Analysis: The Mexican Army Exception. From formal, post-revolutionary political dominance, to informal influence in politics.

The “Ejército Mexicano” (Mexican Army) was created on March 26th, 1913 with the “Plan de Guadalupe” (Gobierno de México 2021), as a consequence of the first social revolt of the twentieth century. For 75 years, no member of it has occupied the executive office of the country.

“The existing literature on the army in Mexican politics has developed a rather too facile explanation of civilianization, a process that made Mexico the exception in Latin America, with no military governments or coups since 1945.” – Aaron W. Navarro (2010, p. 8)

According to Robert Putman (1967) the intervention of armed forces in politics is common; particularly when nation-states do not belong to the North Atlantic region.

In Latin America, the historic intervention in politics by members of the Mexican Army constitutes an exceptional case in the area, given the geographic proximity of the country to the U.S., the fact that it was created as a consequence of the Mexican Revolution, the external forces that influenced the start, development and outcome of the conflict in 1910, the strategic position of Mexico before, during, and after WWI and WWII, its natural resources, the role that the country played during the Cold War, and also as a main actor of the world economic transformation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and ultimately, because it does belong to the North Atlantic region.

The post-revolutionary Mexican Army changed its name from “Ejército Nacional” (National Army) to “Ejército Mexicano” (Mexican Army) in 1948, with a double purpose: that of asserting that there was only one, legitimate army in the country, out of which all branches of the armed (and paramilitary) forces depended, and to mark a transition from formal, military-political power in the country, to a civil one, which had happened in 1946, when President Miguel Alemán Valdés took oath of the executive office. But why (and how) did the Mexican Army go from legitimate, post-revolutionary political dominance to informal political influence beginning in the mid-twentieth century?

I could answer to my question using diverse theoretical frameworks, but whatever these are, my conclusion points towards the same place: since its creation on March 26th, 1913 with the “Plan de Guadalupe” (Gobierno de México 2021), the Mexican Army has been the state’s legitimate, armed organization that ensures the preservation of the institutions put in place by the ruling-class beginning on that date, until the present, making certain the dominance of the elites of the country, i.e. unlike many of their counterparts in the region, Mexican armed forces are designed only for internal control.

Ismael Crespo and Fernando Filgueira (1993) notice that “the most relevant trait of the armed forces in Latin America, is their permanent intervention in national political life” (297). They affirm that “various studies correlate the growing militarization of Latin America’s societies, during this century, with the period of configuration of the Armed Forces during the independence wars of the early 19th century.” (ibid.) This is not the case of Mexico; at least not since the 1930s. It is truth that the creation of the Latin America’s armed forces corresponds to the independence movements of its nations, as mentioned by Crespo and Filgueira (1993, 299) but so it is that unlike many of their counterparts, the Mexican Army was organically recreated after the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

Angel Pérez (2005) considers that in Latin America “the role of the Armed Forces in the democratic transition of a state is determined by the form and origin of its previous intervention in political life.” (1). Referring to institutions with sufficient tradition and rooting, Pérez also shows that, often “it is the absence or disappearance of these elements that facilitates democracy that allows the Armed Forces to occupy power.” (ibid.) With Mexico, those institutions were in place, firmer than ever before and during 1910 before hostilities initiated; later, the role of the armed forces in the democratic transition took place exceptionally when compared to other Latin America’s cases. Pérez also underlines that the role of the armed forces in a process of democratic transition is conditioned by the intensity of its participation in the preceding regime (3) and so the transition can culminate with a pact that allows the armed forces to continue influencing the politics of the country, like with Chile, Ecuador, or Brazil, or with an internal crisis of the armed forces, that facilitates the control of those, by the civil power, like in the cases of Argentina and Uruguay (ibid.) With Mexico, both situations took place, much earlier than in the considered nations by Pérez (2005).

Centeno (2002) makes a significant claim: “What has characterized the Latin American state is not its concentration of power, but the very dilution of power” (245-246); Centeno (2002) explains that if we use a spectrum to classify the capacities of Latin America states, three kinds of states can be identified in the region: a) successful countries in terms of institutionalism at one extreme (e. g. Chile, Uruguay, Argentina); b) countries in which the viability of the state is dubious at the other extreme (e.g. Bolivia, Peru, Colombia), and c) countries like Mexico (and Brazil) in the middle: “Inside each set of countries we need to take into account regional variation, with state authority concentrated around certain geographical zones and often practically disappearing in less accessible frontiers.” (253-254); this is relevant because it shows another trait of the Mexican exception: since the times of the Revolution, the Mexican Army has struggled to impose (but never fully achieved) monopoly of the use of physical force in all of the country’s territory. 

So, in the 1930s Mexico becomes a developmentalist state, i.e., the state intervenes in trade and industrial policy (Centeno 2002, 157), at the same time that national and international elites demand for stabilizing conditions in the country; a transition towards a democratic-civilian government and institutionalized armed forces to ensure internal-stability became necessary; the events of the Revolution, and the subsequent presence of the military-elite in the government, created internal instability, which threatened to limit the internal and external reach of prosperous negotiations for the ruling-class to profit out of the emerging economic conditions; as control of the state over the use of violence became the dominant attribute, a transition towards a more convenient civilian government took place. With Brazil (compared to Mexico by Centeno) this happens until the 1960s, so once more, Mexico represents an exception in the Centeno’s model.  

Navarro (2010) explains that whilst Mexico has not had neither military governments nor coups since 1945, “Latin America as a whole has had over one hundred over that period” (8), rendering it an exception in the region; also, Navarro (2010, chapter 2) describes how the Mexican Army significantly reduced its political power between 1930 and 1960, rendering it a regional exception, for it became a rare case of an army removed from politics in Latin America. Another trait of the Mexican exception is mentioned by Soledad Loaeza (2020) when she explains that the territorial continuity that includes Mexico within the security perimeter of the United States renders the country a unique case in the Latin American area. 

Roderic A. Camp (1992, chapter 2) narrates how the composition of Mexico’s political leadership and the civil-military relationship were altered after the “Plan de San Luis” (Plan of San Luis Potosi) was launched in 1910 by Francisco I. Madero, followed by a brief occupation of the presidential seat by him (1911-1913), until full scale violence burst out in 1913. Madero legitimized the first civilian presidency since General Porfirio Díaz took power in 1877 and attacked militarism.

Thomas Rath (2013, chapter 1) explains that in 1913, under the influence of U.S. ambassador, Henry Lane Wilson, President Porfirio Díaz’s elites, carried out a counterrevolutionary operation. The regime that emerged was led by General Victoriano Huerta. He embraced a military solution to Mexico’s instability, increased the military budget, and applied political repression as his primary tool. This created further resistance and the birth of larger revolutionary armies. The consequence was the resignation of Huerta, who fled the country. In 1914, the revolutionary armies took power and dissolved the Porfirian federal army. Then, different revolutionary factions turned against one another, which led again to armed confrontations in 1915 (ibid.) Then, a new military-elite entered the stage under the auspice of President Venustiano Carranza; this new ruling-class would benefit significantly out of the events of the revolution. During the period between 1913 and 1915, Katz (1981, chapter 3) explains, that what occurred was an appropriation of the wealth of a part of the old oligarchy by the new ruling-military-class, which happened when estates belonging to the old ruling group were occupied by revolutionary generals. As this military-elite exercised its power over an increasing extension of the national territory, after 1915, this enrichment gave way to more effective forms of expropriation and capital accumulation, with which the new bourgeoisie used its control of the state (ibid.) This phenomenon marks the beginning of post-revolutionary, military formal control of the Mexican state until 1946. 

When General Álvaro Obregón took power in 1920, he tried to restrict the military-elite from taking key positions in the government, as a strategy to remain in power; he increased the number of military zones in 1923 from twenty to thirty-five, to circulate zone commanders more often and keep them away from politics (Camp 1992, chapter 2). Then, General Plutarco Elías Calles occupied the presidency from 1924 to 1928 and once again, he changed the dynamics of the civil-military relationship; among other strategies, he used the “Colegio Militar” (Mexican Military Academy) to produce professionally trained officers, and in 1926 he introduced a promotions law (ibid.) to replace the old guard. This made up the first step to substitute the post-revolutionary generals with new generations of educated officials, an event that eventually reduced the power of the first. After Obregón was assassinated (as president-elect) in 1928, three interim presidents occupied the executive office from 1928 to 1934, read, Emilio Portes Gil (a lawyer) from 1928 to 1930, Pascual Ortíz Rubio (a general) from 1930 to 1932, and Abelardo L. Rodríguez (a general) from 1932 to 1934, but the three of them were at all times under the direction of General Calles who held moral control of the Mexican Army all along those years, until his expulsion of the country in 1936 (Aboites and Loyo 2011).

President Manuel Avila Camacho (the “Gentleman President”), was the last revolutionary member of the Mexican Army to occupy the presidential seat of Mexico, from 1940 to 1946, escorted in this image by the military elite in a political event, in front of the National Palace.

Towards the early 1950s, the military-elite of the Mexican Army had passed from formal control, to informal influence of politics of the country. It was in the period between 1929 and 1952 that this transformation took place until the military were under complete control of the civilian. The revolutionary veterans consolidated their power, as explained by Navarro (2010, chapter 2), by creating the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (PNR) in 1929, but the subsequent transformations of it, as Partido de la Revolución Mexicana (PRM) in 1938 and Partido Revolucionario Institutional (PRI) in 1946, helped -ironically- to pass control to the civilian elites. According to Navarro (2021), two factors made it possible: superior education of civilians over that of the military, and the new role of the Mexican Army elite as guarantor of security for the political system, as the Mexican state built the new intelligence apparatus of the country; “This new role, while not as prominent as elective office, allowed the military to wield considerable power within the party bureaucracy in a non-electoral way” (Navarro 2010, 81).

According to Edwin Lieuwen (1968), the PNR civilian faction took advantage of the power of the revolutionary elite to later weaken it when it transformed the party into the PRM; the presidential elections of 1940 were when this transition took place and was the consequence of the rivalry between revolutionary generals, the professionalization of the new generations of military, the reorganization of workers and peasants in organizations controlled by the civilians, the institutionalization of the political system that took place between 1928 and 1940, and the initiative of General Lázaro Cárdenas to demilitarize politics. Navarro (2021) explained that President Miguel Alemán Valdés (1946-1952) consolidated civilian power and completed the demilitarization of Mexican politics by assigning the most capable generals (and therefore potential political threats) to key national security positions, and also by increasing continuously their salaries, which resulted in creating two “kingdoms” in the country’s politics: the kingdom of formal, political power for the civilians, and the kingdom of informal, political influence for the revolutionary elite.

Besides the explained factors that provoked the demilitarization of Mexican politics, Loaeza (2020) adds that at the same time that the military elite lost preeminence in the formal political control, it could carry out private business, occupy diplomatic positions, or if the case was, problematic military members of this elite were severely castigated. Loaeza sustains that the demilitarization of politics in Mexico was consistent with the idea to incorporate the country to the world of democracies (2020), which was also promoted by the U.S. Loaeza (2020) recounts that: “In 1946, acting Secretary of State Dean Acheson, […] suggested that his government preferred that Mexico be governed by civilians” and “According to him, Americans could be “reasonably sure that the military [in Mexico] will want to stay out of politics”; Loaeza (2020) proposes that the military-elite accepted its depoliticization because the Mexican Army had become a weak institution (ibid.) under presidents Manuel Ávila Camacho y Miguel Alemán Valdés. Unlike the rest of the Latin America countries, where the U.S. applied its political influence by using the military in power, in Mexico it did it throughout the civilians (ibid.) Loaeza (2020) confirms that the demilitarization of politics did not mean the disappearance of the members of the armed forces from the political scene, “but rather consisted in limiting their possibilities of autonomous control of the instruments of political influence.” and that “In post-war Mexico the Army was weak, but the military was still influential” (Loaeza 2020), a reality that holds up to this day.


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