The Cristero War in Mexico

Nov 2016
One of the main starting points in the complex backstory of the Cristero rebellion was the 1910 Mexican Revolution, led by Francisco Madero against President José de la Cruz Porfirio Diaz Mori and successfully concluded with Madero's presidency in 1911.

Diaz had ruled the country for several terms since 1876 and had given it relative political stability, but gradually fell into a repressive and clique-dominated style of government that favored the wealthy at the expense of poor peasants. During his tenure from 1905 he strengthened the position of the Catholic Church in Mexico by promoting Catholic education, especially in rural areas. The anticlerical laws that had been established in Mexico before Diaz's reign were not abolished by him, but were practically repealed. His wife, a committed Catholic, had motivated him to adopt a pro-Catholic attitude.

The anti-Diaz revolution of 1910 had socio-political reasons and was carried by the masses of agricultural workers and peasants. But the first president of the revolution, Madero, was already deposed and executed in 1913 by General Huerta, a comrade-in-arms of Madero in the revolution. His main motive, unlike the diplomatic and liberal Diaz, was the desire to transform Mexico into the most militaristic state in the world, with all key positions in the hands of the army.

When the Mexican National Catholic Party strongly criticized the new president for his policies, its chairman was thrown into prison. But even Huerta could only hold on to power until 1914 and was defeated by Venustiano Carranza, who ruled Mexico until 1919 and revived Madero's political program. After all, it is hardly surprising that Carranza's comrade-in-arms Alvaro Obregon dismissed Carranza in 1919 and assumed the presidency himself in 1920.

Obregon took a relatively soft line toward the Catholic Church and applied the anti-clerical laws of the new Mexican constitution of 1917 only in areas where Catholic influence was low.

This was quite different with the atheist Plutarco Elias Callas, whose presidency from 1924 fully developed the anticlerical forces in Mexico. These groups now tried not only to repress the power of the clergy, but also to eliminate the religious thinking and behavior of the people by 'desecrating' sacred objects and, as a deterrent, persecuting and murdering members of the clergy.

The anticlerical laws of 1917, still softly and selectively handled by Obregon, were uncompromisingly implemented by Calles throughout the country. In 1926 he installed the "Calles Law" with its harsh threats of punishment against priests and anyone who violated the laws of 1917. For example, a priest who criticizes the government had to reckon with 5 years in prison. The public wearing of clerical clothes was suspected with a horrendous fine. In addition, clerical property was expropriated, all non-Mexican priests were expelled and monasteries and church schools were closed.

Under this pressure, the 'National League for the Defence of Religious Freedom' began to form its resistance in 1924. It was joined by the Mexican Catholic Youth and a small Catholic political party.

In 1926, an economic boycott against the government, supported by Catholic bishops, began, calling on Catholics, especially in western central Mexican areas, to boycott cinemas, theatres and public transport and, as teachers, to stop teaching in secular schools.

In August 1926, 400 armed Catholics barricaded themselves in a church in Guadalupe and fought an 18-dead firefight with government troops. They finally surrendered when they ran out of ammunition.

The religious and the political-economic permeate each other in such a complex way in the motives of the acting parties that it is difficult to assign priority to one of the two areas. But presumably the motive of defending Catholicism is slightly ahead.

The clique of the atheist President Calles also included Protestants who wanted to install a capitalist system in Mexico of a kind that went against the grain of the Catholic rural population. The land reform carried out by Calles meant for the Catholic peasants both control by foreign landowners and repression of Catholicism by secular or Protestant liberalism.

Surely there were Cristeros with purely economic motivation, e.g. Ladislao Molina, a landowner who jumped on the rebellion bandwaggon only for personal ambition, and who was described by Jose Perez, a member of the 'National League for the Defence of Religious Freedom', as an opportunist without character in a letter of 1929: "(...) he is not a Cristero: on the one hand a Catholic, he is also a liberal and does not fight for the same reasons as the Catholics."

In many, perhaps most cases religious motives were superior to economic ones, so these Cristeros were more concerned with preserving their Catholicism than with their economic situation. Thus, in 1929, the Cristero José Gonzalez Romo wrote to an Agrarista (member of a pro-state aid army of 25,000 men): "Tell the Agraristas that we (= the Cristeros) do not fight them because they are Agraristas, but because they support the tyrant (= Calles) who tries to exterminate the religion of our country and surrender us to the Protestant Gringos".

Many Cristeros even saw themselves as fighters in a 'holy war' against the anti-clerical policies of a government serving the Antichrist (according to Javier Villa Flores in his study "Religion, Politics, and Salvation: Latin American Millenarian Movements", 2007).

The Cristero rebellion broke out immediately after the proclamation of a manifesto by René Capistran Garza (leader of the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty) on Jan. 1, 1927. The Holy War Cristeros carried out their violent actions in and around Los Altos and were gradually logistically supported by the Feminine Brigades of St. Joan of Arc. The Los Altos region and western central Mexico were the centers of the Cristero rebellion.
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