Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Political System: Mexico is a federal republic consisting of 31 states and a Federal District. During much of the twentieth century, Mexico was ruled by authoritarian governments under the control of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionaro Institucional—PRI). The PRI exercised hegemony over the political system while observing formal democratic procedures, such as regular elections, tolerance of opposition parties, and political campaigning. Mexico’s political system historically has concentrated power in the executive branch. By exercising strong leadership over the PRI party apparatus as well as their extensive constitutional prerogatives, Mexican presidents wielded formidable influence over public policy. Since 1997, however, when the first opposition-controlled Congress in Mexico’s modern history was voted into office, a more balanced relationship among the branches has developed. Following a series of political and electoral system reforms, during the 2000 elections the PRI lost its seven-decade monopoly on the presidency. The development of a three-party system at the national level has led to a more even distribution of power and has given rise to coalition-style politics. Mexican federalism has historically been weak. State and local governments rely heavily on the federal government for revenues.

Constitution: Mexico’s formal government institutions are defined by the constitution of 1917, which is widely regarded as an expression of popular will that guarantees labor and civil rights, electoral democracy, and national independence. Inspired by both socialist and classical liberal political philosophy, as well as by earlier Mexican constitutions, the drafters prescribed a federal republic with separation of powers, recognized a broad range of political and social rights, and treated many matters of public policy explicitly. Key provisions include Article 27, which, before being amended in 1992, imposed stringent restrictions on the ownership of property by foreigners and the Catholic Church and declared national ownership of the country’s natural resources; and Article 123, which affirms a variety of labor rights, including the right to organize and an eight-hour workday, and provides for the protection of women and minors in the workplace. Constitutional amendments may be passed with a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the federal Congress and ratification by a majority of the state legislatures. The constitution has been amended extensively since 1917. Major amendments include the granting of women’s suffrage in 1953, the easing of nationalist restrictions on foreign investment in 1992, and numerous electoral system reforms during the 1980s and 1990s.

Branches of Government: The federal executive branch is headed by the president and 18 cabinet-level ministers (secretaries). The president holds the formal titles of chief of state, head of government, and commander in chief of the armed forces. Presidents are elected directly by a simple majority of registered voters in the 31 states and the Federal District. Presidents serve a six-year term (sexenio) with no possibility of re-election; there is no vice president. If the presidential office falls vacant during the first two years of a sexenio, the Congress designates an interim president, who, in turn, must call a special presidential election to complete the term. If the vacancy occurs during the latter four years of a sexenio, the Congress designates a provisional president for the remainder of the term. The president has sole authority to appoint and dismiss cabinet secretaries—except for the attorney general, who must receive the consent of the Senate.

The bicameral Congress is composed of a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies. The Senate’s 128 seats are filled by a mixture of direct election and proportional representation (96 by direct election and 32 by proportional representation from party lists). In the lower chamber, 300 deputies are directly elected to represent single-member districts, and 200 are selected by a modified form of proportional representation from five electoral regions. Senators are elected to six-year terms, and deputies serve three-year terms. All members of Congress are barred from immediate re-election but may serve nonconsecutive terms. The powers of Congress include the right to pass laws, impose taxes, declare war, approve the national budget, approve or reject treaties and conventions made with foreign countries, and ratify diplomatic appointments. The Senate addresses all matters concerning foreign policy, approves international agreements, and confirms presidential appointments. The Chamber of Deputies oversees all matters pertaining to the government’s budget and public expenditures. Each legislative chamber has a number of committees that study and recommend bills. If there is disagreement between the chambers, a joint committee is appointed to draft a compromise version.

The judicial branch is divided into federal and state systems. Additionally, justice of the peace courts are available at the municipal level. Federal district courts exercise broad jurisdiction over federal crimes and writ of injunction (amparo) suits and civil controversies regarding the enforcement or application of federal law or international treaties, among others. The rulings of federal district courts may be reviewed by collegiate and unitary circuit courts and by the Supreme Court. In 2005 the federal judicial system had 172 collegiate circuit courts (covering 29 circuits), 62 unitary circuit courts, and 285 district courts. The Supreme Court is made up of 11 justices (including the chief justice). The court holds biennial sessions in which it is divided into two chambers: Civil and Criminal Affairs and Administrative and Labor Affairs.

Supreme Court justices are appointed by a two-thirds vote of the Senate from among a list of candidates submitted by the president. In the event that two-thirds of the Senate cannot agree on an appointee, the president may fill the vacancy without Senate approval. Justices serve a single 15-year term without the possibility of reappointment. The chief justice is elected from among the sitting justices by a collegial vote of the membership. He or she presides over the court for a term of four years. Chief justices may not serve consecutive terms but may be reelected by their colleagues during their 15-year tenure on the court. District and circuit judges are appointed by the Federal Judicial Council, a quasi-independent judicial branch agency chaired by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The seven-member council is in charge of carrying out judicial career laws, overseeing judicial functioning, and selecting judges at all levels below the Supreme Court. In addition to the chairmanship, three seats are occupied by judges appointed by the Supreme Court, two seats by notable judicial scholars appointed by the Senate, and one seat by a presidential appointee. Except for the chief justice, all council members serve a single five-year term.

Administrative Divisions: Mexico is a federal republic with 31 states and a Federal District encompassing Mexico City and its immediate environs. Approximately 2,000 municipalities are legally recognized.

State and Local Government: Each of Mexico’s 31 states has its own constitution modeled on the national charter and has the right to legislate and levy taxes other than interstate customs duties. Following the federal organization at the national level, state and local governments also have executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The state executive branch is headed by a governor who is directly elected for a six-year term and may not be reelected. State legislatures are unicameral, consisting of a single Chamber of Deputies that meets in two ordinary sessions per year with extended periods and extraordinary sessions when needed. Deputies serve three-year terms and may not be immediately reelected. Legislative bills may be introduced by the deputies, the state governor, the state Superior Court of Justice, or a municipality within a given state. Governors appoint the justices of the Superior Court of Justice with the approval of state legislatures. These magistrates, in turn, appoint all lower state court judges. Municipal governments, headed by a mayor or municipal president (regente) and a municipal council (ayuntamiento), are popularly elected for three-year terms.

Judicial and Legal System: Mexico’s judicial system and legal procedures, largely derived from Spanish and Napoleonic civil and criminal codes, reflect only minimal influence from the common law tradition. The system is characterized by strict adherence to legal codes and minimal jurisprudence. The most powerful juridical instrument is the writ of amparo (literally, “refuge”), a writ of injunction that can be invoked against acts by any government official. The trial system consists of a series of fact-gathering hearings during which the court receives documentary evidence or testimony, after which a judge in chambers reviews the case file and issues a final written ruling. The record of the proceeding is not available to the general public; only the parties involved have access to the official file and then only by special motion. The law provides for the right of the accused to attend the hearings and challenge the evidence or testimony presented. The law also guarantees the right to an attorney, although in actual practice the understaffed public defender system is characterized by low professional standards, and as a result, most indigent defendants are inadequately represented.

Electoral System: Article 41 of the constitution of 1917 and subsequent amendments regulate electoral politics in Mexico. Suffrage is universal for all citizens 18 or older, and voting is compulsory, although this provision is rarely enforced. The constitution enshrines the principle of direct election by popular vote of the president and most other elected officials. Executive officeholders may not be reelected, and legislators may not serve consecutive terms. Ordinary elections are held every six years for president and members of the Senate and every three years for deputies. Gubernatorial elections are distributed throughout a six-year presidential term (sexenio), so that no more than six governorships are contested in any given year. Elections at the federal, state, and local levels are administered by the Federal Electoral Institute (Instituto Federal Electoral—IFE). The IFE is a semi-autonomous organization established by the 1990 electoral code, consisting of representatives from government and the major political parties. During the 1990s, reforms of the IFE strengthened its capacity to serve as a nonpartisan electoral commission. These reforms included the introduction of majority nonpartisan representation (six out of 11 seats) on the IFE governing board, a legal framework for Mexican and foreign observers to monitor elections, and an independent audit of the national voter list. Voting procedures and requirements incorporate numerous safeguards against fraud, including mandatory voter registration cards bearing photo identification and fingerprints. An autonomous, seven-member Electoral Tribunal adjudicates election disputes.

Politics and Political Parties The Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional—PRI) was the country’s preeminent political organization from 1929 until the early 1990s. Historically, the PRI has been ideologically a center-left party, blending nationalism with mildly redistributionist public policies. Since its founding, the PRI has portrayed itself as a champion of workers and landless peasants. However, during the mid-1980s the “technocratic” wing of the party, which favored market-oriented reform, became dominant over its populist wing. Over the course of three general election cycles (1982, 1988, and 1994), the PRI’s leadership selected presidential candidates primarily based on their ability to implement market-oriented reforms. This trend alienated much of the PRI’s populist “político” wing, prompting many party members to defect to organizations farther to the left.

Until the early 1980s, the PRI’s position in the Mexican political system was hegemonic, and opposition parties posed little or no threat to its power base or its near monopoly of public office. This situation changed during the mid-1980s as opposition parties of the left and right began to seriously challenge PRI candidates for local, state, and national offices. On the right, the National Action Party (Partido de Acción Nacional—PAN) has made the greatest inroads into national politics—most notably by attaining the presidency in 2000 and ending seven decades of PRI control over the executive branch. The PAN emerged as a conservative reaction to the nationalizations and land confiscations undertaken by PRI governments in the 1930s. Its power base is heavily concentrated in the wealthier states of the north and center of the country. The PAN resembles a standard Christian Democratic party, deriving its early support primarily from the Roman Catholic Church, the business sector, and other groups alienated by the left-wing populist policies of past PRI governments. On the left, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Democrático—PRD) emphasizes social welfare concerns and opposes most economic reforms implemented since the mid-1980s. Although it encompasses much of the rank and file of the former communist and socialist parties, the PRD is controlled by former PRI leaders. Several minor parties also are represented in the Congress and in state and local governments: Labor Party (Partido del Trabajo—PT), Mexican Green Ecologist Party (Partido Verde Ecologista Mexicano—PVEM), New Alliance Party (Partido Nueva Alianza), and Social Democratic and Rural Alternative Party (Partido Democracia Social y Alternativa Rural).

Mass Media: Mexico is considered the media capital of Spanish-speaking Latin America. In 2004 the country had approximately 300 daily newspapers, 1,300 radio stations, and 460 television stations, most under private ownership. Television is the most influential medium; a majority of stations are affiliated with either the Televisa or Tele Azteca national networks. The press is largely free; however, liberal defamation and libel laws have been widely cited as a constraint on press freedoms. Violence against journalists by drug smuggling gangs poses a growing concern, especially in northern Mexico.

Foreign Relations: Traditionally, Mexico has sought to advance its interests abroad and project its influence largely through moral persuasion. In particular, Mexico has been a champion of the principles of nonintervention and self-determination. However, during the administration of President Vicente Fox Quesada (2000–2006), Mexico departed from its traditional foreign policy by supporting United Nations (UN) resolutions critical of Cuba’s human rights record and by taking a more active stance on Western Hemisphere regional issues. Mexico has also resisted efforts by the government of Venezuela to undermine a proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. While the United States and Mexico are often in agreement on foreign policy issues, several differences remain. Mexico collaborates with the United States to combat terrorism and organized crime but opposed U.S. and British efforts to craft a UN Security Council resolution authorizing military force against Iraq in 2003. During President Fox’s term, Mexico has sought to negotiate a guest worker program that would allow greater legal migration to the United States. However, prospects for an immigration agreement were dealt a setback in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the ensuing concern over U.S. border security.

Membership in International Organizations: Mexico is a member of numerous international organizations: Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (OPANAL), Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE), Bank for International Settlements (BIS), Caribbean Development Bank (CDB), Council of Europe (CE) (observer), European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Group of Three (Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela—G–3), Group of Six (G–6), Group of Fifteen (G–15), Group of Twenty-four (G–24), Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), International Civil Aviation Administration (ICAO), International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), International Criminal Court (ICC), International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), International Development Association (IDA), International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRCS), International Finance Corporation (IFC), International Fund for Agricultural development (IFAD), International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), International Labor Organization (ILO), International Maritime Organization (IMO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), International Olympic Committee (IOC), International Organization for Migration (IOM), International Organization for Standardization (ISO), International Red Cross Movement (ICRM), International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), Latin American Economic System (LAES), Latin American Integration Association (LAIA), North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) (observer), Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Organization of American States (OAS), Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), Rio Group (RG), United Nations (UN), United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) executive committee, United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), Universal Postal Union (UPU), World Confederation of Labor (WCL), World Customs Organization (WCO), World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), World Health Organization (WHO), World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), World Meteorological Organization (WMO), World Tourism Organization (WToO), and World Trade Organization (WTO).

Major International Treaties: Mexico is a party to numerous arms control, commercial and environmental treaties, as well as several regional and bilateral free-trade agreements: Act of Chapultepec, Biological Weapons Convention, Basel Convention on the Trans-boundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes, Chemical Weapons Convention, Convention on Biological Diversity, Convention on the International Maritime Organization, Convention to Combat Desertification, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), Geneva Protocol, Hague Conventions, Inter-American Democratic Charter, Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC, Law of the Sea Treaty, Limited Test Ban Treaty, Mexico-Bolivia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), Mexico-Chile FTA, Mexico-Colombia-Venezuela (Group of Three) FTA, Mexico-Costa Rica FTA, Mexico-Nicaragua FTA, Mexico-Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras) FTA, Mexico-Israel FTA, Mexico-European Community FTA, North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation, North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Renunciation of War Treaty, Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Terrorism Prevention Convention, Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America (Treaty of Tlatelolco), United Nations Conference on Disarmament, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, and World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement.


Armed Forces Overview: Mexico maintains one the smallest militaries in the Western Hemisphere in per-capita terms. During 2004 it had 192,700 active armed forces personnel and 300,000 reservists. Active-duty personnel are assigned to the various services: army, 144,000; navy, 37,000 (including 8,000 marines); and air force, 11,770.

Foreign Military Relations: Historically, relations between the military establishments of Mexico and the United States have not been close. Cooperation peaked for a brief period during and after World War II. In the Cold War atmosphere that followed, however, Mexico opposed U.S. concepts of regional security. During the late 1980s, relations between the Mexican and U.S. military establishments improved as cooperative efforts expanded in the fight against illicit drugs. Numerous Mexican officers receive training in the United States and are well acquainted with U.S. military doctrine, but on the whole, the Mexican armed forces are less influenced by the U.S. military than the armed forces of other countries in Latin America.

External Threat: Mexico has no foreign nation-state adversaries and little ambition to impose itself upon other nations. It repudiates the use of force to settle disputes and rejects interference by one nation in the affairs of another. Although it has not suffered a major terrorist incident, Mexico considers itself a potential target for international terrorism.

Defense Budget: In 2005 Mexico’s defense budget was US$3.1 billion or about 0.4 percent of gross domestic product.

Major Military Units: The principal units of the Mexican army are nine infantry brigades and a number of independent regiments and infantry battalions. The main maneuver elements of the army comprise three corps, each consisting of three infantry brigades, all based in and around the Federal District. Distinct from the brigade formations, independent regiments and battalions are assigned to zonal garrisons. Infantry battalions, each composed of approximately 300 troops, generally are deployed in each zone, and certain zones are assigned an additional motorized cavalry regiment or an artillery regiment. The air force is organized into two wings and 10 air groups, as well as an airborne brigade. The air force’s principal base is located at Santa Lucía in the state of México. Other major air bases are located in the states of Baja California Sur, Oaxaca, Quintana Roo, Veracruz, and Yucatán. The navy’s operational command is divided between the nation’s two coasts. The Pacific fleet is headquartered at Acapulco; the Gulf of Mexico coast command is located at Veracruz. Each command has three naval regions. There are 17 naval zones, one for each coastal state; some are subdivided into sectors. In addition to the surface fleet, the navy maintains an aviation arm and a marine force.

Major Military Equipment: The army is equipped with 264 reconnaissance vehicles, approximately 860 armored personnel carriers, 194 towed artillery, five self-propelled artillery, 1,575 mortars, 30 antitank guns, eight antitank guided weapons, 80 air defense guns, and an unspecified number of surface-to-air missiles. The navy inventory includes three destroyers, eight frigates, 109 patrol and coastal combatants, and 19 support and miscellaneous vessels. Naval aviation maintains 150 unarmed helicopters and eight combat aircraft. The navy’s marine component is equipped with towed howitzers, mortars, and amphibious vehicles. The air force has 107 combat aircraft and 71 armed helicopters.

Military Service: The navy and air force are all-volunteer services, while the 144,000-strong army includes 60,000 conscripts. Army conscripts are selected by lottery and are obligated to serve for one year.

Paramilitary Forces: The Federal Preventive Police (Policía Federal Preventiva–PFP) under the Public Security Secretariat (Secretaría de Seguridad Pública–SSP) combats organized crime and domestic insurgencies. The PFP, which relies heavily on reassigned military police and intelligence personnel, includes several specialized tactical and investigative elements, an independent intelligence arm, the federal highway police, a border and port security branch, and an internal affairs component. The PFP currently numbers approximately 11,000 personnel and is projected to expand gradually toward a full strength of 15,000 to 20,000 agents.

Foreign Military Forces: None present.

Military Forces Abroad: Consistent with its foreign policy of non-intervention in the affairs of other states, Mexico has declined United Nations (UN) requests for peacekeeping troops. However, in 2004 the Mexican Foreign Ministry stated that Mexico would be willing to contribute non-combat personnel to UN peacekeeping missions. Mexico has dispatched unarmed troops to Central America and Indonesia to provide humanitarian relief in the aftermath of major natural disasters. In September 2005, a Mexican army convoy delivered humanitarian supplies to survivors of Hurricane Katrina in Texas. Mexico maintains military attachés in several friendly foreign capitals.

Police: Police forces, numbering 331,000 officers in 2005, exist at the federal, state and municipal levels. The paramilitary Federal Preventive Police (Policía Federal Preventiva—PFP) is the main enforcement arm of the federal government. The Federal Investigation Agency (Agencia Federal de Investigación–AFI) under the Office of the Attorney General is a multiskilled investigative agency comparable to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The Special Unit Against Organized Crime (Unidad Especializada Contra la Delicuencia Organizada—UEDO), an investigative arm of the Office of the Attorney General, was specially created to combat organized crime.

Internal Threat: Mexico faces numerous internal threats to public safety, most notably from established domestic drug trafficking networks that transport and distribute South American cocaine and other illicit substances destined for the United States. The country’s heavily armed, territorially organized drug trafficking networks regularly launch sophisticated, lethal attacks on police, rival drug gangs, journalists, and elected officials. Street crime and targeted crimes such as kidnapping for ransom are common in major cities. Politically inspired domestic insurgencies pose a minor, but persistent threat to public safety, mainly in the remote, mountainous zones of western and southern Mexico.

Terrorism: As of the spring of 2006, Mexico had not experienced a major terrorist incident, although some drug trafficking gangs have begun to employ high-powered military-grade weapons in their attacks. Mexico historically has been a haven for Latin American and Spanish militant groups, including the Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terrorist organizations. Increased intelligence and law enforcement cooperation between Mexico and the governments of Colombia and Spain in recent years has helped reduce the presence of these groups in the country. Given its status as a major U.S. commercial partner and ally against terrorism, Mexico considers itself a potential target for attacks by the al Qaeda terrorist network. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Mexico has upgraded border security and deployed its armed forces at critical infrastructure sites throughout the country.

Human Rights: According to the U.S. Department of State, during 2005 the government of Mexico generally respected and promoted human rights at the national level; however, violations persisted at the state and local level. Government efforts to improve respect for human rights were offset by a deeply entrenched culture of impunity and corruption, particularly among elements of the law enforcement community. As in much of Latin America, prison conditions generally are poor. The law prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, disability, or religion. Although the government continued to make progress enforcing these provisions, significant problems, particularly violence against women, persisted. There was a marked increase during the year in narcotics trafficking-related violence, especially in the northern border region.

Index for Mexico:
Overview | Government


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