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The Cristero War was fought in 1927 - 1929 between the Mexican Government and the rebels. The government wanted to abolish the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, while the rebels wanted to preserve it and their freedom to participate in it.

The wiki article claims a strength of about 100k soldiers for the government and about 50k for the rebels (in 1929). This shocked me. At first glance that would imply that the government was twice as popular?

Was the government just using mercenaries, or were the anti-church policies somehow more popular among the Mexican people?

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The rebels have to rely on volunteer force.

The government has laws regulating conscription; people who evade conscription face a prison penalty (or in extreme cases a death penalty). Thus normal people with families and their place in the society, have no choice but to serve their time in the military, even if they don't support the contemporary government stance or don't support the war. Those are the normal people that if ordered to shoot at the "enemy", always overshoot and don't kill anyone. This sensible behavior was estimated in later time and different country to occur with 70%-90% of infantry soldiers.

If the rebels could gather 50% as much as government, it indicates to me that the rebel cause was exceptionally popular.

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