Mestizo rancheros have always maintained strong links with the national society while preserving a separate regional identity. Although formally integrated into the national system, rancheros kept effective control over the Huasteca through an informal power structure known as caciquismo (strong-boss rule). This form of organization is also associated with other regions of Mexico but—together with the use of violence to eliminate political opponents—has been especially strong in the Huasteca. A personalistic form of politics, involving the activation of patron-client bonds by rival power holders, goes hand-in-hand with a high level of competition among leading families. Nevertheless, despite the periodic outbreaks of factional violence, the rancheros present a common front vis-à-vis outsiders, the Mexican state, and any threat to their class interests from below. Since the 1960s such social-class bonds have become institutionalized through a powerful regional cattlemen's association.
Social Control. The ranchero way of life is rapidly being incorporated into mainstream Mexican culture. Nevertheless, social control on the local level can still be exercised by means of the threat of violence. An infamous figure in the Huasteca is the gunslinger ( pistolero ) who specializes in intimidation or assassination, usually at the behest of informal power holders. A high level of violence and the prevalence of cattle rustling and banditry in the past (especially in the period following the Mexican Revolution) put a premium on centralized control at both the municipal and regional level. While guaranteeing a minimum level of security for merchants and ranchers, as well as the public in general, the ranchero strong-bosses (caciques) of the Huasteca still had to use hired gunmen to implement their orders. Such caciques, even if they were working together with the government to "impose order," were prone to the abuse of authority. For example, ranchero politicians used to mobilize the peasant population into communal work parties to perform labor for the personal benefit of the cacique or to repair roads and put up buildings in mestizo centers, thus reducing the costs of local administration. More subtle forms of control were exercised through a ranchero value system that glorified machismo, strong leadership, and a disdain for more polite, urbane forms of social interaction.
Conflict. Prior to the 1970s, family vendettas were the predominant form of social conflict. Such interfamily feuding is an expression of tensions associated with difficulties in finding economically suitable marriage partners and rivalry over potential common-law partners; open confrontations were more prevalent among young, unmarried men brought up in a culture that emphasized valor and manliness (machismo). Barroom-type brawls and open gun battles over "skirts and land" were a frequent occurrence. Since about 1970, open class confrontations between rancheros and poor peasant cultivators have become more prevalent, especially in more densely populated areas. Such class conflict developed at a time of increasing economic inequalities and growing differentiation of life-styles between the ranchero elite and their economic subordinates. Ironically, violent confrontations involving land invasions by angry peasants (or cowboys) started to occur at a time when town-based rancheros were becoming more educated and "civilized." In this situation, old-style pistoleros again had an opportunity to make a living by fighting on both sides.