a tentative judgment. If this decision were also affirmative, the village, through the local executive committee, would be given provisional title to the land. The case at that point would be returned to the CNA which would send it along, after any necessary revisions, to the president of the republic for final decision. Only in the case of his affirmative judgment would definitive possession of the land be granted to the village. This law, along with some minor modifications which further emphasized the president’s central control, would be the one which set the pattern of distribution for the remainder of Obregón’s term and for most of the Calles presidency.7

These laws served to make the operation of agrarian reform more orderly, brought the program under the control of the national government, and made it subject to national policy. During Obregón’s administration the clear priority of national reconstruction imposed important limits on land reform. Although a great deal of land was distributed—1,100,117 hectares with definitive titles and 3,064,559 provisionally—Obregón was reluctant to divide up land which was being used productively already.8 Further, he was particularly cautious about taking away lands belonging to foreigners since he feared that this would discourage the foreign capital investment so necessary for reconstruction and development.

The U.S. government was also concerned about the protection of American investments and, as early as July 1921, sent the cruiser Cleveland and the gunboat Sacramento to the vicinity of Tampico when it appeared that U.S. oil interests were threatened by local labor troubles. Secretary of Government Plutarco Elías Calles declared that the oil companies were defrauding Mexico, but added that despite complaints by the industry about the confiscatory nature of Article 27 which returned subsoil rights to the state, the Mexican government in fact had done nothing to threaten oil properties.9 Indeed, the administration treated the oil industry delicately because it was essential to the Mexican economy. Mexican oil production and exports soared during 1921 and 1922, falling off somewhat in the last two years of Obregón’s presidency. The government was dependent on the oil industry for a major part of its tax revenues, ranging from a high of 33.6 percent in 1922 to a low of 21.1 percent in 1924.10

Internal political considerations also had an effect on the land reform program. Initially Obregón incorporated many Zapatistas into the national government agencies concerned with agrarian questions. He retained Antonio I. Villarreal, who was closely associated with both the Zapatista movement and the PLC, as his first Secretary of Agriculture and Development and head of the Comisión Nacional Agraria. Another Zapatista served as general secretary of the CNA. Gildardo Magaña, who had taken over direction of the Zapatista movement after Zapata’s death, served as director of one of the agrarian military colonies for a time although this position was not close to the center of power. Antonio Díaz Soto y Gama, a major Zapatista spokesman and intellectual, created the Partido Nacional Agrarista, which was closely associated with Obregón, and worked with the CNA in developing cases to bring before that body.11

However, Villarreal as chairman of the CNA moved very quickly and independently with the land reform program. By November 1921 he was being attacked in the national press. At about the same time, the Mexican Congress called for the repeal of the Ley de Ejidos and its replacement by another more comprehensible law. Villarreal and other CNA officials were charged with various irregularities including the use of their offices for purposes of political propaganda and, according to Obregón, permitting the Agrarian Law to be “bait on a political fish-hook.” Villarreal himself informed the CNA that in fact some of the local delegates of the land reform agency were campaigning for political office without resigning their posts, “lo cual es contrario a los ideales democráticos.” He further warned that this procedure would lead some to believe that the CNA was soliciting votes with the promise of land distribution. The commission unanimously approved his resolution that all employees and delegates of the CNA had to resign before pursuing political office.12 Still, it was obvious that land reform would be used as a political tool. The only question was who would benefit. Increasingly, the answer would be the president.

By December 1921, Villarreal’s position as Secretary and Chairman of the CNA was so badly undermined by the attacks in the press and by the lack of presidential support that he resigned. In accepting the resignation, Obregón indicated that he would order a “conscientious investigation” of the CNA’s activities. Enrique Estrada, the prominent revolutionary general who was serving as Secretary of War, was first considered as a replacement for Villarreal. He and Obregón conducted a public exchange of letters in which Villarreal was further criticized, but the president ultimately rejected Estrada because of his publicized reluctance to continue the ejido program. Estrada preferred the division of large latifundios into small private parcels.13 Eventually Ramón P. de Negri, fellow Sonoran and close associate of Obregón since the early days of the revolution, became Acting Secretary of Agriculture and head of the CNA.

Critical to Villarreal’s resignation and Estrada’s demise was their close association with the Partido Liberal Constitucionalista. At the time of the difficulties between Villarreal and Obregón, the PLC membership held a meeting to define the party position in the political crisis. Prominent members of the PLC, such as Rafael Zubarán Capmany, Obregón’s Secretary of Industry, Commerce, and Labor, came out publicly in favor of a parliamentary system which would subordinate the executive to legislative control. This stance was an open challenge to Obregón, and ultimately all three PLC members left his cabinet.14

At the same time the Zapatistas also slid further and further from the center of power. Gildardo Magaña left the government to head the Confederación Nacional Agraria which he used, without much success, as a pressure group to influence Obregón’s policies.15 Moreover, with the exception of Magaña, the Zapatistas who had had major influence on Obregón’s government in the first place had been men of “lengua y pluma,” according to Arturo Warman. These were men of words and pen rather than of rifles and violence who had arrived in Morelos from other parts of the country and who, as soon as they were removed from the control of the combatant chiefs, “returned to the world of verbal illusion, to metaphysical concepts and ethics, to the Revolution as word at the service of the State.”16

It was these Zapatista intellectuals who remained close to Obregón, and they rapidly began to respond to the overarching priorities of the national government, both political and economic, rather than to the problem of land restitution, even in Morelos. Although much land was distributed in that state, most of it was apportioned as grants rather than as restitutions. This procedure was followed principally because it was easier to grant land than to prove earlier legal title and thus restore it, but it had the added effect of converting the campesinos into clients of the Obregón administration, dependent on government largesse rather than on their own ancient claims to the land.17 This assumption of initiative by the center characterized the agrarian reform effort not only in Morelos but in other states as well. The power of the national government increased accordingly (see Table I).18 Moreover, the greatest single change in landownership through the Obregón period and up through 1926 was the increase in lands held by the national government itself. Between 1912 and 1925, these holdings increased by 14,000,000 hectares or sixty percent.19

With Villarreal’s departure, the CNA was reorganized. Obregón began to fill the agency with technical people loyal to him, thus insuring more direct dependency on his own administration. Most of the new members were lawyers and engineers. De Negri, although running the Department of Agriculture as well as the CNA, was given only the title of Sub-Secretary of Agriculture and Development. Through new regulations, local commissions were brought even more closely under the supervision of the national agency. Each provisional grant of land had to be approved by the CNA and every definitive resolution by the president. Obregón then pressed ahead with the distribution, using it as a carrot to lower the level of violence, potential and actual, but at the same time doing it in a systematic manner which would offend landowners, and particularly foreign investors, as little as possible. In March 1922, Obregón stated, with his characteristic ability to soothe all sides, that the granting of ejidos would “be continued with less harshness and with greater respect for the law, but with the same diligence.” It must be remembered that at this time the Mexico City press was attacking him constantly for his radical land reform program and for his oversensitivity to pressure from abroad.20

The Comisión Nacional Agraria met only three times between Villarreal’s resignation and September 20, 1922, when regular sessions which indicated clear changes in direction resumed under De Negri.21 Restitutions were few and far between; almost all distributions took the form of grants.22 Even more important, the CNA subordinated itself completely to the president. In a unanimous accord, the Comisión “adopted the criterion that all work of this body and especially definitive resolutions should be undertaken exclusively with the consultation of the president.” They stated further that the CNA recognized that it did not have the authority to act on its own in either a political or an administrative capacity.23

The administration tried to give the impression that the new CNA had been reorganized principally to improve its technical capacity. One observer, perhaps overly exposed to government propaganda, commented that the CNA delegates, of whom there were ordinarily nine, were now competent men of “fair judgment and proper record,” replacing men who were less well qualified.24 However, both the De Negri and Villarreal commissions were composed principally of lawyers and engineers, the two professions most necessary for a rational land reform program. In reality the new commission members were less politically prominent than their predecessors who included such major figures as Villarreal and Andrés Molina Enríquez. Moreover, some delegates stayed on from the Villarreal period, the most notable being Ignacio Ramírez and the Zapatista Manuel Mendoza López Schwartzfeger. The crucial change was that the Comisión no longer contained individuals who were capable of using it as a political vehicle separate from the president’s authority. The question of competence seems to have been a presidential red herring. Due to the reorganization, the CNA could operate more powerfully against recalcitrant state and local officials, but it did so as the technical arm of presidential policy, rather than as a political actor on its own.25

Nevertheless, land distribution under Villarreal had been substantial. Between Obregón’s assumption of office in December 1920 and the renewed Comisión meetings in September 1922, 513 towns had already received communal lands totaling 638,438 hectares. Eight hundred and ninety-eight properties had been affected by expropriation, and 119,386 individuals had benefited.26 In fact, most of the early criticism against Villarreal had been precipitated by the speed and occasional sloppiness of the distribution. Clearly, the removal of Villarreal, an independent and active administrator, was designed to give Obregón himself a tighter control over the CNA.

In viewing distributions announced by the government on September 12,1922, just before De Negri took over, certain patterns can already be discerned (see Table II). Areas which had furnished Obregón support before and during 1920 had been rewarded. Both the West Coast and Gulf Coast states, which had furnished support for Carranza and Obregón in the struggle against the Villa-Zapata Convention in 1914 and 1915, had experienced extensive land reform. Obregón’s support of radical delegates from these areas at the Constitutional Congress of Queretaro in 1917 had strengthened his political network and particularly his image as a social reformer. This reputation had been carried into Obregón’s campaign for the presidency.27 In a number of cases land reform had already occurred in these regions, and Obregón was legitimizing distributions which Carranza had refused to recognize.28 Puebla, as well, had been the site of considerable distribution, in many cases to Zapatistas who had come to support Obregón in 1920. By far the majority of the land distributed, however, was in the form of grants rather than restitutions. Only in Durango, the Federal District, Sinaloa, and Sonora did restitutions exceed grants, and the last two states were, of course, areas with which Obregón himself was intimately familiar. Further, they were regions from which Obregón had drawn extensive military support throughout the revolutionary years, and agrarian reform there can be seen quite directly as a reward for military services rendered. Durango, on the other hand, was an area in which Villista sentiment was substantial, and a reform program recognizing earlier land rights was probably directed at cementing the allegiance of the masses to the central government.

A statistical comparison of the distributions under Villarreal and those under De Negri is difficult because of the nature of the available evidence (see Tables II, III, and IV). The figures for the Villarreal period do not distinguish between provisional and definitive grants although they do differentiate between donations and restitutions and between private and public land sources. The aggregate figures for 1921-1924, however, provide separate figures for provisional and definitive grants in each state, although there is no distinction between donations and restitutions or between land sources. However, Table I does give the aggregate figures for donations and restitutions throughout the presidential periods of Carranza, De la Huerta, and Obregón, providing a general picture of the patterns of land reform.

An additional problem is that in the cases of five states—Baja California, Colima, Sinaloa, Sonora, and Tabasco—more hectares were listed as distributed in the earlier government claims than in the total figures issued subsequently for the entire period. There are a number of possible explanations for this discrepancy, the most likely of which is simply errors in the earlier records. The reform program was proceeding rapidly, and good record keeping procedures were not practiced, particularly for provisional distributions. A second possibility is that the government exaggerated in 1922, hoping to gain internal support from the agrarian masses. It is also possible, as no distinction is made in the earlier figures between provisional and definitive resolutions, that some of the land actually may have been restored to the original owners. In some cases, land was taken back forcibly by former owners while the question of legal title was still unclear. In others, state governors returned land distributed by the CNA, causing direct confrontations between federal and state authorities and clouding the statistical picture still further.29 Moreover, in Baja California, Sonora, and Tabasco, the donations of national land were substantial and might not have been included in the later figures. In any case, the figures are flawed, illustrating the difficulties of excessive reliance on statistics for this period. Only in a general sense may they be utilized to posit tentative conclusions about the agrarian reform program.

The areas of major reform from September 1922 to December 1924 fall into three categories. Durango and Chihuahua were states where Obregón’s old adversary, Francisco Villa, had amassed a considerable following in the pre-1920 period, and Chihuahua, which was not completely pacified until after 1920, was a particular threat. Thus, potential supporters could be rewarded or enemies destroyed by a vigorous program of distribution. Further, before the Revolution both states had a few landholders with great extensions of land. Chihuahua had enormous haciendas belonging to the Terrazas family, as well as to North Americans such as William Randolph Hearst and the owners of the Corralitos Company. Land distribution was speeded by the energetic Obregonista governor, Ignacio Enríquez. Durango had ten families with holdings ranging upward from 89, 000 hectares, and, according to one estimate, 96. 8 percent of rural families owned no land.30 Moreover, Durango contained a great deal of church property which had been concealed under titles to corporations or individuals, and this land could be appropriated with less difficulty than that belonging to private owners.31

Further to the south, the Zapatista regions witnessed extensive land reform. Puebla, an area contested by Constitutionalists and Zapatistas, had begun a major program under Villarreal which continued with De Negri. A significant distribution occurred in Guerrero, the bailiwick of both Zapatistas and the powerful Figueroa brothers. Obregón supporters were rewarded with land in the wake of Rómulo Figueroa’s revolt against the central government in 1923. Surprisingly, peasants in Morelos, the Zapatista heartland, received relatively little land before the end of 1922, even though this was an area of major priority for Obregón. The delay undoubtedly resulted from the cumbersome nature of the restitution process, and in fact many pueblos in the area had to make two requests—one for restitution and one for donation. In the De Negri era, Morelos became a major area of donation.32

The regions of Delahuertista strength formed the third major group of states receiving great quantities of land in the latter part of Obregón’s presidency. Former PLC cabinet members Enrique Estrada, Antonio Villarreal, and Rafael Zubarán Capmany were major leaders in this last major protest against the Obregón presidency and the imposition of Plutarco Elías Calles as his successor.33 Their resignations during the fight over the Comisión Nacional Agraria, and particularly Estrada’s reputation as an opponent of land reform, gave the rebellion an anti-agrarian cast which it probably did not deserve.34 Obregón and the CNA moved rapidly to exploit this weakness by distributing land in areas of Delahuertista support, and then as recompense enlisting peasants as troops in the fight against the rebel forces. San Luis Potosí, Jalisco, and Veracruz, home states of Delahuertista leaders Villarreal, Estrada, and anti-agrarista caudillo Guadalupe Sánchez, were major targets. Other states where significant distributions took place either supported the revolt or were vulnerable to its armies, notably Campeche, Zacatecas, and especially Yucatán.35

This political manipulation of agrarian reform was highly successful, and as the periodical El Mundo pointed out, “the policy has made the government very popular with the rustic masses.” Officials of the Department of Agriculture in areas out of the control of the central government were transferred to other parts of the country so that the distribution could be continued even more rapidly. De Negri stated that this acceleration was taking place because the campesinos urgently needed the lands. But more to the point, Obregón needed the agrarians, a need reflected in De Negri’s further comment that “offers of agrarians to enter the military service of the Federal Government are being referred to the War Department and their petitions for land given special attention.”36 Resistance to the rebellion was partially organized through the CNA which could pinpoint areas of fruitful recruitment. Relying heavily on De Negri’s advice, Obregón and Calles personally took the field to raise troops. As Luis León recalled, 120, 000 agrarians from Morelos, the Estado de México, and the Distrito Federal came to the support of Calles and Obregón. He further indicated that sixty percent of the army supported De la Huerta, and the remaining forty percent, Calles and Obregón. With campesino and worker support, forty percent of the military was sufficient to provide a winning combination for the government. As León commented, “. . . les pegó el General Obregón y los hizo pedazos.”37

It is inappropriate to label the Delahuertista movement, which counted among its members such confirmed agrarianists as Antonio I. Villarreal, as anti-agrarian. Rather, it was a protest against the rapid centralization of power in the presidency under Obregón and against the selection of Calles as his successor in that office. The anti-agrarian reputation of the De la Huerta rebellion is the product of the kind of support which Obregón mobilized to combat the uprising. Ultimately, Obregón profited both politically and militarily.

Crucial to the politics of the land reform program under Obregón was the way in which he placed himself squarely at the center of the distribution process. The zeal of regional officials charged with distributing land varied considerably, and struggles between assorted state and local leaders and campesino groups were common. The CNA, after September 1922, immediately referred to the president all matters in which regional politics or national policy questions were involved. Moreover, Obregón made himself accessible to campesinos who wished to petition him directly. When one rural group from Durango confronted him in 1922, complaining that state authorities had not cooperated in their attempt to gain land, Obregón took the opportunity both to help them and to urge publicly that the rest of the government get behind his agrarian efforts.38 Another case in point was a long-lasting problem arising from a dispute in Estación Cruz, Tamaulipas, between the Unión Mutualista Agraria and Juan Filizola, owner of the Hacienda San Francisco, in league with the anti-agrarian governor of the state, César López de Lara. Officers of the Unión came to Mexico City in 1923 to complain directly to Obregón that not only were they being denied land, but that they were being harassed, beaten up, and threatened with shooting by the rural police. They further complained that Governor López de Lara sent spies to observe their meetings. In addition Unión members were being boycotted by local hacendados who had taken away the land they were sharecropping. Obregón was initially unwilling to intervene in accordance with his policy of interfering as little as possible with the state governors. Emilio Portes Gil, at that time congressional deputy from Tamaulipas, wrote Obregón supporting the Unión position against the governor. Shortly thereafter, the Confederación Regional de Obreros Mexicanos (CROM), the major association of labor unions in the country, called on Obregón to protect the rights and interests of Unión members.39

The request from the CROM persuaded Obregón to look into the situation, and he sent a tactful letter to López de Lara informing him of the abuses of which he “believed” the governor to be ignorant. López de Lara replied incorrectly that those protesting to Obregón were not legitimate representatives of the Unión and indicated that it was unlikely that they had been harassed. He further reported that the municipal delegate in Estación Cruz did not have much potential for violent repression with his force of only one policeman. The general in command of forces in the area also denied that the Unión had been repressed. At this point, Obregón sent in his investigators, both from the army and the CNA, and they confirmed the Union’s story. By October 1923, Obregón had ordered that land be given to the Unión members, and De Negri pressed ahead to distribute it. The reform program in Tamaulipas paid immediate benefits. During the De la Huerta rebellion, campesinos who had petitioned López de Lara for land but had not received it joined the government forces against the rebellious governor.40

Another typical case involved government lands in Puebla, a state of strategic military importance. The Hacienda El Cristo had been expropriated by the Constitutionalist forces in 1915 as they advanced from Veracruz toward Mexico City. In December 1921, part of the hacienda which was leased to Sara C. de Rementería was attacked by some one hundred armed men who wanted to take over and distribute the land. The governor of Puebla supported the invaders, explaining in his letter to the president that they had been laid off from their industrial jobs in Puebla and were in great need. Obregón, committed to the establishment of public order, at first opposed legalizing a violent takeover and indicated to the men involved that they should have made a request through legal channels. Nevertheless, he was eventually persuaded that their cause was just and that indeed their need was great. The land was distributed, and after a personal audience with the president, the Señora de Rementería was reimbursed for her losses.41

More complex were cases involving foreigners, particularly in the time period before the United States extended diplomatic recognition to the Obregón government. Editorials in the press frequently denounced the agrarian program, accusing Obregón of ruining agriculture and preventing recognition as well.42 Such internal pressure complicated economic problems and made it easier for the U. S. government to seek concessions for American investors. However, the U. S. government was not alone in its pressure, as North American investors did not hesitate to bombard the Mexican president with requests for preferential treatment and lightly veiled threats. This process can be clearly seen in the case of the Corralitos Company in Chihuahua, one of several large foreign-owned grazing latifundias in the state at the time of the Revolution.

The Corralitos Company, formed principally of investors from the United States, had bought land in Chihuahua in 1880 and had legally incorporated itself with President Porfirio Díaz’ blessings in 1885. The total landholdings of the company in the region of Casas Grandes and Janos were something larger than thirty square miles. By 1910, the company was running more than 40, 000 cattle and had made a substantial capital investment, especially in pumps and wells. During the Revolution, however, the violence of northern Mexico had prompted the company to drive its cattle across the river into rented pastures in New Mexico. After the Law of Unused Lands was proclaimed in July 1920, campesinos began to occupy Corralitos property, cutting firewood from the forest, even using fence posts for the same purpose (according to the company spokesman), and cutting channels in the riverbank to irrigate the invaded land. By late 1921, another group of armed men had taken over company buildings at Janos, complete with dam, tanks, canals, and houses. They had further distributed 8, 000 hectares of land along the river. Still other campesinos had moved onto company land at Arroyo Seco. The company, trying to regain possession of its property, had brought back some of its cattle and was attempting to rebuild the facilities damaged during the Revolution. The campesinos retaliated by burning fields in an attempt to drive out the cattle. Both the company and the campesinos had carried their case to the state agency, the Comisión Local Agraria, which by November 1921 had come to no decision.43 At this point, the president himself became involved.

On November 21, 1921, E. H. Gary, Chairman of the United States Steel Corporation, wrote to Obregón. Although Gary himself had no financial interest in the Corralitos Company, he emphasized that among the North American investors were the heirs of original investors E. D. Morgan, ex-Governor of New York, Cornelius L. Bliss of New York, McKinley’s Secretary of the Interior, and Levi P. Morton, ex-Vice President of the United States. A current owner was Richard Trimble, Secretary-Treasurer of U. S. Steel, whom Gary described as “un íntimo amigo mio.” Gary pointed out to Obregón that the company had been forced to leave because of the violence of the Revolution, that this abandonment had cost a great deal of money, and that the company had returned at the first opportunity to work the land, borrowing money to make capital improvements. Therefore, he felt that Obregón would agree with him that taking the land away from the Corralitos Company on the basis of the Law of Unused Lands would be unjust. He referred to his own conversations with the Mexican president in which he had been assured that legitimate U. S. interests in Mexico would be protected and added, “I am sure that my request will give you an opportunity to make clear the policy you intend to follow with regard to foreign capital invested in Mexico, and that policy will contribute, undoubtedly, to reassure those who already have capital in vested in Mexico and to stimulate new investments. . ..” Meanwhile, Governor Ignacio Enriquez, a close associate of Obregón, temporarily tried to slow down the distribution of land in several Chihuahua pueblos, perhaps in response to pressure from the north and from the administration. The CNA, at this time under the leadership of Villarreal, pressed ahead regardless, citing as justification the needs of the campesinos and their right to the land. The Corralitos matter, however, seems to have gone directly to the president at the end of November.44

In December, the municipal president of Casas Grandes made several efforts to remove persons illegally pasturing their animals on Corralitos property, but continued Corralitos complaints demonstrate that the problems had not ended. In January 1922, Obregón sent a personal representative to consult with Chihuahuan Governor Enriquez and Corralitos representatives; official action against the hacienda slowed for a time and, in fact, some lands were actually returned to the company.45

However, large landowners in Chihuahua suffered another setback when, in May 1922, the state passed its own land reform statute. The critical provision in this law set limits on the total extent of territory which might be held by any one person or legally established association: 1, 000 hectares of irrigable land; 2, 000 hectares of semi-irrigable land; and 4, 000 hectares of land which could not be irrigated but was dependent on rainwater (temporal); plus 40, 000 hectares of land suitable for grazing. Clearly, the Corralitos Company held a great deal more than the allowed maximum. Further, holders of land greater than the stated limits were given ninety days to reveal the inventories of their holdings and plans for dividing the excess. As the law went into effect June 3, 1922, the owners had until September 3 to comply.46

On August 1 and 2, a meeting of Chihuahuan landowners, principally foreign, holding a total of 14, 150, 000 hectares of land, was held in El Paso to discuss compliance, but no general agreement was reached. The temper of the meeting, however, seemed to be one of cooperation provided that the government recognize the interests of holders of land under the old Constitution of 1857 and precede any takeovers by “just and full compensation for the value of the interests so taken.” Shortly thereafter, one of the group visited Governor Enríquez who expressed a desire to avoid any injustices but nevertheless intended to enforce the law, beginning with the manifests of property which were due on September 3.47 Legal suits dragged on, and in March 1923, the governor marked an enormous extension of Corralitos property for seizure. By May 1923 the ejidos at Janos, on land formerly held by the Corralitos Company, had housing for each family, irrigation canals, agricultural machinery, workshops for metal and carpentry, and a rural school.48 At the same time, Obregón’s representatives at the national level were bargaining with the United States to conclude an agreement which would permit U. S. recognition, although Obregón continued to emphasize publicly his commitment to the land reform program.49 When the Mexican government arranged a “gentlemen’s agreement with the United States at the Bucareli conferences, providing that expropriated foreign land would be paid for in cash rather than by government bonds, recognition quickly followed. By 1926 the Corralitos Company, weary of the long legal problems and local harassment, approached Obregón’s successor, Calles, with an offer to sell the government the remainder of its holdings, an offer Calles refused because of bad economic conditions.50

The Corralitos Company was not the only landowner affected. The land reform program in Chihuahua was pressed strongly in 1923 and 1924, initially against foreign companies and later against Mexican concessionaires. Another U. S. firm which suffered expropriations was the Palomas Land and Cattle Company, and even William Randolph Hearst came under pressure to sell his holdings although the government was reluctant to expropriate, given Hearst’s editorial support of the new Mexican regime. In early 1924, several Mexican surveying companies in the state lost concessions totaling some 5, 000, 000 hectares.51 It seems evident that Obregón and his associates were seeking to secure their hold on the loyalties of the campesinos in former Villista territory by moving energetically against the large landholders.

Petroleum lands held by foreigners in other parts of the country were a different matter, however. Under the Bucareli agreements, petroleum lands remained immune from expropriation after 1923. This exemption led some U. S. companies to seek to retain “petroleum” lands although they were not, in fact, being exploited for petroleum. A case in point was the American International Fuel and Petroleum Company operating in Tamaulipas. In 1924, an attempt was made to expropriate 1, 508 hectares of company land in Columbus for ejidos. The company appealed to the CNA and directly to the president, claiming that drilling was actually in progress on that parcel, protesting that such encroachments were violations of the spirit of the Bucareli agreements, and reminding those involved that their activities furnished considerable employment in the region. Obregón declined to interfere, passing the matter back to the governor of Tamaulipas, Candelario Garza, who had replaced César López de Lara after the De la Huerta rebellion. The vecinos of Columbus were immediately given provisional possession of the land when it was discovered that the land was being taxed at the regular rather than the oil rate, and an investigation was undertaken. The case was finally resolved in favor of the Comisión Local Agraria, the state government, and the campesinos when it was determined that no wells were in operation and no exploration was in progress.52

Obregón’s land reform program continually sought to balance conflicting priorities. Internal and external economic and political pressures complicated the distribution process, but Obregón knew its value in pacifying the country and obtaining the support of the masses for the central government. When told that dividing up the countryside was a dangerous process, he replied that he would distribute the land and “fulfill the promises of the Revolution, and you will see that it is the only way to pacify the countryside.”53

Obregón was consistently ready to move on land reform when it was to his political advantage to do so and when it fit into his principal priority of national economic reconstruction. He used the issue as a master politician would, initially rewarding friends and later winning over potential foes with land. During the course of his presidency, he was able to bring the reform program entirely under his own control and to make it a major support for his consolidation of power in the central Mexican government.

What was happening to the land reform program during Obregón’s presidency was by no means an isolated phenomenon. Indeed, it was being repeated in one form or another throughout the government of Mexico during the Obregón years. Obregón moved simultaneously to reinstitutionalize the Mexican state and to carry out the reforms called for in the Constitution of 1917. At the same time he was able to strengthen his own political position and the office of the presidency, making it the ultimate arbiter between groups in Mexican society, the ultimate authority in every conflict, and the ultimate source of decisionmaking and power.


For Obregón’s activities during the 1912-1920 period, see Linda B. Hall, “Alvaro Obregón and the Mexican Revolution, 1912-1920: The Origins of Institutionalization” (Ph.D. Diss., Columbia University, 1976), and “Alvaro Obregón and the Agrarian Movement, 1912-1920” in David Brading, ed., Caudillo and Peasant in the Mexican Revolution (Cambridge, forthcoming).


Carranza’s reluctance to push the agrarian reform program is discussed in Moisés T. de la Peña, El pueblo y su tierra: Mito y realidad de la reforma agraria en México (México, 1964), pp. 309-312; Jesús Silva Herzog, El agrarismo mexicano y la reforma agraria: Exposición y crítica (México, 1964), pp. 246-247; Frank Tannenbaum, The Mexican Agrarian Revolution (Washington, D.C., 1930), pp. 183-184; Eyler Simpson, The Ejido: Mexico’s Way Out (Chapel Hill, 1937), pp. 78-81; and Charles Cumberland, Mexican Revolution: The Constitutionalist Years (Austin, 1972), pp. 381-385. For a discussion of the legal importance of the Carranza decrees, see Lucio Mendieta y Núñez, El problema agrario de México y la ley federal de reforma agraria (México, 1975), pp. 191-200. A copy of the decree of September 19, 1916, is available in Boletín Mensual de la Comisión Nacional Agraria, I (March 1917), 11-12, and the balance of Carranza’s decrees on land reform and Article 27 of the constitution are compiled in Ramón P. de Negri, Recopilación agraria (México, 1924), pp. 34-50. For documentation of the problems between Carranza and one state, Sonora, see Plutarco Elias Calles to Rouaix, November 27, 1919, on the question of the Compañía Richardson concession and U.S. holdings in general, Patronato de la Historia de Sonora (hereafter cited as PHS).


Simpson, The Ejido, pp. 85-86; Tannenbaum, The Mexican Agrarian Revolution, pp. 262-266.


Minutes, July 30, 1920, Actas de las sesiones de la Comisión Nacional Agraria, Archivo de la Secretaría de la Reforma Agraria (hereafter cited as ACNASRA), vol. 5.


México, Departamento Agrario, Memoria 1945-1946 (México, n.d.).


De la Peña, El pueblo y su tierra, pp. 312-313; Mendieta y Núñez, El problema agrario, pp. 203-207; Silva Herzog, El agrarismo mexicano, pp. 280-281; Juan Antonio Figueras, “Agrarian Reform and Agrarian Development in Mexico” (Ph.D. Diss., University of Florida, 1972), pp. 80-82. Boletín Oficial del Secretario de Agricultura y Fomento (Jan.-Apr. 1923) and Apéndice de decretos, 1924.


Mendieta y Núñez, El problema agrario, pp. 213-218; Silva Herzog, La reforma agraria, pp. 281-282. The text may be consulted in De Negri, Recopilación agraria, pp. 64-69.


The figure for provisional distributions is taken from Departamento Agrario, Memoria 1945-1946, Part II (Estadística). The figure for definitive distributions is from James Wilkie, The Mexican Revolution: Federal Expenditure and Social Change since 1900 (Berkeley, 1970), p. 188, and is based on revised data from the Memoria 1945-1946. This revised total is preferable to the figure of 971,627 given in Table III. Unfortunately, no breakdown by state is available for Wilkie’s figure, and thus the original statistics from the Memoria 1945-1946 are used. Arturo Warman, in Y venimos a contradecir: Los campesinos de Morelos y el estado nacional (México, 1976), p. 156, quotes Obregón himself as giving the figures as 1,170,000 hectares definitively and 3,250,000 provisionally, somewhat higher than the revised statistics. For Obregón’s concern about distributing productive land, see Alvaro Obregón, “El problema agrícola y agrario,” “Carta a Roque Estrada,” and “Cambio de impresiones con un grupo de diputados” in Narciso Bassols Batalla, ed., El pensamiento politico de Alvaro Obregón (México, 1970), pp. 136, 138, 142.


George T. Summerlin to Secretary of State, June 9, 1921, U.S. Department of State Archives, Internal Affairs of Mexico (hereafter cited as NA), 812.52/676.


Lorenzo Meyer, México y los Estados Unidos en el conflicto petrolero, 1917-1924 (México, 1972), pp. 24-25, 32.


Warman, Y venimos, pp. 150-151; John Womack, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution (New York, 1969), pp. 372-373.


ACNA-SRA, vol. 5, Nov. 23, 1920. Excélsior, Dec. 4, 1921.


Ibid., report on Obregón’s press conference, Nov. 26, 1921, NA 812.52/783; Summerlin to Secretary of State, Dec. 6, 1921, NA 812.52/791; Summerlin to Secretary of State, Jan. 22, 1922, NA 812.52/799; Summerlin to Secretary of State, Jan. 28, 1922, NA 812.52/804.


Marte R. Gómez, Historia de la Comisión Nacional Agraria en el desarrollo económico de México (México, 1975), pp. 291-293. John W. F. Dulles, Yesterday in Mexico: A Chronicle of the Revolution, 1919-1936 (Austin, 1961), pp. 100, 135.


Gildardo Magaña and Andrés Molina Enríquez to De Negri, Dec. 29, 1923; Molina Enriquez to Obregón, Jan. 8, 1924; Obregón to Magaña, Aug. 5, 1924, Archivo General de la Nación, México, Ramo Obregón-Calles (hereafter cited as AGN/OC), folder 818-C-111.


Warman, Y venimos, p. 157.


Ibid., p. 151, 156. For land reform figures on Morelos, see Tables II, III, and IV. According to Warman, of 200,000 hectares distributed in Morelos through 1929, only 2,000 hectares were restituted.


Tannenbaum, The Mexican Agrarian Revolution, pp. 326-328, affirms that 70.9 percent of the total area distributed to villages through 1926 was by grant rather than by restitution and that 90 percent of the total number of villages and individuals receiving land had received it in this form.


Ibid., p. 319.


Summerlin to Secretary of State, Mar. 21, 1922, NA 812.52/877; Summerlin to Secretary of State, Mar. 31, 1922, NA 812.52/883; Summerlin to Secretary of State, Apr. 20, 1922, NA 812.52/896; Agrarian Resolution of Apr. 18, 1922, NA 812.52/902; De Negri, Recopilación, pp. 64-69; Mendieta y Núñez, El problema agrario, pp. 213-218; Obregón decree regulating function of Agrarian Commission, transmitted May 24, 1922, NA 812.52/915; “Instrucciones a los procuradores de pueblos,” De Negri, Recopilación, pp. 76-83; Summerlin to Secretary of State, July 11, 1922, NA 812.52/938; Claude I. Dawson to Secretary of State, Sept. 13, 1922, NA 812.52/978; Excélsior, Apr. 23, 1922, and Sept. 3, 1922.


ACNA-SRA, vol. 8, May 6, 1922; June 2, 1922; June 9, 1922.


For example, only two restitutions were even discussed in the period between Dec. 4, 1922, and Feb. 15, 1923, although the CNA met sixteen times and discussed six to eight cases at each meeting. ACNA-SRA, vol. 10, Dec. 4, 10, 11, 18, 21, 1922; Jan. 4, 8, 11, 15, 18, 22, 25, 29, 1923; Feb. 2, 9, 12, 15, 1923.


ACNA-SRA, vol. 8, Sept. 20, 1922.


Summerlin to Secretary of State, July 11, 1922, NA 812.52/938.


ACNA-SRA, vol. 8, Sept. 20, 1922. Gómez, Historia, pp. 229, 234. See also discussion below on Unión Mutualista Obrero and Tamaulipas Governor César López de Lara.


Dawson to Secretary of State, report on Mexican agrarianism, Sept. 13, 1922, NA 812.52/978.


For the radical nature of the delegates from these areas, see Peter H. Smith, “La política dentro de la Revolución: El Congreso Constituyente de 1916-1917,” Historia Mexicana, 23 (Jan.-Mar. 1973), 395. For Obregón’s relationship with the Constitutional Congress, see Hall, “Alvaro Obregón and the Mexican Revolution,” pp. 166-193.


See, for example, ibid., pp. 279-282.


See ACNA-SRA, vol. 5, Dec. 28, 1920, and ACNA-SRA, vol. 6, Oct. 5, 1921.


Dulles, Yesterday, pp. 179-180; Ernest Gruening, Mexico and Its Heritage (New York, 1936), p. 130; Gomez, Historia, p. 263.


Cumberland, Mexican Revolution, p. 378.


Warman, Y venimos, p. 151; Gómez, Historia, p. 262.


Zubarán Capmany became High Commissioner of Gobernación under De la Huerta, Villarreal was named High Commissioner of Agriculture, and Estrada became head of the Delahuertista forces in Jalisco, Zacatecas, Colima, Nayarit, Michoacán, and Guanajuato. Dulles, Yesterday, pp. 220-221.


For comments on the anti-agrarian nature of the De la Huerta rebellion, see Gruening, Mexico, p. 145.


Zacatecas was vulnerable to Estrada’s forces in Jalisco, while Campeche and Yucatán had provided two of the last refuges for Delahuertistas in early 1924. Moreover, Obregón’s old enemy and fellow Sonoran, Salvador Alvarado, who had served as radical governor of Yucatán during the Carranza years, was one of the last Delahuertista leaders to leave the country; Dulles, Yesterday, p. 259. According to Marte Gómez, land reform efforts in Campeche had been hampered in the earlier period by a recalcitrant PLC governor; Gómez, Historia, pp. 247-248.


El Mundo, quoted in Summerlin to Secretary of State, Jan. 16, 1924, NA 812. 52/1181.


Luis L. León, interview, Programa de Historia Oral, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (hereafter cited as PHO), 4/14; Gómez, Historia, pp. 321-322.


Summerlin to Secretary of State, Oct. 21, 1922, NA 812. 52/998.


De Negri to Obregón, Mar. 13, 1924; De Negri to Obregón, Mar. 18, 1924; Luis Garza to Obregón, May 8, 1924; Emilio Portes Gil to Obregón, May 8, 1923; Obregón to Garza, May 9, 1923; César López de Lara to Obregón, May 12, 1923; Garza to Obregón, May 27, 1923; Garza to Juan Filizola, June 1, 1923; Portes Gil to Obregón, June 8, 1923; Unión Mutualista Agraria to Obregón, July 16, 1923; CROM to Obregón, July 19, 1923; Obregón to López de Lara, July 25, 1923; Benecio López to Gilberto Valenzuela, July 30, 1923; AGN/OC 818-E-14.


Antonio Villalobos to López de Lara, Aug. 1, 1923; López de Lara to Obregón, Aug. 2, 1923; López de Lara, to Obregón, Aug. 3, 1923; Navarro to Ramírez, Aug. 6, 1923; López de Lara to Obregón, Aug. 24, 1923; AGN/OC 818-E-14. On Obregón’s policy toward state governors, see Gilberto Valenzuela, PHO 4/42. On the De la Huerta rebellion, see Gómez, Historia, p. 323.


For land reform in Puebla, see David Ronfeldt, Atencingo: The Politics of Agrarian Struggle in a Mexican Ejido (Stanford, 1973), pp. 13-14, 30. For the Rementería case, see Sara de Rementería to Obregón, Dec. 22, 1921; Sánchez to Obregón, Dec. 24, 1921; Medrano to Obregón, Dec. 24, 1921; Obregón to Medrano, Dec. 26, 1921; Rementería to Obregón, Jan. 25, 1922; Rementería to Obregón, Jan. 20, 1922; Fernando Torreblanca to Rementería, Feb. 3, 1922; Rementería to Obregón, May 11, 1923; Obregón to F. C. Manjarrez, May 12, 1923; Manjarrez to Obregón, May 13, 1923; Jesús Castillo to Obregón, May 11, 1923; Obregón to Castillo, May 18, 1923; Celerino Cano to Obregón, May 18, 1923; Obregón to Rementería, June 15, 1923; De la Huerta to Obregón, June 18, 1923; AGN/OC 818-E-16.


See, for example, report of editorial in Excélsior in Dawson to Secretary of State, Sept. 3, 1922, NA 812. 52/978.


Alexander V. Dye to Secretary of State, June 16, 1923, NA 812. 52/1095. Memorandum, E. C. Houghton, Gerente General of Corralitos Company, Dec. 24, 1921; E. H. Gary to Obregón, Nov. 21, 1921; AGN/OC 818-C-49.


Gary to Obregón, Nov. 21, 1921; AGN/OC 818-C-49. ACNA-SRA vol 6 Nov. 19, 1921.


Rafael Sanmiguel to Agustín Lara, Dec. 15, 1921; Sanmiguel to Lorenzo Díaz, Dec. 15, 1921; Obregón to Ignacio Enríquez, Jan. 6, 1922; Obregón to Gary Jan. 4, 1922; AGN/OC 818-C-49.


Ley Agrario del Estado de Chihuahua, May 25, 1922, NA 812. 52/924.


In attendance were Edward Ledgewide of the Northwestern Railway and the Aztec Development Company of England, which held 7, 300, 000 acres; E. J. Marshall, H. S. Stephenson, Hon. James R. Garfield, and Nelson Rhoades, representing the Palomas Land and Cattle Company, which held 2, 000, 000 acres; E. C. Houghton of tire Corralitos Company, with holdings of more than 1, 000, 000 acres; James R. Borders, representing the Nelson Morris interest, the T-O Ranch and the Hacienda Santísima with 1, 000, 000 acres; C. M. Newman, for C. K. Warren and the Ojitos ranch, 300, 000 acres; Charles Sweet of Sessems and Company of Bainbridge, Georgia and Palaya and Cadena of Durango, 500, 000 acres; M. T. Everhard, the son-in-law of Senator Albert Fall, representing various interests owning 1, 000, 000 acres, and E. P. Fuller, representing the Hacienda Santo Domingo, 450, 000 acres. Summerlin to Secretary of State, Aug. 24, 1922, NA 812. 52/967.


Dye to Secretary of State, June 16, 1923, NA 812. 52/1095. La Patria (El Paso), May 12, 1923.


El Universal, May 6, 1923, and Excélsior, May 7, 1923, in Summerlin to Secretary of State, May 7, 1923, NA 812. 52/1085.


Orozco to Calles, Apr. 2, 1926; Calles to Orozco, Apr. 21, 1926; AGN/OC 818-C-49.


Dye to Secretary of State, May 7, 1923, NA 812. 52/1083; New York Times, Feb. 11, 1923, p. 14, and June 23, 1923, p. 12; Gómez, Historia, pp. 308-309.


William E. Lucas to Obregón, Aug. 2, 1924; H. M. McIntosh to Obregón, Aug. 4, 1924; Obregón to McIntosh, Aug. 6, 1924; Garza to Obregón, Aug. 6, 1924; McIntosh to Obregón, Aug. 7, 1924; Lucas to Obregón, Aug. 7, 1924; Garza to Obregón, Aug. 7, 1924; Obregón to Garza, Aug. 8, 1924; Obregón to Rosales, Aug. 8, 1924; León to Calles, Aug. 23, 1926; AGN/OC 818-C-119.


León interview, PHO 4/14, p. 28.

Author notes


The author is Assistant Professor of History and Chairperson of Border Studies at Trinity University.