The clash between cacique and local leader: Juan Álvarez vs. Florencio Villarreal

Learn more about Juan Álvarez and Florencio Villarreal, who clashed in a political circumstance marked by the recent loss of part of the territory, fears of fragmentation, and the existence of de facto local powers.

The clash between cacique and local leader: Juan Álvarez vs. Florencio Villarreal
Cacique chieftain, local leader. The image used to illustrate this article is a free interpretation made by the AGN's subdirection of diffusion.

Lies, conspiracies, loyalty, charisma, and power were some of the elements that were at play at the juncture of the proposed creation of the state of Guerrero. Learn more about Juan Álvarez and Florencio Villarreal, who faced each other in a political circumstance marked by the recent loss of part of the territory, fears of fragmentation, and the existence of de facto local powers.

In the mid-nineteenth century, General Juan Álvarez managed to establish one of the most powerful chiefdoms of the country in the southern part of Mexico, in the current state of Guerrero. This situation, on more than one occasion, led him to sustain several local confrontations with other leaders, especially with military men who had been favored by the Executive Power with posts in the commanderies of the southern coast, as was the case of Colonel Florencio Villarreal, as recorded in the documents of the AGN.

One of the phenomena that occurred in the formation of the Mexican nation in the 19th century was caciquism. This phenomenon constituted an ancient form of power characterized by the formation of local and regional networks used to exercise control in certain areas through the figure of the cacique, an entity defined by Paul Friedrich as "an autocratic leader in local and regional politics, whose characteristically informal, personalistic and often arbitrary command is backed by a group [...] However, these caciques, although imperfectly, serve as a bridge between the peasants of the village and, at the other extreme, the law".

Such a definition allows us to understand that being a figure of regional or local power was favored in the face of the weakening and extinction of the old colonial structure of formal and informal power. This allowed that in the first decades of independent Mexico several of these caciques represented "the real power in the different regions", amid the constant struggles that arose between the different elites of the country and the fragmentation of the real power in tension with the slow consolidation of a centralized structure.

However, despite the authority that the chiefdoms reached, they were structures that remained on the margins of their local interests, although any forces considered a threat to their power led them to action. Likewise, in some cases, there were cases of regional or local confrontation between caciques and military leaders, as was the case in the area of the current state of Guerrero between the figures of Juan Álvarez and Florencio Villarreal.

Álvarez was a southern legend who had been formed from his notable military actions during the struggle for independence. His contribution to the armed campaigns of José María Morelos y Pavón and Vicente Guerrero allowed him to gain a large number of supporters in the area and the corresponding political power on the southern coast, making him one of the main caciques of that point. On the other hand, Villarreal was a royalist soldier who had opportunely joined Agustín de Iturbide's Trigarante movement and later those led by Nicolás Bravo and Antonio López de Santa Anna, obtaining military positions in certain command posts in the Guerrero area.

The first confrontations between these characters occurred in 1841, after Villarreal's petition for the creation of the municipality of Tecoanapa, to counteract Alvarez's local power. This tension would grow the following year when Villarreal formally assumed the military power of the command of the Costa Chica, which caused great annoyance to Álvarez, who would even be accused of fomenting rebellion in that command, as well as an assassination attempt. This first clash showed the strong presence that Álvarez had in the area by encouraging other local caciques of lesser power to confront the imposition of Villarreal's appointment.

The conflict between the two was reawakened in 1847 with the project to create the state of Guerrero, planned by Álvarez himself and which was interrupted by the invasion of the North American forces, but once this convulsive situation was overcome, the initiative was retaken. The proposal was not to the liking of Villarreal, nor of other political and military forces of that locality, who tried to organize themselves to oppose this action. However, Villarreal's effort would not get very far, because soon after he was denounced for conspiracy, as it was recorded in the file of the trial that followed him, with number 3704 of volume 355 of the War Archive of the AGN (Archivo de Guerra del AGN).

As such, the process was initiated by Juan Álvarez in September 1848, then general commander of Guerrero, who requested from Chilapa to the town of Tlapa that due inquiries be made against Colonel Florencio Villarreal for the crime of conspiracy, regarding the movement in formation in that locality and other towns of the state. It was not the first time that he intervened in favor of his project to create the state of Guerrero to repress an indigenous uprising that had advanced the demand to join the new territoriality at the wrong time. Although he acted with force in this case, the file in question gives us a glimpse of his political skill in the use of institutional resources to neutralize political enemies. The petition was turned over to the first instance civil judge in Tlapa since from the information in the same communication it is known that there was no military court in the area.

The first to appear before the court was Ricardo Montealegre, who worked the land in the Barrio de San Diego. Well, this character commented that one day, whose date he could not remember, he had been requested by Colonel Villareal to write a "plan with the character of a proclamation", in which nine towns that had been previously called to join the uprising would participate.

Concerning the content of this plan, the declarant said that it pointed out Alvarez as a traitor, accused of being one of the military chiefs responsible for the "surrender of the nation to the Americans", for which he called on the people "not to trust him", in addition to establishing measures to carry out the uprising such as "not to steal or cause damages", "not to commit violent acts with a serious injury to the father of the family", "not to commit homicides on people who were not guilty and who were in the order of the project" and finally "not to pay the established contribution".

These different points attributed to Villarreal's plan showed the intention to diminish the recognized military figure that Álvarez had achieved in that state, to withdraw the support that the people of Guerrero had for the general, and, finally, to prevent the inhabitants from continuing to contribute economically to the captaincy of Guerrero. In short, according to the declarant, the plan was aimed at reducing Alvarez's power by damaging three of his main pillars: prestige, support, and economy.

Subsequently, several other people were interrogated, who offered increasingly relevant information about Colonel Villarreal's plans. Some maintained that the colonel had met with leaders of other towns, especially with indigenous communities, who came to spend the night at the colonel's house, where they exchanged points about the uprising, as well as weapons and parks for certain communities.

When questioned, Manuel de Abarca, one of Villarreal's main friends in Tlapa, affirmed that Colonel Villarreal also sought to hinder the creation of the state of Guerrero, convincing several mayors of the evils they would suffer because of the territorial project proposed by Álvarez. It was argued that Villarreal told the other leaders that if the new entity was created, they would lose power because Álvarez would eliminate the cacique chiefdoms alienate the land to sell it, and establish new taxes.

According to Abarca, such "tangles" managed to convince some people in the area to join Colonel Villarreal, who since his arrival in the community of Tlapa had strengthened his ties of friendship and his charismatic leadership; as a result, he began to be perceived as the protector of the local authorities before more powerful structures and the national government itself.

The result was the capture of Colonel Villarreal, which prevented him from carrying out his revolt. This was mainly because Villarreal obtained the support of a few towns, as he lacked the political ties that Álvarez possessed in the Guerrero area. Álvarez, on the other hand, occupied his main forces in appeasing other rebellions that represented a greater threat, such as that of Felipe Santiago at the beginning of 1949, the same year in which he concretized his plan with the support of the Secretary of Finance, Mariano Riva Palacio, and President José Joaquín de Herrera.

Despite this resolution, Villarreal did not lose power in the Costa Chica of Guerrero, where he consolidated his military power. This situation was fundamental in 1854 when, after being removed from the general command of that locality by the dictator for life Antonio López de Santa Anna, he pronounced himself under the Plan de Ayutla, which allowed him to become one of the leaders of the liberal revolution that together with other related forces in the Guerrero area, among them General Juan Álvarez, would go on to oppose the centralist government that Antonio López de Santa Anna wanted to re-establish.

In conclusion, it can be pointed out that Juan Álvarez positioned himself as one of the main leaders in the area of the current state of Guerrero and came to act when his power was threatened, especially by external forces as in the case of the arrival of Florencio Villarreal, in a little studied passage in the conjuncture of the creation of the state of Guerrero and that sheds interesting nuances on Álvarez's way of doing politics. Under this power relationship, in 1854 both joined as caudillos of the liberal Ayutla revolution against the dictatorship of Antonio López de Santa Anna.