Political Intelligence and the Creation of Modern Mexico, 1938-1954

Generals, G-Men and Mexico’s Political Transformation

by | Oct 12, 2012

Nossa and Nuestra América: Inter-American Dialogues By Robert Newcomb Purdue University Press, 2012, 264 pages

In Mexico today, the armed forces and the intelligence service have taken up central roles in the government’s fight against drug trafficking and organized crime, and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is poised to retake the presidency, 12 years after its decades-long hold on the executive branch came to an end with the election of Vicente Fox in 2000. In this context, Aaron Navarro’s study of mid-20th century Mexican politics is welcome—not just as a significant contribution to the historiography of the post-revolutionary period, but also as an insightful account of the development of institutions that continue to play an important part in Mexico’s national life.

Political Intelligence and the Creation of Modern Mexico joins a growing body of historical literature that adds much needed depth and nuance to the conventional narrative of what is still often referred to as the country’s “contemporary” history, even though the events in question took place well over a half-century ago. Rather than describing the PRI as a monolithic political machine that effortlessly dominated Mexican politics from the time of the founding of its forerunner in 1929, Navarro relates how the party faced real challenges from opposition presidential candidates in the 1940, 1946 and 1952 elections. While the ruling party was successful in defeating Juan Andreu Almazán and Joaquín Amaro (in 1940), Ezequiel Padilla (in 1946), and Miguel Henríquez Guzmán (in 1952), it was only after prevailing in the last of those contests that the regime perfected its control over the electoral process.

Through those same years, the composition of the country’s political class underwent an important shift, with aging veterans of the Revolution being supplanted in key offices by a younger generation of officials with no military experience. Although the inauguration of President Miguel Alemán in 1946 has long been recognized as a watershed in the transition from military to civilian leadership, Navarro’s study makes clear that the removal of the army from politics was in fact a gradual, delicate process, with the question of the political role of officers still unsettled into the early 1950s. Reforms to the structure of the PRI and an emphasis on professionalism in the armed forces played a part in bringing about this shift. Another key development was the rise of intelligence agencies, which provided an outlet for the energies of at least some ambitious military men. Drawing upon recently opened intelligence files, Navarro sheds light on the establishment, training and development of Mexico’s internal security services as an arm of the state that contributed to the PRI’s growing ability to monitor and control political activity around the country.

With a focus on electoral politics and institutional development at the national level, Navarro’s conclusions present an interesting contrast with those of some other recent works on this period of Mexican history, which, along with much recent research on the Revolution, have examined the experience of particular localities, states and regions. Assessing the post-revolutionary period from a sub-national perspective, these studies have provided a valuable corrective to narratives that have overstated how much power was concentrated in Mexico City and in the hands of the president; how much caciquismo and the influence of military officers were curbed at the regional level; and how much resistance to the PRI regime died out during decades of authoritarian rule. Political Intelligence and the Creation of Modern Mexico does not contradict these important findings. Indeed, by highlighting the electoral threats to the regime that surfaced through the 1940s and into the 1950s, Navarro is contributing in his own way to puncturing the myth of priísta omnipotence. Nonetheless, his work does serve as a useful reminder that even if local strongmen retained more influence than has generally been recognized, and even if students and workers and guerrilla movements continued to challenge the authorities throughout this period and beyond, forces tending to strengthen the Mexican state were at work during these years.

It is important to stress, too, as Navarro does, that international conditions played an important part in shaping political and institutional outcomes in mid-century Mexico. Certainly, the crisis atmosphere that accompanied World War II and later the Cold War provided an added impetus for the modernization of the armed forces and for the formation of professional intelligence services. This tense geopolitical environment led to heightened U.S. interest in cooperating with Mexican counterparts to provide equipment and training to both the army and the new intelligence agencies. In describing the influence of the United States on the culture of Mexico’s internal security services, Navarro notes that early Mexican intelligence agents tended to adopt the style of dress of their U.S. colleagues and even, in a play on words, to call themselves Jiménez, which sounded like the Spanish pronunciation of “G-men.”

Navarro also shows a sophisticated understanding of the indirect impact of external forces on Mexico. Accurately judging that the goal of maintaining stability on the southern border would best be served by limiting their involvement in Mexican politics, U.S. officials opted not to intervene in their neighbor’s contentious elections during this period. With the strategies of some opposition candidates dependent to some extent on signs of goodwill—if not outright support—from Washington, this non-interventionist approach, while entirely correct in diplomatic terms, tended to favor the ruling party.

And while PRI officials had their own reasons for seeking a firmer grip on the electoral process, it was significant that the marginalization of electoral opposition by the mid-1950s coincided with a change in the international atmosphere in Latin America brought about by the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala. Mexican leaders who wanted to avoid the fate of President Jacobo Arbenz deemed it important to refine and maintain a political system that would deliver the order, stability and control of “subversive” elements implicitly demanded by the United States. By providing an account of three key presidential elections, engaging productively with the literature on the demilitarization of Mexican politics, and presenting new information on the development of the country’s intelligence apparatus, Navarro’s book puts forward a cogent argument for the significance of the years between 1938 and 1954as a period of consolidation for the priísta state. This study is a valuable contribution to the important work currently being done on a pivotal period in modern Mexican history. And with army units currently present on the streets of Mexican cities, the intelligence agency (now known as CISEN) heavily involved in the war on transnational criminal organizations, and the PRI reasserting itself as a leading political force, this is an unusually timely piece of historical scholarship.

Fall 2012Volume XII, Number 1

Halbert Jonesis Senior Research Fellow in North American Studies at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He was Senior Fellow at the Mexico and Central America Program of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies from 2009 to 2011. His book“The War Has Brought Peace to Mexico”: The Politics of Mexican Participation in World War II is forthcoming from the University of New Mexico Press.

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