By Jim Tuck
In a truly bizarre historical anomaly, Mexico
during the 1920s witnessed the spectacle of
a Catholic armed insurrection being led in the field by an anticlerical liberal!
How did this come about? Here background and historical context are essential. The seeds
of what has become known as the cristero ("Christer") rebellion lay in five articles of the 1917
Constitution that Catholics found intolerable. Without going into excessive detail, Article 3
struck at Catholic education, Article 5 at monastic orders, Article 24 at outdoor worship,
Article 27 at the Church's right to own property, while Article 130 made the Catholic clergy
into second-class citizens who were denied the right to vote or even to criticize public officials.
In view of such restrictive legislation, why did the Catholics wait nine years before
going into armed rebellion. The answer is that for a time the laws were applied selectively.
Both Venustiano Carranza, president when the 1917 Constitution was adopted, and
Alvaro Obregón, who deposed and succeeded him, were pragmatic men. Though no
lovers of the Church, they were sufficiently realistic to apply the laws strictly only in
regions where Catholic sentiment was weak. In areas where it was strong -- such as the
Los Altos section of Jalisco -- they were enforced loosely or not at all.
All this changed when Plutarco Elías Calles became president in 1924. Calles was an
anti-Catholic fanatic with none of the saving pragmatism of Carranza and Obregón. Not
only did he enforce the constitutional articles but in June 1926 added a law the so-called
Ley Calles, designed to put teeth into the enforcement process. Highly specific, it imposed
harsh fines for "offenses" as wearing clerical garb in public. It also violated the principle of
free speech, as a priest could draw five years in prison for as much as criticizing the
The final straw was a decree that priests in charge of churches be required to register
with the government and that the churches be placed under control of neighborhood
committees. This was not separation of church and state, it was complete subordination of
church to state.
On August I, 1926, the hierarchy responded to these Draconic measures by closing
down every church in Mexico. It was then that armed rebellion broke out. On August 3
there was a clash in Guadalajara between federal troops and Catholic militants barricaded
in the Guadalupe Sanctuary. This was followed, throughout 1926 by risings in the states of
Jalisco, Colima, Zacatecas, Michoacán and Guanajuato -- the Catholic heartland of
These risings were suppressed but in January 1927 the Los Altos region of Jalisco
exploded into insurrection. Though lacking in formal military training, the tough ranchers of
Los Altos were excellent horsemen and managed to defeat the federales in several
engagements. This caused panic at the highest levels. Massive reinforcements were
poured into the area under the personal command of General Joaquín Amaro, Secretary
of War and Marine. In Los Altos Amaro adopted a policy of reconcentración , similar to
the strategic hamlet program in Vietnam. To cut off the rebels' food supply,
peasant-farmers were herded into designated areas and the countryside then declared a
free-fire zone. Directing the cristero insurgency was a Mexico City-based group called
the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty (LNDLR). In view of the
desperate situation in the field, LNDLR leaders selected a professional soldier to remedy
matters. They now realized that strategic competence was more important than Catholic
zealotry. Then that a Guadalajara League official named Bartolomé Ontiveros suggested
name of Enrique Gorostieta Velarde.
Gorostieta was born in Monterrey in 1890. He graduated with high honors from the
Colegio Militar de Chapultepec (Mexico's West Point) and rose to the rank of general as
he fought against Pascual Orozco, Emiliano Zapata and helped resist the American
occupation of Veracruz. As a soldier, his specialty was artillery and he also demonstrated
a keen aptitude for the physical sciences. Having no use for either Carranza or Obregón,
Gorostieta went into exile during the Revolution. After short stays in Cuba and the
United States, he returned to Mexico and used his knowledge of chemistry to secure
employment as an engineer with a soap company. But he found the work boring and
missed the challenge of military life. So he was ripe for the LNDLR offer when it came.
Gorostieta's decision to take arms had nothing to do with Catholicism. As noted, he was a
anti-clerical liberal and he was also a 33rd degree Mason. He despised the Catholic
hierarchy --most whom opposed the rebellion --and when he took the field he went so far
as to ridicule the religious observances of his troops. In March 1929, when the cristeros
recaptured Arandas, he led his soldiers into the San José Church to hear mass--while he
stretched out on a back pew and ostentatiously smoked a cigarette.
His behavior enraged leading Catholics in the rebel movement. Miguel Palomar y
Vizcarra, a prominent lay leader from Jalisco, sent an angry letter to Luis Bustos, an
LNDLR official in Mexico City. "Gorostieta is careless with his tongue in front of the
people who make up his forces," he wrote. "He attacks the prelates...he shows contempt
for religious practices."
There were two reasons for Gorostieta`s decision to head a rebellion of men whose
beliefs he held in such contempt. First, his vaulting ambition. He considered his elite
forces, the farmers and ranchers of Los Altos, to be the finest fighting men in Mexico. On
their backs he would into the capital and make himself president. Yet, when he attained
power, he would establish a liberal and secular republic. We know this because of a
program, the Plan de Los Altos, that he published in October 1928. While the restrictive
laws against Catholics would be lifted, and they would be allowed freedom of worship,
involvement of the Church in politics would not be tolerated. Gorostieta`s aim was return
to the Juárez principle of separation of church and state--as opposed to the Calles
principle of subordination of church to state.
The second reason is that Gorostieta was a handsomely compensated mercenary. The
League paid him 3000 pesos a month (about $1500) and authorized a $20,000 insurance
policy for his wife in event that he was killed. By contrast, a federal divisional general was
paid 1620 pesos a month.
In view of all this, it is singularly ironic that the two subordinates whose ability
Gorostieta most respected happened to be priests. Aristeo Pedroza and José Reyes Vega
were both from the south of Jalisco, both Indians, both fellow seminarians and both highly
intelligent men whose favorite diversions were studying military strategy and playing chess.
There the resemblance ended. Pedroza, idealistic and puritanical, observed his vows
of celibacy while in the field. Vega, a hedge-priest forced into the seminary by his family,
showed no compunction about sharing in the rough pleasures of his troops. But his moral
failings were not limited to strong tequila and willing cantina girls. Cardinal Davila, a
leading member of the hierarchy, called him a "black-hearted assassin" and, indeed,
Vega`s cruelty was legendary. After the battle of San Julían, he had federal prisoners
stabbed to death to save ammunition. Another, time during a cristero attack on a train in
which his brother was killed, Vega ordered the passenger cars drenched with gasoline
and set afire.
Vega was a perfect foil for Gorostieta. On the one hand, he served him as a skilled
and audacious combat commander. On the other, he reinforced all his prejudices against
Catholicism. When a pious member of his staff tried to convert him and urged him to go to
confession, Gorostieta laughed in his face. "Who would you have me confess to?·" he
asked. "Father Vega?"
Under the leadership of Gorostieta and his "odd couple" subordinates, the cristeros
were never defeated in the field. The rebellion came to an end as the result of arreglos
("arrangements") brokered by Archbishop Leopoldo Ruiz y Flores, chairman of the
Episcopal Committee, President Emilio Portes Gil, who succeeded Calles, and U.S.
Ambassador Dwight Morrow, whose daughter later would marry Charles A. Lindbergh.
The Catholics gained some minor concessions and, for the first time in three years, church
bells again rang out in Mexico.
Vega, Pedroza and Gorostieta all died violently in the final month of the rebellion.
Vega was killed after masterminding a brilliant rebel victory at Tepatitlán. To this day it is
uncertain whether the fatal was fired by a band of pro-government Los Altos
collaborators defending a fortified ranch or by one of his own men. Pedroza was
wounded and captured in a skirmish in July 1929. Taken to a nearby graveyard, he was
executed by federal soldiers.
Gorostieta died as the result of an intelligence operation. At the head of a small party,
he was on the way to Michoacán to recruit fresh forces. One of his group, Alfonso
Garmendia, was ostensibly a pro-cristero engineer. In reality, he was a mole, a federal
colonel who had infiltrated the rebel movement. Tipped off about the party`s route, a
cavalry unit descended on a farmhouse where Gorostieta was spending the night.
Awakened by shots, he grabbed his pistol and stormed out the door to make for his
horse. He was immediately cut down, his death ending the one of the most unlikely
careers in military history.