Cristero War – concept, history, causes, and consequences

We explain what was the Cristero War in Mexico’s history, its causes, consequences and protagonists. We also talk about the end of the war.

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The Cristero War was an armed conflict between the Mexican government and Catholic groups.

What was the Cristero War?

In the history of Mexico, the Cristero War (of Christ, the Catholic main religious figure), also called the War of the Cristeros or Cristiada, was an armed conflict that took place between 1926 and 1929.

This conflict is a consequence of the numerous post-revolutionary tensions between the conservative sectors, with religious affiliation, and the liberal sectors of Mexican society. The conflict sets the government and Mexican secular militias against Catholic religious factions that rejected the recent liberal measures of President Plutarco Elías Calles (1877-1945).

An important precedent was the promulgation of the Constitution of 1917, in which the Mexican state denied legal status to churches. It also prohibited the participation of the clergy in politics as well as public worship outside the temples and deprived the Church of the right to real estate.

As if that was not enough, in 1921 there was an attack in the Old Basilica of Guadalupe during which there was a failed attempt to destroy the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The attack perpetrated the idea that it had been a miracle and that the Catholics had to protect their interests at all costs.

Causes of the Cristero War

The main cause of the Cristero War was the modification of the 1926 Penal Code, carried out by the president, in what was called the Streets Law. It was intended to further limit the participation of the Church in public life, increasing the power of the State over the organization that was the Mexican Church at that point.

The response of Catholic society consisted of a collection of signatures to request a constitutional reform, which was rejected. Subsequently, the church boycotted tax payment and minimized the consumption of products and services linked to the government, which resulted in significant damage to the precarious Mexican economy.

A strong social movement was born in favor of the right to free worship. Under the motto of “Long live Christ the King!” or “Long live Santa María de Guadalupe!“, they began the collection of weapons and the formation of peasant guerrillas, believing that a military solution to the conflict was a viable solution. It is unknown if the name “Cristero” was chosen by the guerrillas or if it was a derogatory term given to them by their enemies.

Consequences of the Cristero War

The Cristero War, which lasted for three years, caused about 250,000 deaths, between civilians and combatants. There was also a wave of refugees to the US that reached the same number, but mostly non-combatant citizens.

As in many local conflicts of the time, various local interests were involved, such as the United States and in particular the Ku Klux Klan, in support of the Mexican Army, or the Holy See of the Vatican and the Knights of Columbus, in support of the cristero side.

Regarding political decisions, the war forced the state to modify its secular reforms in educational matters, to postpone the application of its laws in matters of worship, and to centralize the relationship between the State and the Church in the president.

For its part, the latter appointed the Archbishop of Mexico as an interlocutor with the federal authorities, avoiding any type of political pronouncement on the part of Bishops and other ecclesiastical authorities. Finally a modus vivendi between State and Church, that is, a form of tolerance and coexistence.

Characters of the Cristero War

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The Cristero War was unleashed during the government of Plutarco Elías Calles.

The most relevant characters of the Cristero War were:

  • Plutarco Elías Calles. President of Mexico at the beginning of the conflict, and a central figure in the Mexican post-revolutionary period, as he became the “Maximum Chief of the Revolution” and pulled the strings of the governments after his own. With the promulgation of the Calles Law, he definitively unleashed the armed conflict between the Cristeros and the State.
  • Emilio Portes Gil. Electro interim president of Mexico (1928-1930) after the end of the Calles government and the assassination of Álvaro Obregón, who had been re-elected amid many political tensions, was from the beginning a participant and leader in the negotiations to restore peace .
  • Enrique Gorostieta Velarde. Military of the Mexican Revolution hired by the National League for the Defense of Religious Freedom (LNDR) to lead the Cristero troops, taking advantage of their disagreements with Álvaro Obregón and Plutarco Elías Calles. He was assassinated in the framework of the peace negotiations at the end of the conflict, so that he would not constitute an impediment.
  • Bishop José Mora y del Río. Bishop of Mexico City, it was together with Pascual Díaz Barreto, bishop of Tabasco, one of the leaders of the clergy who pressed the most to reach an agreement with the government.
  • Leopoldo Ruiz and Flores. One of the bishops who signed the agreements that put an end to the Cristero War, had received in 1925 the title of Assistant to the Pontifical Solio from Pope Pius XI. After the end of the conflict, he was sentenced to exile, since the government did not fully respect the terms of the agreement.

End of the Cristero War

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Emilio Portes Gil came to the government in 1928 and began negotiations with the Church.

The Cristero War It came to an end in 1929, after the arrival to the government of Emilio Portes Gil in 1928, and the beginning of a series of negotiations, under the strong influence of the United States and the Holy See.

A general amnesty was agreed for all the rebels, achieving that only 14,000 of the 50,000 combatants laid down their weapons, but there was still a lack of peace. The model of coexistence and constant negotiation was slowly able to achieve this, although Cristero factions continued to carry out violent actions in subsequent governments.