A number of great civilizations flourished in Mexico long before the arrival of Spanish conquistadores in the early 16th cent. The Olmec civilization was the earliest of these, reaching its high point between 800 and 400 BC The Maya civilization flourished between about AD 300 and 900, followed by the Toltec (900–1200) and the Aztec (1200–1519). Other notable civilizations of pre-Columbian Mexico are the Mixtec and the Zapotec.
The first Europeans to visit Mexico were Francisco Fernández de Córdoba in 1517 and Juan de Grijalva in 1518. The conquest was begun from Cuba in 1519 by Hernán Cortés, who with lieutenants such as Pedro de Alvarado managed to conquer the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán; to capture Montezuma, the Aztec ruler, and to bring down his empire; and to ward off Spanish rivals like Pánfilo de Narváez. In 1528 the first audiencia (royal court) was set up under Nuño de Guzmán, who later carried the conquest north to Nueva Galicia. The territory was constituted the viceroyalty of New Spain under Antonio de Mendoza in 1535.
Despite efforts by such men as Juan de Zumárraga to induce the indigenous population to accept European religious and social practices, the Spanish had difficulty establishing control, as is evidenced by such events as the Mixtón War (1541). Nonetheless, the small minority of Spanish succeeded in holding power over the rest of the population, and the society slowly developed three different status groupings—Spanish, native peoples, and mestizos (mixed Spanish and indigenous).
Although certain viceroys, including Luis de Velasco (both father and son), attempted to improve the material conditions of the indigenous peoples, there remained an unbridgeable gap in status between the wealthy, almost exclusively Spanish landowning class and the depressed laboring class on the land, in the mines, and in the small factories (chiefly the textile mills, called obrajes). The growth of an underprivileged mestizo class and the antagonism between those Spanish born in Spain (gachupines) and those born in America (criollos, or creoles) added to the stress.
The mercantilist system, under which manufacturing was largely forbidden in New Spain, drained the wealth of the country to Spain. Lesser officials often were corrupt and ignored the country's problems. At the same time, the Spanish succeeded in conquering new territory. Most of present-day Mexico and the former Spanish holdings in the present-day United States were occupied early. In the 16th cent. California was explored, but it was not until the middle and late 18th cent. that NE Mexico and Texas were occupied by Europeans in any large degree. Many of the administrative evils were ended by the reforms (especially that of 1786) of José de Gálvez, but discontentment with Spanish rule continued to grow among the creoles.
The establishment of the United States and the ideas of the French Revolution had considerable influence on Mexicans. The occupation (1808) of Spain by Napoleon I, who placed his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the Spanish throne, opened the way for a revolt in Mexico. The priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla began the rebellion by issuing (Sept. 16, 1810) the Grito de Dolores [cry of Dolores], a revolutionary tract calling for racial equality and the redistribution of land. Armies, made up mostly of mestizos and natives and shunned by the creoles, sprang up under the command of Ignacio Allende, José María Morelos y Pavón, Vicente Guerrero, and Mariano Matamoros.
Hidalgo was at first successful, but lost (1811) the decisive battle of Calderón Bridge. By 1815, Morelos and Matamoros had been defeated, and Guerrero had been driven into the wilds. When the liberals came to power in Spain in 1820, the more conservative elements in Mexico (primarily the higher clergy and the creoles) sought independence as a means of maintaining the status quo. The royalist general Augustín de Iturbide negotiated with Guerrero, and they arrived (Feb., 1821) at the Plan of Iguala (see under Iguala), which called for an independent monarchy, equality for gachupines and creoles, and the maintenance of the privileged position of the church. Spain accepted Mexican independence in Sept., 1821, and a short-lived empire with Iturbide at its head was established (1822).
In 1823, the republican leaders Santa Anna and Guadalupe Victoria drove out Iturbide and a republic was set up with Guadalupe Victoria as its first president. Politics were dominated by groups formed around individuals (mostly army officers), each seeking his personal ends. There was a frequent turnover of governments, and the national budget usually ran a deficit. Guerrero, with the support of Santa Anna, became president in 1829, but was ousted in 1830 by Anastasio Bustamante. In 1832, the ambitious Santa Anna, who had a great influence over Mexican politics until 1855, toppled Bustamante and became president. Santa Anna fell from power after being captured during the Texas revolution (1836), but he served again as president from 1841 to 1844. Waste, corruption, and inefficiency were widespread at the time, as inequities in the social order went unchallenged.
The war with Texas led to an all-out war with the United States, the Mexican War (1846–48), which was ended by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, by which Mexico lost a large block of territory. After the war, Santa Anna returned to power as
perpetual dictator, but he was overthrown (1855) by a revolution started (1854) at Ayutla. A group of reform-minded men came to the fore—Juan Álvarez, Ignacio Comonfort, Miguel and Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, and, especially, Benito Juárez—and drafted the liberal constitution of 1857, which secularized church property and reduced the privileges of the army.
Conservative opposition was bitter, and civil war ensued; Juárez led the liberals to victory in the War of Reform (1858–61). The conservatives then sought foreign aid and received it from Napoleon III of France, who had colonial ambitions. French intervention followed and led to a brief and ill-starred interlude of empire (1864–67) under Maximilian, a Hapsburg prince. With the end of French aid the empire collapsed and Juárez again ruled Mexico, but political disturbances prevented the accomplishment of his reform program. Porfirio Díaz led a successful armed revolt in 1876 and, except for the period from 1880 to 1884, firmly held the reins of power as president until 1911. It was a period of considerable economic growth, but social inequality was increased by the favoritism shown the great landowners and foreign investors; the indigenous population sank deeper into peonage. The democratic institutions remained only as a veneer for oligarchic rule.
In Nov., 1910, an idealistic liberal leader, Francisco I. Madero, began an armed revolt against Díaz, who had gone back on his word not to seek reelection in 1910. Madero was quickly successful, and in May, 1911, Díaz resigned and went into exile. Madero was elected president in Nov., 1911. Well-meaning but ineffectual, he was attacked by conservatives and revolutionaries alike and was harassed by U.S. ambassador Henry Lane Wilson. In Feb., 1913, Madero was overthrown by his general, Victoriano Huerta, and was murdered. President Huerta's regime was dictatorial and repressive, and revolts soon broke out under the leadership of Venustiano Carranza, Francisco
Pancho Villa, and Emiliano Zapata.
In 1914, Huerta resigned, partly because of U.S. military intervention ordered by President Woodrow Wilson, and Carranza became president. Civil war broke out again in late 1914, but by the end of 1915 Carranza had established control over the country, although Villa and Zapata maintained opposition bands for a number of years. In 1916, Villa led a raid into the United States, which resulted in an unsuccessful U.S. expedition into Mexico. Carranza sponsored the constitution of 1917, which was similar to the 1857 constitution, but which in addition provided for the nationalization of mineral resources, for the restoration of communal lands to native peoples, for the separation of church and state, and for educational, agrarian, and labor reforms. However, most provisions of the constitution were not implemented, and in 1920 Carranza was deposed by General Álvaro Obregón, his former military chief, who was subsequently elected president.
Under the Obregón regime (1920–24) some land was redistributed and, under the leadership of José Vasconcelos, numerous schools were built. Obregón was succeeded by Plutarco Elías Calles, who continued the agrarian and educational programs, but who became embroiled in serious controversies with the United States over rights to petroleum and with the church over the separation of church and state. In some regions militant Catholic peasants, called Cristeros because of their rallying cry—Viva Cristo Rey! [long live Christ the King]—were in open revolt, and in the country as a whole from 1926 to 1929 church schools were closed and no church services were held. Both controversies subsided, partly because of the intervention of the U.S. ambassador, Dwight Morrow. Reelected in 1928, Obregón was assassinated before taking office.
Calles remained the most powerful person in Mexico during the administrations of Portes Gil (1928–30), Ortiz Rubio (1930–32), and Abelardo Rodríguez (1932–34). In 1929 he organized the National Revolutionary party (in 1938 renamed the Mexican Revolutionary party and in 1946 the Institutional Revolutionary party), the chief political party of 20th-century Mexico. Calles's hegemony ended, however, with the inauguration (1934) of Lázaro Cárdenas. Vigorous and idealistic, Cárdenas instituted reforms to improve the lot of the underprivileged. He redistributed much land under the ejido system and supported the Mexican labor movement, which had suffered a setback under Calles (see Lombardo Toledano, Vicente for more detail).
Railroads were nationalized, and foreign holdings, particularly in petroleum fields, were expropriated with compensation. Educational opportunities were increased and illiteracy reduced, medical facilities were extended, transport and communications were improved, and plans were drawn up for land reclamation and for hydroelectric and industrial projects. A settlement with the church was reached. The pace of reform slowed under Manuel Ávila Camacho, who became president in 1940. Relations with the United States improved. In World War II, Mexico declared war (1942) on the Axis powers; it made substantial contributions to the Allied cause and also received considerable U.S. economic aid.
Since World War II, Mexico has enjoyed considerable economic development, but most of the benefits have accrued to the middle and upper classes; the relative welfare of poorer persons (small farmers and laborers) has remained the same or deteriorated. Under President Miguel Alemán (1946–52) vast irrigation projects and hydroelectric plants were constructed, and industrialization advanced rapidly. The improvements made in Mexico's rail network during World War II and the opening of the Inter-American Highway after the war encouraged more U.S. tourists to visit Mexico and thus increased the commercial value of one of the country's greatest assets, the beauty of its land.
Under the moderate presidents Adolfo Ruiz Cortines (1952–58), Adolfo López Mateos (1958–64), and Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964–70), the government continued to play a dominant role in national affairs, and attempts were made to improve the conditions of the lower classes. The tax structure was reformed somewhat, some large estates were confiscated and the land redistributed, and educational opportunities in rural areas were increased. In foreign affairs, Mexico maintained friendly relations with the United States, ratifying treaties settling long-standing border disputes in the El Paso, Tex., region (1964, 1967) and calling (1965) for the United States to maintain the freshwater content of the Colorado River, whose waters are used for irrigation in Mexico. Unlike most other American nations, Mexico maintained continuous diplomatic relations with Communist Cuba, but it supported the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962).
In 1970, Luis Echeverría Álvarez became president. He took steps toward reforming the government, but the first years of his term were marked by clashes between the left and right and attacks by guerrilas. He was succeeded by José López Portillo in 1976. In the 1970s, Mexico continued to expand its economy, borrowing significantly on the strength of its petroleum reserves. When oil prices fell sharply in the early 1980s, the country's ability to meet its international debt obligations was severely strained. Unemployment and inflation soared, private and foreign investment dropped sharply, and the population began migrating from rural areas into the cities and to the United States. The government of Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado, who was elected president in 1982, responded with economic austerity policies, a renegotiation of Mexico's international debt, and a loosening of direct foreign investment regulations.
The economic crisis, the austerity measures imposed in response, and the added economic blow of a major earthquake in Mexico City in 1985 all contributed to popular discontent with the Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI). Although the party's candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari won the presidency in 1988, his margin of victory was extremely narrow and was marred by charges of fraud, which much later (2004) were acknowledged by de la Madrid Hurtado to be true. Salinas continued the economic reform begun in the early 1980s, encouraging foreign investment, privatizing many national industries, investigating corruption in public offices, and working toward increased trade with the United States. The illegal flow of immigrants and drugs across the border, however, remained a problem in Mexico's relations with the United States.
In 1992, Mexico, the United States, and Canada negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which erased many trade barriers and created a trading bloc of 370 million people. However, in 1994 a Mayan-based uprising in the southern state of Chiapas provided a reminder of the poverty in which many Mexicans still lived. After protracted negotiations, accords providing limited autonomy for the Indians of the region were agreed to in early 1996, but the accords were not acted on by the government until 2001, when a version that contained watered-down clauses on Indian autonomy and control of natural resources were enacted as constitutional reforms. Also in 1994, Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta, the PRI's presidential candidate, was assassinated for reasons that still remain unclear.
In Aug., 1994, in an election that was closely watched by international monitors to prevent fraud, the PRI's new candidate, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, won the presidency by a narrow but mainly unquestioned margin. Shortly after his inauguration in December, the government allowed the peso to float against the dollar; the peso plunged rapidly, investors backed out of Mexican markets, and the country was propelled into an economic crisis. In Feb., 1995, Mexico reached agreement with the United States on a $12.5 billion rescue plan, which provided U.S. funds to shore up Mexican banks while requiring Mexico to adopt stringent austerity measures and giving the United States a significant say in Mexican economic policies. Mexico was subsequently able to refinance the debt privately at a lower rate, and much of the loan was paid back in 1996, more than three years ahead of schedule. Ex-president Salinas was blamed for contributing to Mexico's economic crisis and was alleged to have been involved in misdeeds ranging from corruption to political assassinations.
In 1996 the PRI and the three main opposition parties signed an agreement designed to democratize the electoral process and further reduce the influence of the PRI. Although the PRI won the largest number of seats in the July, 1997, congressional elections, it did not have a majority and a four-party opposition coalition took control of the Chamber of Deputies. The two leading coalition partners were the conservative National Action party (PAN) and the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Early in 1998, Mexico and Norway joined with members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to set production limits on petroleum and thus bolster sagging world oil prices, which were having a devastating impact on Mexico's economy.
In the 2000 national elections, the PRI candidate, Francisco Labastida Ochoa, lost to the PAN candidate, Vicente Fox Quesada, a historic opposition victory that ended more than 70 years of PRI rule. The PRI and PAN each won two fifths of the seats in the lower house of the congress, but the PRI won nearly half the seats in the senate. Fox moved quickly to demilitarize the ongoing conflict in Chiapas and made concessions in order to win resumption of the negotiations, but he was unable to win passage of constitutional reforms in the form agreed to. Fox has had difficult relations with the congress, which has become more of an independent power within the government, and has been unable to rely on the support of members from his own party. The 2003 elections for the lower house, in which PAN lost more than 50 seats, did not improve this situation, and PAN suffered further losses in state elections in 2004 and 2005.
President Fox's hopes for close relations with the Bush administration (he had been friendly with Bush when the latter was governor of Texas) went unfulfilled after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, when the U.S. government refocused its attention on Al Qaeda and other foreign threats (see 9/11). As a result, Fox's desire to reach an agreement that would establish a less restrictive immigration policy that would benefit the many Mexicans working illegally in the United States seemed likely to be unrealized. Mexico also was adversely affected by the economic slowdown in the United States in 2001–2; some 240,000 jobs in the maquiladoras were lost as result.
In Apr., 2004, Mexico City's mayor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, was arrested on charges of disobeying court orders in a land dispute, a move that was seen by many as a political attempt to bar the popular mayor from running in the 2006 presidential election. The arrest led to a protest march in the capital by perhaps as many as a million people. President Fox subsequently fired the federal attorney general, whose office had prosecuted López Obrador, and the charges were dropped in May, but the incident further damaged Fox's standing.
Illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States became a source of tension in Mexican-American relations in 2005. In the American Southwest governors publicly complained of the problem, and private American anti-immigration groups organized their own patrols along the border. U.S. President Bush failed to win passage of his proposed immigration overhaul bill, but in December the U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure calling for building a new border fence with security cameras and for criminalizing illegal immigration. The House's move especially angered many Mexicans, and it was vigorously denounced by President Fox, but legislation calling for 700 mi (1,100 km) of additional fencing along the border was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Bush in Oct., 2006.
In the July, 2006, elections, the PAN candidate, Felipe Calderón, narrowly edged López Obrador, the Democratic Revolutionary party (PRD) candidate, winning by less than 0.6% of the vote; the PRI candidate placed third. López Obrador accused Calderón of winning by fraud, and sought to have the election court order a ballot-by-ballot recount. There was no clear evidence of fraud, however, and European Union monitors certified the election as free of irregularities. PAN also won the largest number of legislative seats, with the PRD placing second. A partial recount was ultimately ordered, but the resulting changes in the vote had no effect on the outcome. López Obrador's supporters mounted significant demonstrations beginning in July, but after the vote was finalized in September the protests petered out, despite the candidate's refusal to recognize Calderón's victory.
Calderón, who took office in December, moved forcefully in his first months in office against organized crime and drug cartels, using federal forces in operations involving seven states in an effort to combat crime and drug-related violence. Despite these moves, drug violence continued to be a increasingly significant problem in parts of Mexico, and the drug cartels expanded into other lucrative criminal areas including illegal mining, oil theft, and product piracy. Greater numbers of troops (some 45,000) were deployed by 2009 in an effort to quell the violence, most notably in Juárez, along the U.S. border, where some 8,000 troops and federal police sought to control drug gang warfare. Raids in the state of Michoacán in May, 2009, led to drug-related charges against 7 mayors and 20 other officials (though the mayors were related released).
Despite the government's measures, drug-related violence—concentrated mainly in the Mexican states bordering the United States—worsened in 2009–11, leading to as many as 70,000 drug-violence-related deaths by 2014, with an additional 22,000 people missing. Although the problem diminished in Juárez, drug-related has continued to plague the country. In 2013–14 there were clashes in Michoacán between drug traffickers and vigilante groups opposed to them, and the vigilantes had some successes against the dominant drug cartel there, but there also were conflicts with federal forces and between vigilante groups. By 2017, when the murder rate reached levels exceeding those in 2011 and the violence had become acute in parts of W Mexico, some 100,000 people were reported to have died in drug-related violence, and some 30,000 had been reported missing, with some estimates of the dead and missing much higher. High rates of drug-related violence continued in subsequent years.
There was severe flooding in Tabasco and parts of neighboring Chiapas in Sept.–Oct., 2007; more than 1 million people were affected. In Sept., 2007, the president won a significant legislative victory when the Mexican congress passed a tax reform bill, and an electoral reform package was passed in conjunction with the bill. An overhaul of the criminal justice system was enacted in Mar., 2008, but a proposed restructuring of the state-owned oil company, Pemex, was denounced by leftist legislators as creeping privatization, and they camped out in the chambers of Congress in protest. A modified version of the bill passed, however, in Oct., 2008.
In Apr., 2009, a new influenza strain, popularly known as swine flu, was first identified in Mexico, and Mexico and Mexico City closed schools and others facilities later in the month in an attempt to halt the spread of the virus, which initially seemed unusually virulent in adults. The measures, which were ended completely only by late May, ultimately succeeded, though the virus, which nonetheless spread worldwide, turned out to be no more deadly than normal strains. Congressional elections in July, 2010, were a victory for the PRI, which benefited from an economic downturn and secured a plurality in the lower house. A year later the PRI also scored some successes in state elections, though it lost control of several governorships it had long controlled; a leading gubernatorial candidate in Tamaulipas was assassinated by drug-gang hitmen a week before the vote.
In the July, 2012, elections the PRI presidential candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, the former governor of Mexico state, won with 38% of the vote; López Obrador again placed second. López Obrador again challenged the result and called for a recount, and a recount of the ballots from more than half of the polling places was ordered. The PRI also led in the congressional results, but failed to win a majority. The new president subsequently moved to pass (2013–14) a number of reforms, including opening the oil industry to foreign investment and increasing competition in the telecommunications industry, with the support of the PRI and one or both of the other main parties.
The disappearance of 43 student-teachers in Guerrero state in Sept., 2014, led to weeks of sometimes violent protests in Mexico. The students, arrested by police in attempt to keep them from a protest, were turned over to and killed by a local gang; the incident exposed close connections between local politicians and police and gangs. Peña Nieto called for a number of reforms in response, including unifying local police forces at the state level and the deployment of additional federal police in Guerrero, Michoacán, and several other states. Congressional elections in July, 2015, were a victory for the PRI, which secured a plurality in the lower house. Almost a year later, however, the PRI lost control of several long-held state governorships, an outcome that was widely regarded as a vote against violence and corruption.
Beginning in 2016, relations with the United States became strained by the presidential campaign and then election of Donald Trump, who blamed Mexico as source of illegal immigration and job loss and threatened to scrap NAFTA, impose an import tariff, and build a wall along the length of the U.S.-Mexico border, and strained relations increased after Trump took office in 2017 and continued his denunciations of Mexico and Mexicans. In Sept., 2017, two major earthquakes struck the country, one with its epicenter off the Chiapas coast and the other in Puebla state. Several hundred people died in the quakes, and there was significant damage in Chiapas and Oaxaca states and in Puebla and Morales states and the Mexico City area.
In the July, 2018, elections López Obrador, now running as the candidate of a coalition led by his National Regeneration Movement (Morena), easily won election as president with 53% of the vote. The Morena-led coalition also won majorities in both houses of the Mexican congress, as voters rejected more established PRI and PAN parties. In Mar., 2019, the president won passage of a law establishing a national guard under civilian control. The force, created to control drug-related gang violence, was used to control the influx of Central American migrants after the United States threatened to impose tariffs in retaliation for those migrants reaching the United States. Mexico agreed to position extra security forces on its southern border to reduce the flow; Mexico had already deported some 50,000 migrants. At the same time, the number of migrants seeking asylum in Mexico increased. In 2020, Mexico was especially hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
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