Huerta was born in the town of Colotlán, Jalisco, of Native American decent. He entered the Mexican Army at the age of 17, distinguished himself and gained admission to the Military Academy at Chapultepec.
After Díaz went into exile Huerta initially pledged allegience to the new administration of Francisco Madero, and he was retained by the Madero administration. However, Huerta secretly entered into a plot – el Pacto de la Ciudadela – with the U.S ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson, and Félix Díaz, Porfirio's nephew, to overthrow Madero.
Huerta had Madero and vice-president José María Pino Suárez captured, and, (after a very short term of office by Pedro Lascuráin) on 18 February 1913, Huerta proclaimed himself provisional president of Mexico. Four days later Madero and Pino Suárez were executed.
Huerta established a harsh military dictatorship. US President Woodrow Wilson became hostile to the Huerta administration, recalled ambassador Henry Lane Wilson, demanded Huerta step aside for democratic elections, and landed US troops to take over Mexico's most important seaport Veracruz.
He went into exile, first traveling in England, then Spain, then to the United States. He was discovered to be plotting to return to power in Mexico – in both Spain and Washington, he had been negotiating with German agents to secure the Kaiser's support for a coup d'état. He was arrested in Newman, New Mexico on 27 June, 1915 together with Pascual Orozco and charged with conspiracy to violate US neutrality laws. After some time in a US Army prison he was released on bail but remained under house arrest due to risk of flight to Mexico. While so confined he drank very heavily and died of alcohol poisoning in El Paso, Texas.
Huerta's treachery is still villified by modern-day Mexicans, who generally refer to him by the epithet El Chacal – "The Jackal".