The Rise and Fall of the Cristeros (Part 2)


The 1857 Laws of Reform sought to separate the Church in Mexico from the State. The 1917 Constitution sought to subordinate the Church to the State. Congressional radicals used extreme rhetoric to justify this progression.

“The clergy is the most dismal, most perverse enemy of the fatherland!’ shouted Francisco J. Mugica, who had once been expelled from the Zamora Seminary…for these new and angry Jacobins, the Church was a den of thieves, outlaws, con men…a man named Recio from Yucatan proposed that confession be constitutionally prohibited, while delegate Alonso Romero elaborated a multiple image of the woman at confession as an adulteress, the priests as satyrs, and the husbands – who would allow their wives to pour the secrets of home into the licentious ears of priests – as pimps.”1

Minority opposition to the new Constitution predicted the radicals would not be content

“with smashing the images of the Saints, pulling the rosaries to pieces, tearing down the crucifixes, getting rid of Novenas and suchlike frivolities, shutting the door against priests, and abolishing freedom of association so that nobody can go to Church to make contact with the clergy; it should destroy religious freedom altogether, and after that, in an orgy of sated intolerance, they (radicals) will be able to promulgate this one article: in the Mexican Republic there will only be guarantees for those who think as we do.”2

Strict enforcement of the Constitution would have made it nearly impossible for the Church to operate. It mandated secular education in all schools, prohibited religious vows, religious orders, and religious instruction, forbade public worship, and made it virtually impossible for the Church to own property. The constitutional article that caused the most opposition was Article 130. A secular historian writes:

“It effectively reduced the clergy to second class status, and was one of the most openly restrictive laws against a single group of citizens enacted in modern times. Clergy were denied such basic liberties as the right to vote, to hold office, to criticize public officials, or to comment on public affairs in religious periodicals.

“The Church was denied a juridical personality, state legislatures were empowered to regulate the number of clergy allowed to practice in their states, and jury trial was denied in cases relating to violations of the articles.”3


Opposition to the new Constitution was widespread and took many forms: passive resistance, active resistance (with bloodshed and death), and economic boycotts of Masonic and government businesses. The boycotts, which were very effective in central Mexico, were organized by various Catholic Action associations. The most prominent organization was the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty (known as the Liga). The Liga initially had the blessing of the Mexican episcopate, but as events escalated the Liga began advocating open warfare. The Liga’s encouragement of the Cristeros caused the majority of the Mexican episcopate (and Pope Pius XI) to withdraw their blessing, leaving the Liga a suspect organization in the eyes of many Mexican Catholics.

Another Catholic Action organization was Union Popular (UP). Its leader, Anacleto Gonzalez Flores, was as opposed to violence as the Liga was disposed to it. A lawyer and a layman, Flores organized peaceful boycotts in the state of Jalisco that crushed Masonic and government friendly businesses, including an anti-Catholic newspaper. Flores asked for a ban on eating meat, and butchers went out of business. Flores asked citizens to use candles at night, and the local electrical plant was forced to suspend operation. Even children joined the boycotts, mortifying themselves and ice cream vendors on hot days by demanding to see the vendor’s UP card before making a purchase.

Although effective on a local level, the boycotts did not change the government’s anti-clerical policies. Ironically, some of the more vocal opponents to Catholic boycotts were wealthy Catholics. This frustrated Flores, who believed that “If we really knew how to act as Catholics, we could make our enemies die of hunger.”4 Committed to non-violent resistance, the man known as El Maestro believed that Martyrdom had the power to change history:

“The offering of a martyr will never perish…The sacrifice of martyrs has written pages in history that will remain there forever. He (the martyr) has touched the living flesh of future generations and every day performs the miracle of reviving our spirits through the shedding of his blood…The martyr is and always has been the first citizen of a strange and unforeseen democracy who, in violent times, sacrifices his life so that his offering or his memory will never be extinguished.”5

Within two years Flores’ words would prove a prophecy of his own life. There would be many non-violent martyrs in Mexico besides Flores and Padre Pro. There were many others who could not in conscience allow evil to run free. Love of the Church and hatred of the revolution united in a stream of passion that cried: “Better to die than deny Christ the King, without fearing martyrdom or death, in whatever form it might come! Sons, do not be cowards! Up and defend a just cause!”6

Women prayed inside the Guadalupe Sanctuary in Guadalajara while outside their husbands chanted “Viva Cristo Rey!” and “Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!” Undaunted by scoffers, the men began demanding that passersby doff their hats and shout “Viva Cristo Rey!” Truckloads of troops arrived to break things up and the Catholics fired back. When a soldier entered the Sanctuary and began shooting at a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a Catholic maiden stabbed him to death.7

Archbishop Leopoldo Ruiz y Flores, a bishop in the Central Mexican state of Michoacan, exhorted Catholics to non-violent resistance:

“(The Catholic Faith) must awaken in the soul such a love of Christ that, like the Apostles, we are disposed to build His Kingdom even at the cost of our own lives, and that, like the martyrs, we are prepared to lose everything before committing apostasy…Nothing will be able, as St. Paul says, to separate us from Christ. With His love reigning in us, in this world we shall reign with Him, because we shall know how to overcome all that would subjugate us.”8

Eloquent words were difficult to apply when non-violent resistance was met with gunfire and clubs, and a failure to vigorously protest anti-Catholic laws was called apostasy. For instance, a group of two hundred Catholics protested their local government’s refusal to forward their petitions against the 1917 Constitution. A captain drew his gun and fired, and was set upon by the (mostly female) crowd, and killed. His troops opened fire. Were the Catholic corpses that lay on the streets non-violent protesters? Did it make a difference?

The Calles Law

The Revolution was a juggernaut that could be stalled by Catholic Action but not derailed. Organized resistance slowed the secular tide but could not turn it back. Areas of Mexico that offered token resistance were steamrolled by enforcement of the 1917 Constitution. It was most rigorously applied in Tabasco by Governor Garrido Canabal. All the churches were closed, and then either destroyed or converted to government use. The bishops were deported, and only married priests were legally allowed to reside in Tabasco, which of course disqualified all priests.

Homes were stripped of all religious images, a law was passed that required the eating of meat on Christian fast days, and celebration of Christmas was banned. Canabal’s enforcers were known as the Red Shirts. Upon saluting their leader he asked them, “Does God exist?”, and they replied, “He has never existed.” American businessman John W.F. Dulles observed:

“At an exhibition of livestock a fine bull on exhibit would be called ’God,’ a donkey named ’Christ,’ a cow named ’The Virgin of Guadalupe,’ an ox named ’The Pope,’ a hog named ’The Archbishop,’ etc…Among the children of the dictator was a son named Lenin and a daughter named Zoila Libertad (I am Liberty), a name which at one time provoked the saying that the only liberty existing in Tabasco was the daughter of Garrido, who was sometimes accompanied by a nephew named Luzbel (Lucifer).”9

When Plutarco Calles became President of the Mexican Republic he set out applying the 1917 Constitution to all of Mexico, despite opposition from virtually all the country’s citizenry. Bishop Mora y del Rio was quoted in the newspaper saying a Catholic campaign would work to repeal those parts of the Constitution the Church considered unjust, adding: “We cannot for any reason change this position without betraying our Faith and our Religion.”10

Working peacefully to change unjust laws was hardly an inflammatory idea, particularly since the 1917 Constitution explicitly stated it could be reformed. Yet Del Rio’s statement deeply offended President Calles, who was “so violent on the religious question that he lost his temper every time anyone mentioned the subject in his presence.” The Turk was

“a malignant and implacable enemy of the Roman Catholic Church…he has resolved to exterminate the Catholic Faith from Mexico…possessed of an energy which did not stop short of obstinacy and cruelty, he was prepared to attack not only persons but also principles and even the institution itself…(He) condemned as economically and politically disastrous the very existence of the Church.”11

Calles passed a series of laws (named after himself) making it a criminal offense (five years in prison) for a priest to criticize the government or attempt to instruct Catholics (or non-Catholics) in the faith. The Calles Law also required all parish priests to register with the government or have their churches closed (the registration gave the government a method to regulate downward the number of priests it would allow in a given area). The Calles laws gave the government almost complete control over the lives of priests. Copy cat laws sprang up; one statute listed “harmful elements” of society that were subject to “security measures” as “the insane, degenerates, drug users, alcoholics, professional beggars, prostitutes, priests, and homosexuals.”12

Calles admitted later that he was intentionally provoking the Church.13 It worked. The first clash came in Mexico City, where priests ignored the law requiring them to get permission to say Mass in a church. Government agents closed down the church, triggering a three hour riot in the streets between police and two thousand protesters. The government told the press the violence was the work of “mindless fanatics” manipulated by malevolent clergy. Calles talked publicly about the history of the Church in Mexico being “that past which I strongly wish to see liquidated.”14

An important part of that past was the Virgin of Guadalupe. A plot was hatched to confiscate the miraculous, bomb-proof tilma from the Basilica. Catholics got wind of the plot, and at the appointed hour ringed the inside and outside of the Basilica in thousands. Government officials and their troops arrived, took one look at the crowd, and made as dignified retreat as possible under the circumstances.15

When a parish church in the state of Nayarit was attacked the parishioners fought back, driving the intruders from the church and soundly beating the state police commissioner and other government agents who had entered the church with drawn guns, demanding the priest leave.16

Another attempt was made to take over a church in Nayarit, and this time three government agents lost their lives.17Angry Catholics descended upon the governor, who quickly signed a decree promising he would not attempt further enforcement of the 1917 Constitution.18 The government tried to shut down a church in Jalisco but parishioners beat back the attempt, killing another government agent in the battle.19

Yet the government was successful in closing dozens of other churches, as well as seminaries, schools, monasteries, convents, and orphan asylums. Laws were enforced severely limiting the number of priests in any given diocese or state. Archbishop Flores of Michoacan suspended public worship in protest, and angry Catholics again confronted the government, which backed down, and worked out a compromise both sides could live with. A similar scenario was seen in San Luis Potosi, where the government attempted to reduce the number of priests. After a pitched street battle the government backed down.20

In St. Rafael Church troops fired on Catholics who refused to leave the church, while women on the roof hurled stones at the soldiers.21 In Guadalajara more street fighting occurred when the government tried to take over churches. When the smoke cleared there were many dead and wounded, and hundreds in jail; the government had succeeded in taking only one church.

Day long battles to the death over churches became the norm, although this fact was not allowed space in the newspapers. A quote by President Calles appeared, however, in which he called the struggle between the Church and the Revolution “the struggle between darkness and light.”22

The Mexican episcopate continued to counsel non-violence, and to work legally to amend the Constitution. It was the militant Catholic laity that was carrying the fight to the Masonic government, and if they were losing the war, they were at least winning some battles. Yet for all the government’s efforts to close down the Church in Mexico, it would be the Mexican episcopate, with the approval of Pope Pius XI, that would effectively end organized worship in Mexico.

The Shutdown

Mexico’s bishops were united in a fervent hope that Calles would fall. Beyond that, they split on how to deal with the crisis. Some wanted to suspend worship. Others, fearful of the spiritual toll this would take on the faithful, urged further negotiations with the government. Yet the bishop’s attempts to negotiate with Calles’ government had been humiliating, and their attempt to change the Constitution was denied on the ground that the episcopate’s ‘rebellion’ against the government forfeited their right of citizenship, therefore they had no legal standing to challenge either the 1917 Constitution or the Calles Law.

In January, 1926, Pius XI penned an address to the Mexican episcopate, decrying the government’s anti-Catholic laws as “wicked”, and declaring: “Day after day these hostile laws and regulations are more bitterly enforced and if this continues, the common rights of citizenship will be automatically denied Catholics, and the functions and ministry of the Christian religion itself will die.”23

As the year wore on Rome monitored the situation with increasing anxiety. Reluctant to decide matters for the bishops, Cardinal Gasparri nevertheless announced that the Vatican desired “to seek, by means of direct conversation, the possibility of arrangement.” On July 23, 1926, Mgr. Tito Crespi, the head of the Apostolic Legation, met with government officials in hopes of a compromise. Not only were his hopes dashed, Crespi was told to leave Mexico.

Crespi’s failure galvanized the bishops They announced that the anti-Catholic laws made it impossible for the Church to function, therefore they were suspending worship by removing priests from all the churches in Mexico. The purpose was to protest the laws, and arouse Mexican Catholics to immediately work for modification or repeal of the Constitution and the Calles Law. Shortly after the bishop’s announcement Pius XI publicly condemned the laws and supported the episcopate’s decision. The date for suspension of worship was set for July 31, 1926.

As the date drew near Catholics flooded churches for confessions, baptisms, and marriages, and to assist at Mass.

“People began to put their consciences in order, even though it was a time when there was plenty of work to be done…one could feel sorrow in every breast, every face was pale, every eye was filled with sadness and throats were constricted as people (asked): ‘Why is this, why are they closing the churches, what is happening?’ and the only answer was ‘Who knows? I don’t know.’”24

The Rise of the Cristeros

The bishops remained patient, assuming at some point they would be able to negotiate at least an attenuation of the persecution. A number of laymen held no such assumption. They fed their horses for hard riding, and scrounged for weapons. Insurrections flared up in the country side, and despite brutal government repression, grew in strength and coordination for the next three years.

They came to be known as the Cristeros – a name derived from the mockery of federal troops, who called them Cristo Reyes, which translates as“the Christ the Kings.” The Cristeros were, for the most part, peasants and country folk from the central states of Jalisco and Michoacan. They were generally young and initially unskilled in warfare. In 1926 their weapons consisted of “slings, sticks, machetes and poor quality fire-arms.”25

With success came army pistols, rifles, and horses, and other prizes like trumpets and binoculars. Lack of ammunition was a chronic problem, and was one reason for the “attack and melt away” style of Cristero warfare. They fought until they ran out of ammunition, then they ran. Sometimes a retreat turned into an ambush, like the time a band of Cristeros was being pursued up a slope by federal cavalry. A Cristero remembered:

“The Federal cavalry spurred their horses on, but each time they were driven back, not only by our fire, but also by the stones; and the Federals shouted, ‘You Cristero down-and-outs, you’re fighting with Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s,’ and the Cristeros answered, ‘Yes, here comes a Hail Mary,’ and it was a great rock that sent them tumbling back down the hill; another would say to them, ‘Here comes an Our Father,’…so great was the number of stones raining down on them that they could not escape.”26

In addition to sticks and stones, some Cristeros developed homemade bombs. Grenades were made by packing buckshot into leather pouches or food tins packed with buckshot. Bombs were made by pouring a mysterious mix of chemicals into bottles. Cannons were fashioned out of iron bound wooden barrels. Such weaponry was feared by federale and Cristero alike, for the homemade explosives occasionally exploded upon their owners. Later in the war some Cristeros graduated to the use of commercial explosives and electrical detonation.

Also in scarce supply was clothing, shoes, blankets, and food. One Cristero leader wrote his sister: “I’ve got a lot of men without clothing, and I need blankets…there are also a lot without shoes. I want more cigarettes, salt, five kilos of best quality wool, two dozen batteries for reflectors, 100 aspirin tablets, oxygenated water, and salve.”27

Why would men subject themselves to such wretched conditions? More than one Cristero would explain himself by saying, “I have an obligation to the Virgin,” or to Christ the King. A Cristero named Azuela said: “Honor, together with patriotism and religion make up the personality of the Mexican.”28 But the Cristeros believed they were representing not only Mexico, but Christianity as well:

“We did not want to abandon the Church in the hands of the military men. What would we do without it, without its festivals, without its images which patiently listened to our lamentations? What were they condemning us to? To pine away among the stones and work the dry ground? To die like street curs, without any complaint, after leading a life of misery? It was better to die fighting! There is no egvil that lasts for a hundred years, and he who spits at heaven, his spit falls to the ground again.”29

Another Cristero declared:

“The government is taking everything from us, our maize, our pastures, our little animals, and as if that were not enough, they want us to live like animals, without religion and without God, but this last they will never live to see, for every time it is offered to us we will cry: ‘Long live Christ the King! Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe! Long live the Union Popular! Down with the Government!’”30

Despite government accusations that the Cristeros rebellion was financed by the Church and masterminded by the clergy, the Cristeros received no financial and virtually no moral support from rich Catholics or the Church, who officially deplored the Cristero recourse to violence (there were a few priests and bishops who supported the Cristeros). They were, by any measure, a rag-tag army at best, yet for three years they held the larger, better equipped, professional Mexican army at bay.

Cristero troops prayed the Rosary around evening campfires, and sang hymns while marching, with praises to God between decades. Before battle Cristero commanders urged their men to make a genuine act of contrition in case they didn’t return. Then they charged the enemy, “singing psalms and crying out, ‘Long live Christ the King! Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe!’”31 Their opponents were fond of dismissing the Cristeros as “fanatics, drug addicts, and drunkards,” yet few federales welcomed the hand to hand combat favored by a charging Cristero, who may not have had many bullets, but usually had a knife or machete on hand.

Although the Cristeros gained a reputation as fearsome fighters, many of them despised war and found no joy in killing their enemy, believing that such deaths were not pleasing to God. One Cristero lamented, after a victory: “Poor devils, they did not know what they were doing…this is what happens to those who believe themselves to belong to Satan, through those that serve him to ruin souls.”32

They believed to a man that they were fighting a just war, but they were far from self-righteous:

“What a tragedy! What treacheries, what misunderstanding, what envy and usurpation of the just right of others! What injustice on the part of the bad government and also on our part! There is no respect for the rights of God nor the rights of one’s neighbor, and with good reason God is punishing us with war, hunger, and pestilence, the greatest plagues of the earth. Oh God, have mercy on us and forgive us. Holy Mary, pray to God for us.”33

The rare occasions they were able to assist at Mass were a cause for joy:

“What prayers and pleas were heard there, addressed to God and to the most pure Virgin, to all the saints of Heaven! What thanks were given to them for favors already received! And what requests for new favors for us poor and miserable sinners! How brightly lit was the altar, the special palace of the King of Kings, Jesus present in the Sacrament for our temporal and eternal good…

The sermon which Father preached made us cry for sheer joy. He thanked us and gave us his blessings, and crossing ourselves many times we went out into the square feeling very happy. Among the people, who had been deeply moved by the festival, all was joy and happiness.”34

The Martyrdom of El Maestro

The Cristero movement was Catholic in its essence. This group of unlettered peasants not only understood their faith, they were willing to stake their lives on Catholic principles, to the point of not merely quietly accepting martyrdom, but longing for it. The Catholic essence was the source of the Cristero’s baffling resilience, and their refusal to submit to an obviously superior foe.

When the federal army was unable to suppress the Cristero forces, it attempted to snuff out the Cristero leadership. The immediate problem of this tactic was that there was hardly any organized leadership. The nominal head of the rebellion, Liga appointed Rene Capistran Garza, was out of the country for much of the war.35

This left Anacleto Gonzalez Flores, the Maestro, the eloquent voice for non-violence whose pupils had become Cristero guerillas. Flores continued to counsel them, but took no part in fighting or military strategy. He did, however, found the Feminine Brigades of St. Joan of Arc, a group of young (aged 18 to 25) Catholic women that aided the Cristeros.

Sometimes the women worked in the field as nurses, tending to wounded Cristeros, or supplying them with ammunition and explosives. Cartridge belts were sown to the inside of their dresses, concealed in carts or bales of hay, or sent by train. The ladies proved to be excellent spies, often able to inform local Cristero bands of enemy troop movements, strength, and tactics. So successful were they at espionage that the first arrest of a Brigade member occurred only in the last year of the war, 1929, when the ranks of the Brigades had swelled to twenty-five thousand women.

Such was the fruit of Flores’ efforts for the Faith, until he was betrayed by a young, exuberant Cristero who unwittingly confided the Maestro’s whereabouts to a government spy. Flores was arrested along with the three men who were hiding him. The four were tortured for information, but gave none to their captors. Flores was singled out for brutal treatment. After being beaten he was hung from his thumbs, the soles of his feet were lacerated by razors, and his shoulder was broken. Still he said nothing. He and his friends were sentenced on the spot to death by firing squad, without legal representation or a trial.

Flores tried to free his three friends by offering to take sole responsibility for the charges against them. This plea refused, the Maestro asked to be shot last so that he could console his three friends. This was allowed, but the prisoners’ request for a final confession was not. Flores told his friends: “A Father, not a Judge, awaits you. Your own blood will purify you.”36

When it was his turn to die, Flores told the presiding General: “I forgive you, General, with all my heart. Very soon we will see each other before the heavenly tribunal. The same God who will judge me will also be your judge. At that time you will have in me an intercessor before God.”

The nobility of the Maestro’s words overcame some in the firing squad, and they lowered their rifles. The General became angry, and ordered an officer to stab the battered Flores with a bayonet. Only then did the soldiers aim and fire, perhaps to end the prisoner’s agony. As the death volley came Flores shouted: “I die but God does not! Viva Cristo Rey!”37

* * *

Flores’ death did not end the Cristero rebellion. Instead his martyrdom seemed to bring forth new leaders, and an escalation in the conflict that eventually caused a diplomatic intervention by the United States. The shedding of Flores’ blood seemed only to strengthen the resolve of the Cristeros. Three men came forward as leaders of the rebellion. Two were priests: one perhaps a saint, the other a public sinner. The third, and most influential new leader of the Cristeros, was a Freemason.

1Krauze, op. cit., p. 361.

2Meyer, op. cit., p. 14.

3Jim Tuck, The Holy War In Los Altos, University of Arizona Press, 1982, p. 28.

4Ibid., p. 24.

5Ibid., p. 21.

6Meyer, op. cit., p. 49.

7Ibid., p. 39.

8As quoted in Matthew Butler, Popular Piety And Political Identity in Mexico’s Cristero Rebellion: Michoacan, 1927-1927, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 148.

9Dulles, op. cit., p. 620.

10Bailey, op. cit., p. 63.

11Excerpt from the Lagarde Memorandum, as quoted in Sister M. Elizabeth Ann Rice, O.P., M.A., The Diplomatic Relations Between the United States and Mexico, as Affected by the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Mexico, 1925-1929, The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 1959, p. 63.

12Tuck, op. cit., p. 35.

13Meyer, op. cit., pp. 46-47.

14Bailey, op. cit., p. 65.

15John A. O’Brien, Discovering Mexico, A Country in Transition, Our Sunday Visitor Press, 1943, p. 47.

16William F. Montavon, The Facts Concerning the Mexican Problem, published by the National Catholic Welfare Conference, Washington D.C., 1926, p. 13. Montavon was the legal director of the NCWC.

17Ibid., p. 15.

18Bailey, op. cit., p. 67.

19Montavon, op. cit., p. 15.

20Bailey, op. cit., p. 66.

21Ibid., p. 83.

22Ibid., p. 82.

23The entire address is reprinted in Montavon, op. cit., pp. 48-51.

24Meyer, op. cit., p. 48.

25Ibid., p. 118.

26Ibid., p. 174.

27Ibid., pp. 119-120.

28Ibid., p. 186.

29Ibid., p. 188.


31Ibid., p. 184.

32Ibid., p. 186.


34Ibid., p. 183.

35He went to America in hopes of raising money, arms, and troops to aid the cause. His quest was a failure. This failure, and Capistran Garza’s firm belief that Mexican Bishop Diaz thwarted his efforts, are a tale for another time.

36Tuck, op. cit., p. 70.

37Ibid., p. 71.

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