Plutarco Elías Calles

Plutarco Elías Calles

Calles, Plutarco Elías, 1877-1945, Mexican statesman, president (1924-28). In 1913 he left schoolteaching to fight with Álvaro Obregón and Venustiano Carranza against Victoriano Huerta. In 1920 he joined Obregón and Adolfo de la Huerta in the rebellion against Carranza. After Obregón's term as president, Calles, who had been a cabinet member, became the presidential nominee. Adolfo de la Huerta, claiming election fraud, revolted (Dec., 1923), but Obregón and Calles established their supremacy by force (1924); Calles became president.

Calles's administration was noted for its revolutionary zeal, which often precipitated violence. At the outset agrarian reform was pursued vigorously but recklessly. Many rural schools were built, although teachers were still scarce and underpaid. Material improvements were given special attention; vast road-building and irrigation projects were undertaken. The struggle between church and state reached a new level of bitterness. In 1926 the enforcement of anticlerical legislation provoked violence; in 1926-29 the Cristeros, largely peasant rebels whose slogan was "Viva Cristo Rey" [long live Christ the King] took up arms in the states of Colima, Jalisco, and Michoacán. Military chieftains reciprocated by victimizing innocent Roman Catholics, and government officials used the strife to political advantage. At the same time legislation over land and petroleum rights brought about a serious dispute with the United States; relations between the two countries improved when Dwight W. Morrow was appointed (1927) ambassador, and the oil question was temporarily settled.

Calles created and directed a powerful national army and dissolved the private militia that threatened internal peace. He unified the government and molded the National Revolutionary party into the dominant force in Mexican politics. Calles rapidly lost his radicalism when he gained power and became a landowner and financier; he moved toward dictatorship. Already in control of the labor movement, he made himself the force behind the Callistas, a circle of financiers and industrialists who dominated the country's economy and politics. Thus he became undisputed Jefe Máximo, or political chieftain, of Mexico.

When Obregón was assassinated (1928) after his reelection to the presidency, Calles appointed Emilio Portes Gil. In 1930 he declared the agrarian reform program a failure. In the same year he engineered the election of Pascual Ortiz Rubio. Two years later he removed him to appoint Gen. Abelardo Luján Rodríguez. The mighty labor union, CROM (see Lombardo Toledano, Vicente), was smashed. The conflict with the church, temporarily subdued (1929) by Morrow, was resumed; priests were openly persecuted. Communist unions, previously used by Calles in his campaign against the CROM, were ruthlessly suppressed, and a Callista-backed fascist organization, the Gold Shirts, harassed minority groups. As the new champion of conservatism, Calles in 1935 openly opposed the policies of his former protégé, Lázaro Cárdenas, but was defeated in the contest; in 1936 he was exiled. He was allowed to return under an amnesty in 1941.

Plutarco Elías Calles (September 25 1877October 19 1945) was a Mexican general and politician. He was president of Mexico from 1924 to 1928, but he continued to be the de facto ruler of from 1928 1935, a period known as the maximato. Calles is most noted for the Cristero War, a civil war between Roman Catholic rebels and government forces that erupted as a reaction against his anticlerical policies, and for founding the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (National Revolutionary Party, or PNR), which eventually became the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – which governed Mexico for more than 70 years.

Early Years

He was born as Plutarco Elías Campuzano in 1877 in Guaymas, Sonora. His father being an alcoholic and his parents unmarried, Calles grew up in poverty and deprivation. He took the last name of Calles from the uncle who raised him after the death of his mother, Maria de Jesús Campuzano. Calles worked many different jobs from a bartender to a schoolteacher. Calles had a keen sense of political opportunity. He was a supporter of Francisco I. Madero, under whom he became a police commissioner, and his ability to align himself with the political winners of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1940) allowed him to quickly move up the ranks, attaining the rank of general in 1915. He led the Constitutional Army in his home state Sonora, and managed to repel the conventionalists of José María Maytorena and Pancho Villa in the Battle of Agua Prieta in 1915.

In 1915, Calles became governor of Sonora and became known as one of the most reformist politicians of his generation. His radical phraseology tended to conceal the pragmatic essence of his policy, which was to promote the rapid growth of Mexican national capitalism, whose infrastructure he helped to establish. In particular, he attempted to make Sonora a dry state, he promoted legislation giving social security and collective bargaining to workers, and he expelled all Catholic priests from Sonora. In 1919, Venustiano Carranza promoted Calles to Secretary of Commerce, Industry and Labor. In 1920 Calles aligned himself with Álvaro Obregón to overthrow Carranza, and Obregón named him head of the interior ministry. Calles used his ability to draw in labor class votes to come to power with Obregón. He aligned himself with the Laborist Party and was in 1924 elected president, defeating the agrarianist candidate Ángel Flores and the eccentric perennial candidate Nicolás Zúñiga y Miranda.


Calles' presidency was supported by labor and peasant unions. The Laborist party which supported his government in reality functioned as the political-electoral branch of the powerful Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers (CROM), led by Luis Napoleón Morones. Shortly before his inauguration he had travelled to Europe to study social democracy and the labor movement, and he tried to implement the things he had learnt there in Mexico. Calles supported land reforms and promoted the ejido as a way to emancipate campesinos but nonetheless no large tracts of land were redistributed under his presdidency. Calles founded several banks in support of campesinos as well as the Banco de México, Mexico's national bank. Calles secretary of hacienda Alberto J. Pani managed to achieve debt relief of a part of Mexico's foreign debt. After a conflict with Calles, Pani resigned in 1927.

Calles changed Mexico's civil code, giving illegitimate children the same rights as legitimate, partly as a reaction against the problems he himself often had encountered being a child of unmarried parents. According to false rumours, his parents had been Syrians or Turks, giving him the nickname El Turco (The Turk). His detractors drew comparisons between Calles and the 'Grand Turk', the barbarian anti-Christian leaders from the era of the Crusades. In order not to draw too much attention to his bad childhood, Calles chose to ignore those rumours rather than to fight them.

U.S.-Mexico Relations During Calles' Presidency

One of the major points of contention with the U.S. was oil. Calles quickly rejected the Bucareli Agreements of 1923 between the U.S. and Mexico, when Álvaro Obregón was president, and began drafting a new oil law that would strictly enforce article 27 of the Mexican constitution. The oil problem stemmed from article 27 of the Mexican Constitution of 1917, which restated a law from Spanish origin which makes everything under the soil property of the state. The language of article 27 threatened the oil possession of U.S. and European oil companies, especially if the article was applied retroactively. A Mexican Supreme Court decision had ruled that foreign-owned fields could not be seized as long as they were already in operation before the constitution went into effect. The Bucareli Agreements stated that Mexico would agree to respect the Mexican Supreme Court decision in exchange for official recognition from Washington of the presidency of Álvaro Obregón.

The reaction of the U.S. government to Calles intention to enforce article 27 was swift. The American ambassador to Mexico, Ambassador Sheffield branded Calles a communist, and Secretary of State Kellogg issued a threat against Mexico on June 12, 1925. Calles himself never considered himself a communist but considered revolution a way of governing rather than an ideological position. Public opinion in the United States turned particularly anti-Mexican when the first embassy of the Soviet Union in any country was opened in Mexico, on which occasion the Soviet ambassador remarked that "no other two countries show more similarities than the Soviet Union and Mexico". After this, the some in the United States government, considering Calles' regime Bolshevik, started to refer to Mexico as "Soviet Mexico".

The debate on the new oil law occurred in 1925, with U.S. interests opposing all initiatives. By 1926, the new law was enacted. In January 1927 the Mexican government canceled the permits of oil companies that wouldn't comply with the law. Talks of war circulated by the U.S. president and in the editorial pages of the New York Times. Mexico managed to avoid war through a series of diplomatic maneuvers. Soon after, a direct telephone link was established between Calles and President Calvin Coolidge, and the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Sheffield, was replaced with Dwight Morrow. Morrow successfully won the Calles government over to the US position, and helped negotiate an agreement between the government and the oil companies.

Another source of conflict with the United States was Mexico's support for the liberals in the civil war in Nicaragua, while the United States supported the conservatives. This conflict ended when both countries signed a treaty in which they allowed each other to support the side they considered to be the most democratic.

Cristero War

On June 14 1926, president Calles enacted an anticlerical legislation known formally as The Law Reforming the Penal Code and unofficially as the Calles Law. The Calles Law included provisions fining those wearing church decorations up to 500 pesos and up to five years in prison for questioning the law. Calles also strictly enforced anti-clerical provisions of the constitution, which had previously gone unenforced. As governor of Sonora, Calles had expelled all priests from the state. His actions, which have been characterized as anti-Catholic, included outlawing religious orders, depriving the Church of property rights and depriving the clergy of civil liberties, including their right to trial by jury (in cases involving anti-clerical laws) and the right to vote. Catholic antipathy towards Calles enhanced because of his vocal atheism and was also a Freemason.

Due to the strict enforcement of anti-clerical laws, people in strongly Catholic areas, especially the states of Jalisco, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Colima and Michoacán, began to oppose him, and this opposition led to the Cristero War from 1926 to 1929, which was characterized by brutal atrocities by both sides. Some Cristeros applied terrorist tactics, including blowing up a passenger train and killing teachers supporting the government , while the Mexican government persecuted the clergy, killing suspected Cristeros and supporters and often retaliating against innocent individuals.

Aftermath of the Cristero War

A truce was negotiated with the assistence of U.S. Ambassador Dwight Whitney Morrow. Calles, however, did not abide by the terms of the truce - in violation of its terms, he had approximately 500 Cristero leaders and 5,000 other Cristeros shot, frequently in their homes in front of their spouses and children. Particularly offensive to Catholics after the supposed truce was Calles' insistence on a complete state monopoly on education, suppressing all Catholic education and introducing "socialist" education ("atheistic brainwashing" to Catholics) in its place: "We must enter and take possession of the mind of childhood, the mind of youth.". The persecution continued as Calles maintained control under his Maximato and did not relent until 1940, when President Manuel Avila Camacho, a believing Catholic, took office.

The effects of the war on the Church were profound. Between 1926 and 1934 at least 40 priests were killed. Where there were 4,500 priests serving the people before the rebellion, in 1934 there were only 334 priests licensed by the government to serve fifteen million people, the rest having been eliminated by emigration, expulsion and assassination. By 1935, 17 states had no priest at all.

Maximato and Exile

Under Calles a constitutional change was passed that allowed for a non-consecutive reelection, and in 1928 Obregón was elected as Calles' successor. However, Obregón was murdered by José de León Toral, a Catholic militant, before he could assume power. To avoid a political vacuum, Calles named himself Jefe Máximo, the political chieftain of Mexico and Emilio Portes Gil was appointed temporary president, although in reality he was little more than a puppet of Calles. The following year, Calles founded the PNR, or Partido Nacional Revolucionario, the predecessor of today Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI).

The period between 1928 and 1935, in which Calles was Jefe Máximo, is known as the Maximato in Mexican history, with many regarding Emilio Portes Gil, Pascual Ortiz Rubio, and Abelardo Rodríguez as his puppets. Officially, after 1929, he served as minister of war, as he continued to suppress the rebellion of the Cristero War, but a few months later after intervention of the United States ambassador Dwight Morrow the Mexican government and the cristeros signed a peace treaty. During the Maximato, Calles became increasingly authoritiarian. In the early 1930s he appears to have flirted with the idea of impementing aspects of fascism in the government. After a large demonstration in 1930 the Mexican Communist Party was banned, Mexico stopped its support for the rebels of César Sandino in Nicaragua, strikes were no longer tolerated, and the government ceased redistributing lands amongst poorer peasants. Calles had once had been the candidate of the workers and at one point had used Communist unions in his campaign against competing labor organisers but later, having acquired wealth and engaging in finance, suppressed Communism.

In 1934, Calles selected his old wartime subordinate Lázaro Cárdenas as presidential candidate, on the false assumption he could control Cárdenas as he had controlled his predecessors. Soon after his inauguration however, conflicts between Calles and Cárdenas started to arise. Calles opposed Cárdenas' support for labor unions, especially his tolerance and support for strikes, while Cárdenas opposed Calles' violent methods and his closeness to fascist organizations, most notably the Gold Shirts of general Nicolás Rodríguez Carrasco, which harassed communists, Jews and Chinese.

Cárdenas started to isolate Calles politically, removing the callistas from political posts and exiling his most powerful allies: Tomás Garrido Canabal, Fausto Topete, Emilio Portes Gil, Saturnino Cedillo, Aarón Sáenz and finally Calles himself. Calles and Luis Napoleon Morones, one of the last remaining influential callistas, were charged with conspiring to blow up a rairoad and placed under arrest under the order of President Cárdenas and deported on April 9 1936 to the United States. At the time of his arrest, he was reportedly reading a Spanish translation of Mein Kampf.

In exile in the United States, Calles was in contact with various American fascists, although he rejected their anti-Semitic and anti-Mexican sentiments, and also befriended José Vasconcelos, a Mexican philopher who had previously been a political enemy. Calles was allowed to return to Mexico under the reconciliation policy of Cárdenas' successor Manuel Ávila Camacho in 1941. He spent his last years quietly in Mexico City and Cuernavaca.

Back in Mexico, Calles' political position become more moderate; in 1942 he supported Mexico's declaration of war upon the Axis powers. In his last years he reportedly became interested in Spiritualism.. A few months before his death in October 1945, aged 68, Calles reportedly stated that he "most certainly believed" in a higher power.


Calles' legacy remains controversial today. He is honored with statues in Sonoyta, Hermosillo, and his hometown of Guaymas. The official name of the municipality of Sonoyta is called General Plutarco Elías Calles in his honor. The PNR, the party he had founded, would (renamed Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)) continued to rule the country until 2000. He was denounced by Pope Pius XI in the encyclical Iniquis Afflictisque (On the Persecution of the Church in Mexico) as as being "unjust", for a "hateful" attitude and for the "ferocity" of the "war" which he waged against the Church.


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