National Security Concerns
Under the constitution of 1917, the armed forces have responsibility for defending the sovereignty and independence of the nation, maintaining the constitution and its laws, and preserving internal order. At various times during the first century of independence, Mexico was subjected to foreign attacks by the United States, France, and, for a brief period, Spain and Britain. Mexico's principal national security concerns since 1910 have been to preserve domestic political stability and to prevent foreign economic domination. The last time Mexico faced a foreign threat was when it joined the war against the Axis in World War II. During World War II and in the subsequent years of the Cold War, however, Mexico's proximity to the United States allowed it to fall under the protective shield of its northern neighbor.
Bilateral relations with the United States have been strongly affected by the bitter legacy left by Mexico's loss of more than one-half of its territory in 1848 and subsequent incidents of United States infringement of its sovereignty. General Winfield Scott's 1847 siege of the capital, the United States marines' 1914 occupation of Veracruz, and General Pershing's 1916 punitive expedition in northern Mexico against Pancho Villa were traumatic episodes in Mexican history. Even in the post-World War II era, most Mexicans viewed United States domination, not Soviet-Cuban designs in the Western Hemisphere or revolutionary regimes in Central America, as the major foreign threat to national sovereignty. Although fears of armed intervention by the United States have receded, concerns over United States economic and political penetration persist.
The Mexican military is primarily organized to meet challenges to internal order and the existing political system. Since the 1940s, Mexico has remained remarkably free from domestic upheaval, perhaps more so than any other Latin American nation. For the most part, the military has been reluctant to become involved in law enforcement. The armed forces have given the responsibility of preventing violence to federal and state police authorities except when faced with a large-scale breakdown of civil order. Troops are not fully equipped or trained to deal directly with protesters, and, with its reputation at risk, the military leadership seems inclined to register its influence more as a presence than an active force.
In 1968 the military was called upon to put down massive student-led protests associated with strongly felt economic grievances. Fearful of losing control of the situation, the army violently suppressed the movement by opening fire on thousands of demonstrators at Tlatelolco, in northern Mexico City. The brutality of the action, in which hundreds of demonstrators were killed or wounded, was severely criticized and had a lasting effect on the public's perception of the military.
The January 1994 uprising in the state of Chiapas by a previously unknown guerrilla group, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional--EZLN), has been the only outbreak in recent years that has necessitated major troop deployments (see Public Order and Internal Security, this ch.). Both army and air force units were shifted to the scene to drive the insurgents out of towns they occupied. After widespread skirmishes in which several hundred persons were reportedly killed, the army was able to regain control of most towns in the area within a matter of hours, forcing the guerrillas to retreat into remote mountain strongholds. Except for a brief army offensive in February 1995, several consecutive cease-fires prevented any further fighting after the initial actions of 1994. By early 1996, the military situation in Chiapas was stalemated: the army occupied the towns, and the rebels were largely confined to the thinly populated highlands.
In dealing with potential regional hostilities, the Mexican military has adopted a reserved posture that reflects the country's foreign policy traditions. Neither Cuban-style communism nor the possibility of conflict spreading northward from Central America has been regarded as directly threatening to Mexico. No effort has been made to erect defenses along the 3,200-kilometer land border Mexico shares with the United States. Mexico's 970-kilometer border with Guatemala also remains unguarded despite occasional clashes between Mexican and Guatemalan forces. When Guatemalan army units carried out raids in the early 1980s against Guatemalan refugees and Mexican communities that were aiding them, the Mexican military reacted mildly to avoid confrontation. Mexican coastal areas and its 320-kilometer Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) are lightly patrolled by Mexican fleet units. The security of Mexico's coasts is effectively guaranteed since they are within the orbit of United States hemispheric defense.
Tasks and Missions
In the half-century following World War II, the Mexican armed forces have never been called upon to exercise an external defense role. Their primary mission has been to deter and prevent violence threatening public order, including outbreaks arising from strikes and protests, rural political grievances, guerrilla insurgency, and urban terrorism. Since the 1920s, the military has devoted a considerable share of its resources to civic-action programs to improve socioeconomic conditions and relieve human distress, particularly in rural areas that otherwise have little contact with government representatives (see Civic Action, this ch.). The army has often been called upon to respond to natural disasters, its responsibilities set forth in a plan known as National Defense III (Defensa Nacional III--DN III), and to coordinate the work of other agencies during the course of the emergency. The army took charge of relief operations after the volcanic eruption in Chiapas in 1982. When parts of the capital were devastated by the powerful earthquake of 1985, however, the army played a lesser role because the civil authorities did not wish to appear incapable of dealing with the crisis without military help.
The army assigns large numbers of personnel to the antinarcotics campaign, carrying out crop eradication as well as supporting law enforcement agencies in interdiction missions. The navy is responsible for maritime drug interdiction, and the ground-based radar system of the air force supports air interdiction efforts (see Narcotics Trafficking, this ch.).
Under the Mexican code for federal elections, the army has a limited but important part in the administration of elections, monitoring polling stations and protecting ballot boxes on election day. Although the military has generally remained impartial in carrying out its election duties, it faced accusations in 1985 and 1986 that it assisted in manipulating ballot counts in the northern states to ensure victories by the government party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional--PRI).
As part of its domestic security functions, the army is also responsible for protecting strategic economic installations such as electric power plants, oil fields, petroleum complexes, ports, and airports. All regions where the country's petroleum reserves are located are regarded as of high strategic significance. Petroleum fields are found primarily in the southeastern states of Veracruz and Tabasco and offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. The threat of spreading conflict in Central America and the strategic importance attached to Mexico's oil fields were the decisive factors in the government's decision to assign additional military personnel to the southernmost areas in the mid-1980s and to relocate Guatemalans living in refugee camps there so as to remove any pretext for Guatemalan border incursions.
Along with protection of Mexico's fisheries and detection of vessels transporting contraband, the Mexican navy is charged with the defense of offshore oil installations and other maritime resources. The campaign against drug smuggling has placed an increasing burden on the navy's resources. These heightened priorities led the government to dedicate a significantly greater portion of its budget to the Secretariat of the Navy during the 1980s. Between 1980 and 1984, the United States and Mexico were at odds over the Mexican navy's apprehending of United States fishing vessels--mainly tuna boats--within Mexico's EEZ. In 1993 three smuggling ships carrying several hundred illegal Chinese immigrants were forced to land in Mexico after the ships had been detected off the California coast, adding another dimension to the navy's mission.
Data as of June 1996