Updated: Jun 6, 2019
This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America. Please visit our webpage to peruse sample chapters of our book. For ordering information on Lands of Hope and Promise and our other texts, please click here. Please visit our blog to read our previous post on the Cristeros.
In the early battles, the insurgents were victorious against local forces but were defeated when they confronted the federal army — which led the federal commander in Jalisco, General Jesús Ferreira, to boast that he would conduct, not a campaign, but a hunt in the state. But in the Pacific coastal state of Colima he met his match in the person of an ex-seminarian and leader of the ACJM, Enrique de Jesús Ochoa. When Ochoa removed his insurgent force from Colima city to Caucentla on the border of Jalisco, Ferreira met him there — and was repulsed.
Because of the insurgents’ war cry — Viva Cristo Rey! (“Long live Christ the King!”) — the Federals, perhaps in mockery, named them Cristo-reyes or Cristeros. But though they might despise them for being peasants, Federal commanders learned to their dismay that the Cristeros had a number of gifted leaders. These were not militarily trained but were men of the common trades who discovered in the crucible of conflict a gift for strategy and command. Along with Ochoa were Jesús Degollado, a druggist; José Reyes Vega and Aristeo Pedroza, priests; and Victoriano Ramirez and Miguel Hernandez, ranch hands. Under such leaders, in the early months of 1927, Cristero forces won significant victories against crack federal cavalry at San Francisco del Rincón in Guanajuato, and at San Julián in Jalisco.
To address a constant problem the Cristeros faced — a shortage in armaments — an underground arms network grew up in Mexico City to supply the insurgents. Women, members of the “Brigades of St. Joan of Arc,” strapped gun belts under their dresses, passed through federal check points, and bravely crossed the lines to deliver ammunition to the rebels. Such an arms supply was not sufficient, however, and Capistrán Garza went to the United States to solicit funds to purchase more arms.
While Garza was in the United States, Cristero leaders adopted various methods to fill their empty war coffers. In the regions they controlled, they levied taxes on the people. They requisitioned the goods of large landowners. They attacked trains. Some Cristero commanders abducted wealthy men and demanded ransom for them; in the three years of the rebellion, six of these hostages were executed when the demanded ransoms did not materialize. Not all Cristero commanders, however, resorted to such measures. As Ezequiel Mendoza told his soldiers:
We must be as brave as lions, but not tyrannical, as they [the federals] are towards us. We must be honest at all times. We will take from their goods what we need to live and fight, but we must not steal other men’s goods. All the world’s goods come from God, and we must not make bad use of this. If we take what is his in order to live and defend what is truly the cause of God, it is not stealing; we have only disposed of our own goods as those of our Father . . .
But, beginning in March 1927, the Cristero rebellion began suffering setbacks. The government, convinced that González Flores was the linchpin of the rebellion, had orders out for his apprehension. Having obtained evidence of his whereabouts, on March 3, 1927 federal secret police, along with city police agents, raided four homes in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco. They found the Maestro in one of the homes, along with his close associate, Luis Padilla, and two young men, Jorge and Ramon Vargas, the sons of the householder.
Throughout the night and early morning hours, the police tortured Flores and the three men, suspending them by their thumbs, whipping them, tearing at their bodies with bayonet points. Despite their pain, the four refused to reveal any of their plans or the whereabouts of their fellow Cristeros. Seeing they could get nothing out of them, the police lined them up for execution. It was noon, April 1, 1927. The four comrades faced their death with courage. Before the shots rang out, their leader, Anacleto González Flores, uttered these words: “I die, but God does not die. Viva Cristo Rey!” At Flores’ funeral, thousands lined the streets of Guadalajara to pay their respects to the fallen hero.
The death of Flores did not stop the momentum of the rebellion — but a deed done by the priest-commander, José Reyes Vega, nearly did. Padre Vega was not a sterling character. He was none too strict with his vow of celibacy nor in his obedience to Canon Law, which forbade priests to take up arms. On April 19, 1927, Vega lost his brother in a raid the priest had led against a train. In revenge, Padre Vega ordered several train cars doused with gasoline and set afire. Fifty-one civilians died in the burning.
Vega’s brutal act turned public opinion against the Cristeros. The federal General Ferreira marched into the Los Altos region of Jalisco and laid waste to 6,000 square miles, confiscating food and livestock. The peasants of the region, whether Cristero or not, he rounded up and placed in concentration camps. Then Capistrán Garza resigned from the Liga Defensora in July after failing to raise support for the rebellion in the United States. Both bishops and lay Catholics in the United States had been cold to Garza; one bishop even told him to get a job. The wealthy American Catholic, William F. Buckley, was at first willing to support the Cristeros; but when a bishop urged him against it, Buckley changed his mind. Without arms, the rebellion could not continue, and by summer it appeared that it was over.
A Song of the Cristeros
The corrido, or folk song, Valentin de la Sierra, tells of a Cristero captured by federal agrarista forces and his fate. It is one of the most famous of the Cristero corridos. Go here for the song, along with the story behind it and a translation.