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Chapter 5. National Security

MEXICO'S EXTERNAL SECURITY ENVIRONMENT is peaceful. Mexico has no foreign adversaries and little ambition to impose itself upon other nations. It repudiates the use of force to settle disputes and rejects interference by one nation in the affairs of another. It sees no regional security problems justifying military alliances.

The traditional Mexican definition of national security has constrained the role played by the armed forces. The military is essentially passive in matters of external defense. It has been relegated to internal missions of guaranteeing domestic political stability, contributing to the antinarcotics campaign, and carrying out development-oriented civic-action programs in fulfillment of its duties as the "servant of the people." Since the end of World War II, a succession of civilian presidents has divested the military establishment of political power. The ruling civilian elite that guides national security policy focuses on maintaining social order and overcoming local uprisings.

Because of these limited national security goals, Mexico long maintained a military establishment that was relatively small for a regional power. The picture began to change in the late 1970s, however. The discovery and exploitation of new petroleum reserves gave Mexico added stature as a world energy supplier. Violence in Central America brought tens of thousands of refugees, mainly Guatemalans, to Mexico. This influx of refugees was part of a regional upheaval that Mexico feared might spread northward to Mexican soil. Given the situation, the nation's armed forces, which until the 1970s were one of the most poorly paid and ill-equipped in the Western Hemisphere, took on new significance.

As a result, Mexico launched an ambitious military modernization program with the goals of increasing the size of the armed forces, improving education and training, and upgrading military equipment. The plan had to be scaled back because of a serious international financial crisis and domestic economic distress in the 1980s, but important changes were realized. The number of armed services personnel doubled in less than two decades, reaching 175,000 in 1996. In addition to keeping independent regiments and battalions in garrisons throughout the country, the army formed an armored brigade, bringing its combat forces to six brigades. There was also an elite Presidential Guard brigade. The army also enlarged its inventory of armored vehicles, although it still had no tanks. The air force expanded by adding a jet fighter squadron, in addition to less sophisticated planes, and armed helicopters that have been used in counterinsurgency operations. The navy acquired modern patrol vessels to provide increased protection of offshore oil installations and the country's fishery resources.

Violence in nearby Central American countries slackened in the early 1990s. A 1994 peasant rebellion in the southernmost state of Chiapas, however, demonstrated the potential for revolutionary activity by people not sharing in the country's economic and social progress. Although the lightly armed insurgents inflicted relatively few casualties, troop units were heavily deployed in the area. The possibility that localized uprisings could become more widespread underscores the need for modern, well-trained armed forces to ensure the country's stability.

History and Traditions of the Armed Forces

Mexico's military claims a rich heritage dating back to the pre-Columbian era. As early as the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Aztec army achieved a high degree of military organization that included formal education and training, weapons production, war planning, and the execution of coordinated operations (see The Aztec, ch. 1). The importance of military service was impressed upon each young male in the ritual of declaring to him, shortly after birth, that his destiny was to be a warrior and to die in combat, the most honorable death in Aztec culture. The powers of the Triple Alliance, formed by the urban centers of Tenochtitlán, Texcoco, and Tlacopán (now known as Tacuba)--all three of which are in the area of present-day Mexico City--reportedly could assemble a force of between 16,000 and 18,000 combatants, roughly 10 percent of the male population, on an hour's notice. Evidence of this indigenous influence on the modern military is found in the profile of an eagle warrior, the name given Aztec society's fighting elite, on the insignia of the Superior War College (Escuela Superior de Guerra).

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the forces of the Triple Alliance were at the peak of their military development. Nevertheless, when the Spanish conquistadors under Hernán Cortés arrived in 1519, the native warriors put up little resistance. The two decisive factors in the Spanish victories were the conquistadors' possession of firearms and the mobility they gained from horses, elements of battle hitherto unknown to the Aztec. The cruelty of the Spanish induced the Aztec to rebel in 1520, and Cortés was forced to abandon the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. After launching a new offensive, the Spanish regained control, destroying the magnificent city (see The Spanish Conquest, ch. 1). An alliance with indigenous peoples opposed to the Aztec; the belief of Aztec ruler Moctezuma II (Montezuma) that Cortés was a Toltec god, Quetzalcóatl, whose return was predicted by legend; and the rapid spread of smallpox, which had been carried by the Spanish, also contributed to the Spanish victory. Despite the Aztec's continued battles and subterfuge, the Spanish succeeded in superimposing their own theocratic-militaristic traditions on the conquered society.

The Spanish organized the new colony as the Viceroyalty of New Spain and established an army there in the latter part of the eighteenth century. By 1800 the army's main components were four infantry regiments and two dragoon regiments rotated periodically from Spain. These were supported by ten militia regiments of infantry and nine regiments of dragoons recruited locally. In all, the army numbered about 30,000 members.

After independence, the Mexican armed forces gradually eliminated many practices of the Spanish colonial army. The practice of granting military officers special rights or privileges (fueros ) that enabled them to "make sport of justice, avoid payment of their debts, establish gambling houses, and lead a dissolute life under the protection of their epaulets" was abolished in 1855. The military also phased out the nineteenth-century practice of forced conscription, which often filled the ranks with criminals or other social undesirables whom local caudillos (strongmen) wished to be rid of. These practices led to a sharp division between the officer corps and the enlisted ranks, a division that has slowly abated in the twentieth century in response to the egalitarian influence and myths of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20). Two legacies still remain from the years of colonial rule, however: the use of Spanish military ranks, some of which have no direct equivalent in the United States armed forces, and the high prestige traditionally accorded to cavalry units.

Data as of June 1996

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Mexico Table of Contents