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Mexico: National Security Concerns
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > 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. 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.

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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Section 184 of 213


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