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Offensive and defensive army action responded to multiple, partly contradictory logics. The supreme commander and his staff designed the official strategy to defeat the rebels, which officers at the lower levels were called upon to implement. The motives of officers and soldiers “on the spot,” such as personal gain, were frequently at odds with the official strategy, however, and shaped military activities and the use of force to suit their own needs. Finally, situational factors such as the immediate threats soldiers faced on duty, i.e., attacks, hunger and illness, impeded the pursuit of long-term goals. The need to procure food by harvesting enemy cornfields, or the quest for enrichment by looting or putting prisoners to work often triggered external violence. Both rebel and government forces were guilty of strategic massacres and other atrocities in a show of force or an attempt to demoralize the enemy or as acts of hatred and revenge. Looting was not simply an incidental feature of warfare. It became an integral part of the government system to compensate soldiers and volunteers for their efforts in the struggle against the rebels and to cover campaign expenses.
Battles between large combat units characterized the first phase of the war from July 1847 to the end of 1848, when rebel forces attempted to conquer the area controlled by the government. The insurgents mobilized large detachments, at times amounting to several thousand combatants. Late 1848, however, saw a shift in the nature of the war. According to a contemporary observer, it transmuted into “an eternal war with no quarter,” assuming “a more bloody and fierce character.” This second phase no longer saw large battles but a “guerrilla war in which engagements were daily and everywhere but with no conclusive result.” For the divided and almost routed rebels, the new Cult of the Speaking Cross became a vital cohesive element. The proclamations of the cross offered an interpretation of their destiny and presented past defeats as sanctions for having offended God’s orders, but they also inspired hope for a better future. Beyond this, veneration of the crosses provided inhabitants of different villages and followers of different leaders with a common ideological point of identification.
The Caste War was without doubt a bitter and violent conflict that claimed numerous victims and led to the abandonment of many settlements, notably in the central part of the peninsula. The reasons for these deaths were manifold. People of both sexes and all age groups perished in battle or during assaults by rebel or government forces, died of starvation or, weakened by hunger and privation, succumbed to epidemics and disease. The chapter provides data on the number of army and rebel casualties and civilian victims of raids. Battles between large masses of combatants only occurred at the beginning of the war. Most of the fighting after that took place in the form of raids and surprise attacks on Yucatecan cantonments, towns, villages, haciendas and hamlets or rebel settlements. On the whole, casualty rates for this type of fighting were low, with the number of dead generally below ten in most single instances. However, since army thrusts and rebel raiding expeditions affected more than one settlement as a rule, casualties often added up to several dozen dead.
Widespread destruction and cruelty to combatants and non-combatants alike had been common in previous insurgencies and wars, and re-emerged in the frequent uprisings and coups that haunted Yucatán during the Caste War. Institutional instability, the growing power of the military and the politicizing of the town government with the introduction of elections triggered a proliferation of violent struggles throughout the country after Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821. For decades after Independence, no social group, ideological current or political faction commanded sufficient strength to pursue its interests in the face of rivals or put its vision of society into effect. The clergy, possessor of vast real estate, the military (the national army and the local militias) and the hacienda owners figured as the main power groups. Independence brought, among other things, republican and democratic institutions, including elections and municipal self-government. Few institutions, however, guaranteed voting freedom and fairness. Local elections in particular tended to be fraught with manipulation of results, intimidation of voters and other abuses.
The beginning of the twentieth century coincided with the end of kruso’b autonomy. The authoritarian Mexican President Porfirio Díaz sent regular armed forces under General Ignacio Bravo to Yucatán to attack the Caste War rebels. The massive and long campaign began in 1899. Protected by three Mexican army battalions and Yucatecan militia units, peons drove a path into the area controlled by the kruso’b with clearings of up to 300 meters in width to avoid assault. Military posts were set up every ten kilometers. Although they provided some resistance, the kruso’b were unable to stop the advancing government forces. The military campaign endured for three years. Chan Santa Cruz was occupied on May 4, 1901.
Organized groups of combatants such as warrior bands or armies are shaped by violence in at least two ways. One is their capacity to exert force against outsiders when, for instance, enemies are attacked or the squad is defended against external aggression. Violence is also frequently applied to group members to establish and maintain the internal hierarchy and uphold discipline. The chapter also discusses factors that foster the use of violence, such as the social or cultural distance between the conflicting parties, the dehumanization of the opponent or the reduction of personal responsibility by explicit orders or tacit encouragement. Civil wars differ from interpolity wars insofar as the contending parties are “subject to a common authority at the outset of the hostilities” (Kalyvas 2006:5). They frequently imply guerrilla tactics and counter-insurgency strategies that are particularly savage, with a disproportionate share of non-combatant victims. In addition, the violence here is “more intimate,” often among people with a high degree of closeness and peaceful interactions.
Internal violence played a crucial role when it came to enforcing order and military discipline and as a deterrent against desertion. For many men in the armed forces violence began with their enlistment. Each Mexican state was obliged to deliver a contingent of soldiers to the federal army. Since recruitment practices were never precisely regulated, some soldiers were enlisted by bounty, while others were forced to serve for several years, as in the case of wrongdoers or vagabonds. Soldiers not only experienced ill-treatment during recruitment but were also subjected to various forms of hardship and abuse as members of military units.
The Appendices supply vital information on the dynamics of the Caste War. Voluminous tables summarize the quantitative information I found on rebel assaults and army attacks. Concise and in chronological order, they represent most of the data on which this book is based. Although some minor events may be missing due to the lack of relevant data, to my knowledge this is the most detailed and most extensive compilation on these issues to date. It presents information on targets, military strength, the number, gender and status of victims (Indian or vecino), the amount of booty taken, and the losses and casualties suffered by the respective attackers. These facts allow us to grasp the changing nature of the war and gain key insights into the structure of individual rebel assaults on Yucatecan settlements, on the one hand, and army thrusts into rebel territory, on the other.
Violence was part of everyday life beyond the wars and rebellions for many Yucatecans, particularly in the countryside. This background provides clues to what was considered normal or expected behavior and should make it easier to understand why, for example, acting violently was not a remote form of settling affairs and why fleeing to the bush or joining the Caste War rebels were attractive options to many lower-class Yucatecans. Life was grim for the lower classes in nineteenth-century Yucatán. Their situation varied considerably depending on whether they lived in urban or rural environments, whether they were self-employed or not and whether they lacked or had access to some means of production. Physical force intensified the severity of these living conditions, in particular for the lower classes and dependents, i.e., wives, children, and domestics, all of whom were subject to patriarchal authority. As in most parts of the world at that time, violence was a day-to-day affair in nineteenth-century Yucatán. Lower-class males suffered physical aggression at the hands of superiors and were beaten regularly by hacienda overseers and parish priests.
The Caste War stands out from the numerous other rebellions and civil wars in Mexico in the nineteenth century due to its duration, its magnitude and its consequences. While war-related casualties added up to hundreds or even several thousands in most other conflicts, they probably amounted to tens of thousands in the Caste War. Apart from the Yaqui rebellions, the Caste War was the only rural uprising that led to the establishment of independent rebel polities lasting more than a few months or years. Leaving these particularities aside for the moment, it is evident that many features of the Caste War were far from unique but mirrored widespread patterns of violence, politics and state-building in Latin America.Political instability, gross inequality, a lingering racist ideology and rivalry for power, not least to access revenues in the context of an economy slow to recover, shaped the background against which the Caste War and other revolts and civil strifes evolved. Given the weakness of formal institutions, caudillism became the dominant pattern of politics and rule for decades after Independence, not only among Yucatecan factions and kruso’b but all over Mexico and beyond.
Freed from constant persecution by army squads, rebel society consolidated in the late 1850s. Chan Santa Cruz and other villages in the surroundings and in the direction of Bacalar were transformed into more solid settlements. The Caste War rebels (kruso’b) gradually regained the initiative in the struggle with Yucatán and maintained it up to the end of the century. The reduction in military pressure opened up new opportunities to assault frontier settlements. In contrast to the first phase of the war and as a result of their reduced military capacity, the rebels refrained from the notion of conquering or controlling territory. Instead, they developed a pattern of surprise attacks to loot cattle, pigs, mules, horses and valuables, selling them in Belize in exchange for arms, ammunition and other essential supplies.
Violence and The Caste War of Yucatán analyzes the extent and forms of violence employed during one of the most significant indigenous rural revolts in nineteenth-century Latin America: the Caste War of Yucatán in the tropical southeast of Mexico. Combining the results of historical, anthropological, and sociological research with the thorough investigation of primary sources from numerous archives, the book ascertains that violence was neither random nor the result of individual bloodthirstiness but in many cases followed specific patterns related to demographic, economic, political, and military factors. In addition to its use against the enemy, violence also played a role in the establishment and maintenance of order and leadership within the ranks of the contending parties. While the Caste War has been widely considered a conflict between the whites and the Maya, this book shows that Indians and non-Indians fought and died on both sides.
Despite its ambiguity and malleability, ideology can become a strong motivational force, mobilizing both rational and emotional energy for a specific cause. Yucatecan politicians cultivated the deep-rooted fear of a mass Indian uprising to attract followers to fight against the Caste War rebels. In their desperate situation during the first years of the war, the latter found moral support in the Cult of the Speaking Cross.The Yucatecan and Mexican elites coincided in their interpretation of the Caste War as a racial or ethnic conflict, a struggle between civilization and barbarism. This official discourse tied in with established images of Indians as savages, created at the time of the conquest to legitimize colonialism.While the Caste War rebels did not have an elaborated political program, their major concerns emerged from the sources, the most prominent of which were reduction of taxes and religious fees, free access to land for cultivation and equal rights. In contrast to the interpretation of the war as a racial conflict that pervaded official Yucatecan discourse, rebel statements demanded equality for all groups and were generally phrased in economic and political terms.
Although Caste War rebels were frequently despised as “barbarians” or “savages”, their culture, their society and their military organization were strongly reminiscent of rural Yucatán. Kruso’b and soldiers were both victims and perpetrators of internal and external violence. They employed force to attack the enemy, defend themselves, appropriate valuable commodities (food, booty) and take prisoners. Soldiers and rebels used similar tactics on their thrusts into enemy territory, mostly assaulting settlements with surprise attacks. Looting was a key incentive for both soldiers and kruso’b when it came to combat. Both rebels and government forces rarely distinguished clearly between combatants and non-combatants and both employed strategies of terror to induce inhabitants of frontier settlements to abandon their homes, thereby expanding the no man’s land between rebel territory and areas under government control. Internal violence occurred in both groups, although the underlying causes differed. Force served to maintain obedience of subalterns to superiors in army and militia units; violence was vital among the rebels to establishing and upholding the political hierarchy.