Country Listing

Mexico Table of Contents


Organization of National Defense

The organization of the Mexican armed forces at the cabinet level is distinct from that of many other Latin American nations. Instead of a single ministry consolidating the command of the army, navy, and air force, two government ministries are directly responsible for national defense: the Secretariat of National Defense and the Secretariat of the Navy. The head of each of these secretariats is a military officer who holds cabinet rank and has regular, direct access to the president of the republic, who is the supreme commander of the armed forces.

After President Carlos Salinas de Gortari took office in 1988, five cabinet-level councils were created within the offices of the president to oversee principal policy areas. One of these is the National Security Council, which includes representatives of the secretariats of government, foreign relations, national defense, and the navy, as well as the attorney general's office. Narcotics control is one of the topics dealt with in the council.

The secretary of national defense (General Enrique Cervantes Aguirre as of 1996) is selected by the president from the ranks of active army general officers. The secretary normally serves for six years, the same term as the president's. Similarly, the secretary of the navy (Admiral José Ramón Lorenzo Franco in 1996) is chosen from the ranks of active admirals. Operating through the General Staff, the secretary of national defense commands army and air force units, the army zonal commands, and logistics and administrative directorates. Under the secretary of the navy are the chief of naval operations, the chief of naval staff, and the naval zones that control operational forces.

The army is by far the largest service branch. Of some 175,000 active armed forces personnel in 1996, 130,000 were in the army, 8,000 in the air force, and 37,000 in the navy. The army total at any one time included about 60,000 conscripts. No conscripts were assigned to the air force or navy. A "reserve" force of 300,000 is claimed, although this number is a manpower pool rather than an existing trained force.

The size of the armed forces is modest considering Mexico's size and importance. Mexico has the smallest number of military personnel per capita of any country of Latin America. According to the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), Latin America as a whole had 3.5 soldiers per 1,000 population in 1991. The corresponding figure for Mexico was 1.9 soldiers per 1,000 population. In spite of the steady increase in the armed forces--they have roughly doubled in size since the mid-1970s--the number of soldiers per capita has remained remarkably steady because of the parallel increase in population.


The principal units of the Mexican army are six brigades and a number of independent regiments and infantry battalions. The brigades, all based in and around the Federal District (encompassing the Mexico City area), are the only real maneuver elements in the army. With their support units, they are believed to account for 40 percent of the country's ground forces. According to The Military Balance , published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, the army in 1996 had seven brigades: one armored, two infantry, one motorized infantry, one airborne, one combined military police and engineer brigade, and the Presidential Guard Brigade. The armored brigade is one of two new brigades formed since 1990 as part of a reorganization made possible by an increase in overall strength of about 25,000 troops. The brigade consists of three armored and one mechanized infantry regiment.

Each of the two infantry brigades consists of three infantry battalions and an artillery battalion. The motorized infantry brigade is composed of three motorized infantry regiments. The airborne brigade consists of two army and one air force battalion. The elite Presidential Guard Brigade reports directly to the Office of the President and is responsible for providing military security for the president and for visiting dignitaries. The Presidential Guard consists of three infantry battalions, one special force battalion, and one artillery battalion.

Distinct from the brigade formations are independent regiments and battalions assigned to zonal garrisons. These independent units consist of one armored cavalry regiment, nineteen motorized cavalry regiments, one mechanized infantry regiment, seven artillery regiments, and three artillery and eight infantry battalions. Infantry battalions, each composed of approximately 300 troops, generally are deployed in each zone. Certain zones also are assigned an additional motorized cavalry regiment or one of the seven artillery regiments. Smaller detachments often are detailed to patrol more inaccessible areas of the countryside, helping to maintain order and resolve disputes.

The cavalry historically has been the most prestigious branch of the army; in 1920, there were more cavalry squadrons than infantry companies. By the early 1980s, all mounted cavalry had been transformed into motorized units--except for one squadron retained for ceremonial purposes. The engineers, air defense, and combat support and service units was organized into separate regimental, battalion, and company units, which are distributed among military zone installations.

Mexico in 1996 was divided into twelve military regions with thirty-nine military zones. Zone boundaries usually correspond with those of the country's thirty-one states, with the headquarters of the military zone located in the state capital. Some states, including Veracruz, Guerrero, and Chiapas, which have been the scene of disturbances by peasant and Indian groups, have more than one military zone apiece. The Federal District, where Mexico City is located, is the seat of the First Military Zone and also serves as headquarters of the First Military Region.

Military zone commanders are appointed by the president, usually on the recommendation of the secretary of national defense. The senior zone commander in a given area also acts as the commander of the military region in which the zone falls. Zone commanders hold jurisdiction over all units operating in their territory, including the Rural Defense Force (see Rural Defense Force, this ch.). They occasionally have served the federal authorities as a political counterweight to the power wielded by state governors. Zone commanders provide the secretary of national defense with valuable intelligence regarding social and political conditions in rural areas, and traditionally have acted in close coordination with the Secretariat of National Defense on resource planning and deployment matters.

Under a modernization program initiated in the late 1970s, the army purchased a significant amount of new equipment, in many cases replacing equipment that dated from the World War II period. The army's inventory of armored vehicles was expanded and updated. The Panhard ERC-90 Lynx six-wheeled reconnaissance car and the Panhard VBL M-11 light armored car were acquired from France. Older designs, such as the German HWK-11 tracked armored personnel carrier (APC), remained in the inventory in 1996 (see table 13, Appendix). Several domestic versions, the DN-3 and DN-5 Caballo and the Mex-1, have been added since the mid-1980s. The M4 Sherman medium tank and several models of light tank transferred by the United States after World War II were retired, leaving Mexico without any tanks in its inventory. Plans for a major expansion of the country's own armament industry, which might have included a domestic tank design, were curtailed as a result of the debt crisis of 1982 (see Domestic Defense Production, this ch.).

Except for five self-propelled 75mm howitzers, in 1996 the army's artillery consisted mainly of towed 105mm howitzers. The army's principal antitank weapons are French Milan missiles, some of which are mounted on the VBL M-11s. Antiaircraft weapons systems are limited to 12.7mm air defense guns. The army has no units equipped with tactical air defense missiles.

Data as of June 1996

Country Listing

Mexico Table of Contents