An "atheist and a puritan, fervent anticlericalist and anti-Catholic, he supported President Plutarco Elías Calles's war against the Cristeros, a popular rebellion opposed to the enforcement of anticlerical laws. He founded several organizations "that terrorized Roman Catholics, most notably the so-called "Red Shirts," and as a result some have labeled him a "fascist. Garrido Canabal's persecution of Catholics included closing all the state's churches, forcing the priests to marry, and even killing priests: all priests who did not marry were outlawed from the state of Tabasco with their lives at risk if they stayed. He was known as the "executioner of priests" and his Red Shirts regularly committed atrocities against priests who ventured into the state of Tabasco.
Garrido Canabal's revolutionary fervor is reflected in the names of his children: Lenin and Zoila Libertad, while he had a nephew named Luzbel (Lucifer). He even had a farm with a bull named God, an ox and a hog named Pope, a cow name after Mary, and a donkey named Christ. In Tabasco, satirical plays were also organised, with for instance "the parading of a stud bull called 'the bishop' or an ass labeled 'the pope.'”
Yet Garrido Canabal's administrative achievements included stimulating the social development of the state of Tabasco by means of agricultural and social policies and his support for the enfranchisement of women. In 1934 he introduced women's suffrage to Tabasco, making him the second governor to do so after Felipe Carrillo Puerto of the Yucatán twelve years earlier. In Mexico, Garrido Canabal's Tabasco was one of several "vying with one another for the title 'Laboratory of the Revolution.'
In 1934 he was named Secretary of Agriculture by President Lázaro Cárdenas. In 1935, after he ordered his red shirts to kill Catholic activists in Mexico City, he was forced to step down and into exile in Costa Rica. His paramilitary groups were subsequently disbanded. He was allowed to return to Mexico in 1941 and died two years later of cancer in Los Angeles, California.
The lieutenant in Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory is clearly based on Garrido Canabal, though his name is never mentioned. The novel's protagonist is a "whiskey priest", a theme often used in Garrido Canabal's antireligious propaganda.