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Plutarco Elías Calles

Plutarco Elias Calles

(1877 – 1945)

Plutarco Elias Calles was born in the coastal city of Guaymas in the state of Sonora, Mexico in 1877. He was a supporter of President Francisco I. Madero, and later of President Venustiano Carranza‘s Constitutionalist government (defending it against Francisco Villa, among others). Calles was involved in numerous military campaigns throughout the revolution. He is best known as President of Mexico from 1924 to 1928, and the de facto ruler behind the three puppet presidents who followed him in a period known as the Maximato (1928 to 1934). His reign of power ended with the presidency of Lazaro Cárdenas, who had him exiled from Mexico.

1915 was a very important year for the general and a turning point for the Mexican revolution. In that year, he lead the federal troops of Carranza’s government against the “Conventionalist” Francisco Villa (so-called because he was called to power as a result of the Convention of Aguas Calientes the year before). He followed up Álvaro Obregón’s major defeat of Villa at Celaya, with an additional, brutal defeat for Villa at Agua Prieta. Using trench warfare and other techniques developed in World War I, Calles handily defeated Villa’s 19th century-style cavalry attacks. In addition, it has been strongly suggested that the United States helped Calles defeat Villa both by providing access through U.S. territory, so that Calles’ men could surprise Villa from behind, and by providing power for massive searchlights. This was the first time searchlights were used in Mexican military warfare – so that Calles’ troops could successfully fight Villa at night. The one-two punch of Celaya and Agua Prieta marked the beginning of Villa’s downfall as a revolutionary general.

That same year, Calles became Governor of Sonora, one of the northern states of Mexico. His era of governorship was known for several themes: One was his strong efforts to reform the educational system of the state, to make schools more accessible, including in rural areas where illiteracy was high. Another was his support of labor: He helped to create labor reform and provide a form of social security to the workers of his state. But Calles was also known for his violent discrimination against the Catholic Church. These three priorities – pro-education, pro-labor, and anti-religion – would hold over into his policies as Mexican President a decade later.

In 1919, after Carranza had officially been inaugurated President and had helped to birth the new Constitution, he named Calles Secretary of Commerce, Labor and Industry. But in 1920, Calles, in league with Carranza’s other top general, Álvaro Obregón, engineered the assassination of Carranza, so that first Obregón, and then Calles, could come to power.

When Alvaro Obregón became president in 1920, a new era in the revolutionary period began. Although there were various uprisings and threats, the new president turned his attention to rebuilding the country. Part of this was to play to Calles’s strengths – and so the new President appointed Calles Minister of the Interior.

In 1924, Plutarco Elías Calles succeeded Obregón as President of Mexico. He instituted many of the priorities he had put into practice as Governor of Sonora. He strengthened the schools and helped the campaign to lower the illiteracy rate in the country; he also created laws that encouraged unprecedented restrictions on the Church. He had the support of labor unions, especially the largest one, the CROM (Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers). But with the help of its charismatic leader, Luis Napoleon Morones, Calles soon turned the CROM into an organ of support for the government. Although Calles also announced major land reform (in keeping with the tenets of the 1916 Constitution), he effected little actual change — just enough to keep the peasantry in line. The main reform he provided for the workers was to establish banking policies that allowed campesinos (the people who worked the and) to borrow money.

During Calles’ presidency, his anti-Catholic policies (including banning the mass in public places, eliminating the right to vote for the clergy, and barring the Church from owning land) helped spark the so-called Cristero Revolt, a civil war between catholic rebels and the federal government; one of the bloodiest chapters of the 1920s.

In 1928, Obregón was re-elected President by a landslide, but before he could take office, he was shot and killed at a banquet in his honor by a man posing as a caricaturist, making the rounds of the tables at the banquet. Calles was quick to denounce the assassin as a Cristero terrorist, but in fact, Calles may have been a conspirator in the murder.

Wanting to retain power, but being prohibited from a second consecutive term by the Constitution, Calles used his military connections to put forward three presidents who would do his bidding. For six years, between 1928 and 1934, Mexico was ruled by three successive presidents, Emilio Portes Gil, Pascual Ortiz Rubio, and Abelardo Rodríguez, who were simply front-men for Calles. In each case, Calles had them removed when their actions displeased him. Since Calles referred to himself as the Jefe Maximo, this period of puppet presidents became known as the Maximato.

In 1934, Calles supported a man for president whom he thought would be the fourth puppet to follow his orders. Lazaro Cárdenas was a general who had served in the revolution. Cárdenas was elected by a landslide, but quickly showed that he was a true reformer. One of Cárdenas’ first acts as president was to have Calles exiled, when he found out that the Jefe Maximo was plotting to overthrow him. On April 9, 1936, a military officer barged into Calles’s bedroom in the middle of the night (Calles was reading Adolf Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kampf in Spanish translation at the time). He was arrested, driven to an airport, and flown to San Antonio, Texas. His reign of power in Mexico abruptly came to an end.

  • ABurgos

    Your family history sounds very much like my own. It is nice to hear someone else has a similar story.

  • JimmyChonga

    Calles was an animal and a coward. He was every bit as despicable as Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Animals like him should be seen only at the zoo – not in public life. PS. Don’t FEED the zoo animals.

  • Blue Dogs

    Calles’ brutal reign was another example of why Mexico has strict term limits to prevent another dictatorship

  • Texaschl1

    Me in Kamph is tough reading unless you like convolutions making circular illogic!

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