SANTA ANNA WAS A CAREER SOLDIER. To him, the fall of the Alamo was “a small affair,” just one in a long line of military victories, and his take-no-prisoners policy there was simply his standard practice. The Mexican general and statesman fought at various times for the Spanish and Mexican armies as well as for rebel groups. He parlayed a reputation for courage under fire into great personal wealth and vast political power — for two decades he was the de facto dictator of Mexico. Though he occasionally fell out of favor and was forced into exile, the Napoleon of the West always schemed to fight his way back.

Born on February 21, 1794, in Jalapa, Veracruz, Antonio López de Santa Anna Pérez de Lebrón joined the Spanish army at age sixteen, fighting Indians, desperadoes, and insurgents who aimed to liberate Mexico from Spain.

In 1821, hungry for advancement, Santa Anna defected to the rebel army, which began steadily promoting him. A year later Mexico was free and he was a brigadier general. By 1833 Santa Anna was serving the first of five terms as president.

He regularly took opium, seduced women, and enjoyed such luxuries as a silver chamber pot.

To quash the uprising in the Mexican province of Texas, he entered San Antonio on February 23, 1836, with 1,541 men and laid siege to the Alamo, where a small force of Texians — perhaps 250 — had holed up. On March 6 he annihilated the defenders but lost far more men himself. The next month at San Jacinto, his poor choice of a campsite aided the Texians’ surprise attack. Captured while trying to escape, he returned home in disgrace.

In 1838 he regained popularity (but lost a leg) waging the “Pastry War” against French troops then occupying Mexico. During what the U.S. called the Mexican War (1846-1848), generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott decisively defeated him.

In the 1850’s, while he was in exile in New York, his knowledge of chicle, the gum of a tree indigenous to Mexico, helped his friend Thomas Adams revolutionize the chewing gum industry.

During his final presidency, Santa Anna negotiated the Gadsden Purchase, the sale of almost thirty thousand square miles of Mexican land to the U.S. for $10 million. As a result he was charged with high treason in 1855 and went into exile, living in the Caribbean for almost twenty years. He died in Mexico City on June 21, 1876.