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Mexico: History and Traditions of the Armed Forces
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > 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.

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 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

Last Updated: June 1996

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Mexico was first published in 1996. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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