This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America.
The Cristero rebellion would have died in the summer of 1927 but for one man — the guerrilla leader, Victoriano Ramirez. El Catorce (“the Fourteen”) men called him for a legendary feat — that after breaking out of jail, he single-handedly killed 14 members of a posse sent out to arrest him. With the fame of this legend and a keen grasp of guerrilla tactics, Ramirez rekindled the rebellion in the Los Altos region of Jalisco There he found ready followers; for, not only had Los Altos all along been been the center of the rebellion, but its people had suffered harsh repression by the government. Federal troops had forced the native population to leave their homes and go into concentration camps. In this way the government thought it could keep the peasants from supplying the Cristeros and, moreover, confiscate their food and livestock.
With the rebellion again in full swing, the Liga Defensora decided that the scattered Cristero forces needed coordination and military discipline. They turned thus to a retired general, Enrique Gorostieta y Velarde, to take on overall command of the rebellion. Gorostieta, however, did not embrace the aims of the Cristeros. The mercenary general (he demanded twice the salary a federal general would receive) was a Liberal and a Freemason and mocked the religion for which the Cristeros died. But Gorostieta opposed Calles. His dream, it seems was to establish a truly Liberal republic that enforced separation of Church and state but did not interfere with religious belief or practice.
Believer or not, Gorostieta was an able commander. He turned the ragged bands of Cristeros into a disciplined army. The rebellion that had seemed dead now took on new life. Cristero forces grew to between 40,000 and 50,000 men and throughout 1928 defeated federal forces time and again on the field of battle — and this, despite the fact that the United States was supplying the federals with arms. President Calles thus had no choice but to see the Cristeros for what they were: a serious challenge to his government….
….The year 1928 was an election year, and, as every election year, it witnessed military insurrections against the government. When Calles had crushed these, he proposed that Alvaro Obregón succeed him in the presidency; their plan, it seems, was to take turns holding the office. Obregón easily won the election in the summer of 1928 but never took office. While in a restaurant on July 17, 1928, Obregón agreed to have his portrait drawn. While sketching the president-elect’s portrait, the artist, José de León Toral, took out a gun and shot him in the face.
Toral was a Catholic, but many blamed Calles for Obregón’s assassination. (Toral was unconnected to any Catholic group; he was a freelance assassin. Besides his own execution, only one other Catholic was arrested and imprisoned for “complicity” in the murder: an abbess called La Madre Conchita.) Calles faced the crisis by summoning state governors and military leaders to the capital, where he pledged that, from thenceforth, Mexico would not be ruled by personalities but by laws. Calles pledged to steer Mexico toward true democracy.
Calles, of course, could not constitutionally succeed himself as president, so the congress appointed Emilio Portes Gil, the former governor of Tamaulipas, as provisional president of the republic. Calles, though, remained at the center of power — self-dubbed the jefe maximo (supreme leader) of the revolution. Thus, after Portes Gil took office in December, it was Calles who wielded power.
As we have said, over the years, Calles had fallen more and more under the spell of the U.S. ambassador, Dwight Morrow. Morrow, who envisioned an American-style capitalist future for Mexico, had been urging Calles to abandon the revolution’s agrarian policies and institute instead the direct sale of land for cash — a policy that would benefit the wealthy. Morrow also saw that the Cristero uprising was not good for business and urged Calles and President Portes Gil to come to an understanding with the Church. Father John J. Burke, the legal adviser to the United States bishops, supported Morrow’s reconciliation effort. In 1929, Morrow and Burke arranged a secret meeting between themselves, along with the pope’s delegate, exiled Msgr. Leopoldo Ruiz y Flores, bishop of Michoacán, as well as Portes Gil.
Most of the Mexican bishops had never backed the Cristero rebellion. In part this was because of a reticence to ally themselves with any political movement that they feared could compromise their position. Too, it was far from clear that the Cristero uprising could succeed — if for no other reason than that the U.S. government was backing Calles with money and arms. If the Cristeros were victorious, would the U.S. tolerate a Catholic government in Mexico, if such a regime came to be? And if they did not succeed, the prospect of a guerrilla war without any foreseeable end could jeopardize the interests of the Church, not help them.
Thus, with Morrow as facilitator and the warm support of Pope Pius XI, the government and the Mexican Church at last came to an agreement — Los Arreglos, “the arrangements.” If the rebellion ended, the government said it would grant amnesty to all Cristeros who laid down arms; it pledged to restore their residences to priests and bishops, require civil registry of only some of the clergy, and allow religious instruction in churches (though not in schools). The Arreglos were announced on June 27, 1929. The next day, church bells were ringing once again throughout Mexico, and Dwight Morrow crowed (to his wife): “Betty, do you hear that? I have opened the churches of Mexico.”
The Cristeros, in the meanwhile, had suffered further setbacks. El Catorce, accused of writing treasonable letters to a federal commander (his accuser, some think, was a federal spy), was court-martialed and executed. In March 1929, Cristero forces failed to take Guadalajara; and though on April 19 they beat the federals at Tepatitlán in Los Altos, Padre Vega took a bullet in the head, and died. On June 2, Gorostieta, who had been vying for complete control of the rebellion, was shot down in an ambush. Still, the Cristeros were far from beaten, and only in obedience to their bishops and the pope did they lay down their arms in the summer of 1929.
Thus ended Mexico’s last major peasant rebellion. The cause of religion had been vindicated, or so it seemed. Events proved, however, that the Church’s woes in Mexico were far from over. No sooner had the Arreglos been issued than the government violated them by ordering the execution, on July 3, 1929, of the Cristero leader, Padre Aristeo Pedroza. And the betrayal continued. By the end of 1929, the government had executed all but two of the Cristero leaders in Guanajuato and Zacatecas. Between 1929 and 1935, 5,000 Cristeros (officers and men) were executed. Many of those who survived fled into the desert, tried to lose themselves in large cities, found refuge in states with governors sympathetic to their plight, or crossed the border into the United States.
A Cristero Corrido
This corrido, or folk song, tells of the imprisonment and execution of Victoriano Ramirez, El Catorce. The page to which the link leads gives the story behind the song and a translation of its text.