Counter-guerrilla measures during the second empire

Learn about the laws and systems in place to combat rebels, and how they impacted Julián Ríos's life.

Counter-guerrilla measures during the second empire
Illustrative representation of a man mounted on a horse. Text and image credit: AGN

The tenacity of the liberal guerrillas in the defense of the country's independence led Maximilian of Habsburg to implement different strategies to put an end to the resistance. Learn about the laws and mechanisms against insurgents and how they changed the life of Julián Ríos through the records kept by the General Archive of the National History of Mexico (AGN).

One of the strategies used by the Republican side to combat the invading forces during the second French intervention in Mexico was the use of guerrilla warfare based on irregular corps formed by a reduced group of military or civilian volunteers. In both cases, these military groups were led by a chief, who made the major decisions to prevent them from operating as gangs of bandits.

The liberal government, headed by Benito Juárez, opted for this type of force to defend the nation and the republican form of government because, after the end of the Reform War, the republican army lacked resources and men. This situation made it impossible to fight the enemy in an open-field military campaign. One of the guerrillas authorized by President Benito Juárez was Vicente Riva Palacio, who, commissioned by General Ignacio Zaragoza, harassed the French advancing along the Veracruz-Puebla road.

Throughout the territory, various guerrillas were formed, regularly made up of less than fifty men, who would go deep into the most inhospitable places of the territory to ambush and avoid being captured. Likewise, they maintained operations on certain roads to confront enemies that could be easy to defeat. They never fought directly with the forces of another army, unless they were integrated into the ranks of a Republican military unit to carry out skirmishing or advance actions.

By June 1863, the French army had reached the capital of Mexico, which gave way to the establishment of a monarchical government headed by Emperor Maximilian of Habsburg. However, the Mexican territory was far from losing its freedom, since the republican government, led by President Benito Juarez, marched towards the north of the country until it reached Paso del Norte (currently Ciudad Juarez), where it established the capital of its government.

While this was happening in the north, in the rest of the country an arduous resistance was organized by guerrillas and some surviving military corps. The guerrillas adopted the saddle as a mechanism to move from one point to another to make their location and capture more difficult. This put the French forces in check, which could not maintain permanent surveillance in all the villages. When they went to a point controlled by a guerrilla, the latter moved to another locality, which caused the imperial troops to come and go to try to put an end to an enemy that was rarely seen.

To counteract this force, the French army created the counter-guerrilla military corps, headed by the ruthless Colonel Charles-Louis Dupin, who was entrusted with exterminating all the guerrilla groups operating in Veracruz. With nearly 500 men, including French, Algerians, Spaniards, and Mexicans, Colonel Dupin set about clearing the roads of Veracruz with an iron fist. Several newspapers of the time documented and criticized the terror practices he used to punish alleged guerrillas, who were singled out and judged by him.

This way of acting against the guerrillas can be found in the Justicia Imperio fund, in which we find records of some cases of liberals who were tried for allegedly belonging to the guerrillas. One of the cases identified for arbitrary apprehension was that of Julián Ríos, who presented himself to the municipal judge of Ayotzingo to request his pardon since he had been part of the liberal forces at the beginning of the French intervention, the reason for which he was accused.

At first, he was informed that he was not on any list of criminals wanted by the empire, which allowed him to enjoy total freedom. However, one day he was apprehended, and his house was searched. A horse, a sword, and a pistol were found there, elements used as evidence to accuse him of being a guerrilla fighter.

During the trial, several contradictions were found about how Julián Ríos had been captured. Some testimonies assured that he had been apprehended at the gate of his house, completely unarmed, while the prefect of the District of Chalco, Mariano Rodríguez, assured that Julián was surprised on his saddle and carrying weapons.

The various versions circulating about his arrest became even more inconsistent with the statement of Juan Ruiz, the Chalco police commander who arrested Julián and provided few reliable data. In the first place, he did not remember the date of the arrest, and, secondly, he said he did not know that the detainee had committed any crime.

The arrest of Julián Ríos by the imperial authorities was due more to his former relationship with the liberal guerrilla forces of Don Juan Díaz, from which he had deserted. However, this background was used by his captors to present him as a guerrilla even though he had not committed any crime and was not recognized as a member of any guerrilla at that time. For this reason, Julián Ríos and two other suspects were presented before a military tribunal to be tried as guerrillas.

It is important to note that the penalties for belonging to the guerrilla were increased. The decree of October 3, 1865, on guerrillas and armed bands, also known as the "black decree", stipulated capital punishment for the guerrilla. It was unknown that any guerrilla action was promoted by the republican government of Benito Juarez as an act of patriotic defense, since, according to the decree, the republican cause "had already succumbed, not only to the national will but to the same law that this caudillo [Benito Juarez] invoked in support of his titles". It also stated that every guerrilla group was a gang of criminals and bandits.

The accusation turned out to be false since from the beginning of the intervention, President Benito Juarez established robbery, kidnapping, and murder as the main aggravating factors in the violation of individual guarantees. Hence, the voluntary guerrillas formed with the authorization of President Juarez did not operate with full powers but adhered to the law, that is to say, they avoided such acts.

For this reason, the Decree against guerrillas and armed bands was a legal instrument of Maximilian's government to try to put an end to the resistance groups, granting greater power to the actions of the counter-guerrillas, which were involved in robberies, murders, and kidnappings.

Despite imperial efforts, the actions taken to put an end to the liberal guerrilla groups did not have the desired impact. By 1866, the authorities of some states even expressed to Maximilian's government the progress that the guerrilla had achieved with the gradual departure or displacement of the invading armed forces, which had allowed the reorganization of the liberal combatants.