FOR GREATER GLORY
A Brief History of the Cristero War
The last few years have seen a stirring eruption of unexpected uprisings around
the world as multitudes have been asserting their hopes for greater individual
freedom in places as far-flung as Egypt and Libya. Yet few know the incredible
story of the last major people's uprising in North America: the Cristero War in
Mexico that just a few decades ago secured greater religious freedom for
millions. Though fought for only three years, this roiling civil war left a
devastating 90,000 people dead on both sides. When a precarious peace was
finally struck, fear of opening old wounds and decades of one-party rule kept
the war's most moving stories under wraps. FOR GREATER GLORY marks the first
major motion picture to bring the epic story to life.
The powder keg was lit in 1926, when newly elected President Plutarco Calles,
who felt the Catholic Church was too powerful in Mexican society, intensified a
growing crackdown on religious practices in Mexico. In June of 1926, President
Calles signed the fateful "Law for Reforming the Penal Code," aka "Calles' Law,"
which severely restricted religious freedom. Priests and nuns, who were already
denied the right to vote, could now be heavily fined simply for wearing church
attire; and they could go to jail merely for exercising their right to free
speech or for criticizing the government in any way.
Calles made it clear that he intended to aggressively enforce the new laws and
he began a program of seizing church properties, exiling clergy and closing
convents and religious schools across the nation. Suddenly, priests were on the
run and citizens were left without church services in their communities.
At first, Catholic groups attempted to fight the brutal restrictions through
peaceful means. There were economic boycotts and behind-the-scenes negotiations,
but all proved fruitless. In August of 1926, 400 armed rebels shut themselves up
in a church in Guadalupe and engaged in a deadly firefight with federal troops,
surrendering only when they ran out of ammunition. When Guadalupe's parish
priest died in the melee, the sacrifice enraged many and drove more young men
and women to join the highly motivated resistance.
By 1927, the country had fallen into a fulminating civil war. The rebels, many
of them farmers, artisans and students, had meager resources of ammunition and
food, while the government forces were heavily armed and well supplied. Many
thought the uprising would be easily and overwhelmingly suppressed by federal
troops, but as several homegrown leaders emerged from the countryside including Victoriano "Catorce" Ramirez and Father Vega, they repeatedly stunned the
government with successful raids and savvy tactics. The battle raged on and
atrocities mounted on both sides, with numerous civilian deaths.
Several months into the battle, the rebels realized they needed a more
targeted strategy. Hoping to change their fate, they recruited retired General
Enrique Gorostieta - a renowned military mastermind who had become a businessman
after leading federal troops in the Mexican Revolution -- to take command of the
Cristeros. They did so despite the fact that Gorostieta was renown as a man of
skeptical faith. Yet Gorostieta quickly became a fervent supporter of religious
freedom and inspired new passion in the growing ranks of fighters, even as his
guerilla-style tactics began to wear away at the government's stalwart defenses.
In 1928, Calles' term as President came to an end, but the new President, Alvara Obregon, was assassinated just two weeks after taking office - and the
war waged on. By this time, General Gorostieta had unified the disparate rebels
into a united and loyal army some 50,000 strong.
The devotion of the Cristeros was fully embodied in 1928, when the 13-year-old
volunteer JosÃ© Luis Sanchez was captured and killed for refusing to renounce his
faith. (Later, JosÃ© would be beatified by the Pope; another 25 Cristero fighters
On June 2nd, 1929, General Gorostieta made the ultimate sacrifice in a Jalisco
firefight, but by that time the tide of the war was rapidly beginning to turn.
Throughout the war, the United States -- which had interests in Mexico's vast
oil reserves as well as keeping peace on its border -- attempted to bring the
government (which it was supporting) to the negotiation table. American diplomat
Dwight Morrow held multiple "ham and eggs" breakfast meetings with President
Calles. Finally, on June 21st, 1929, Morrow sat down with new President Emilio Portes Gil, who signed a negotiated peace agreement that would allow free
worship to resume in Mexico. Although Gil refused to repeal the laws passed by
Calles, he agreed not to enforce them.
In 1929, for the first time in three years, Mexicans woke up to hear church
The war was over but Calles' political party, the PRI (Institutional
Revolutionary Party) remained in power for the next 70 years. Fear of reprisals
and further oppression continued, resulting in the first large wave of Mexican
emigration to the United States, with many seeking to escape the hostile
It was not until 1992 that Mexico finally amended its constitution to give all
religious groups legal status, and lifted the restrictions on priests, at last
fulfilling the legacy of the Cristeros.
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