Story of Mexico - Charles Morris

The Government and its Administration

Army, Navy and Police Organization

The Government of Mexico, that is, the one which exists on paper, is closely modeled on that of the United States. The actual government has departed somewhat widely from this model, so far as its administration is concerned. It has degenerated into an autocracy of the most decided type, a system of personal and imperial rule sustained by the soldier and the policeman. This was the system which developed under President Diaz, as autocratic in effect as that of Russia under its imperial dynasty and powerless duma or legislature. What result may come from the present series of revolutionary movements it is too soon to say, other than that they have reform and the interests of the people for their alleged motive.

The Constitution of Mexico provides for a Federal Republic, which now comprises twenty-seven States, three Territories and one Federal District. This instrument calls for a President and Vice-President, a Legislature composed of Senate and Chamber of Deputies, and a Judiciary, with a Supreme Court as its dominating tribunal. In these respects it follows the lead of the United States and differs from most of the other Latin-American republics. The President is elected for six years—the term was four years until 1904. As in the United States, he is elected by a body of electors chosen by popular suffrage. The Senators—two from each State—hold their positions for four years; the Deputies—one for each 60,000 of population—for two years. The Judges of the Supreme Court are elected—not appointed, as in the United States. The business of this body relates to questions of law and justice concerning federal, political and international matters. The term of office of the President and Vice-President begins on December 1st of the year of their election.

As regards the States, they, like those of the United States, have governments modeled on that of the Federal Republic. Each has its Governor and Legislature of two bodies, with jurisdiction over State affairs. Thus all the machinery of a Federal republic exists, equal rights for all citizens and the sovereignty of the people being duly provided for, no class distinction being acknowledged in the fundamental law. The Constitution establishing this frame of government was adopted on February 5, 1857. By a series of reform laws passed in 1859, and revised in 1873, Church and State were made independent of each other and the powers and duties of the religious establishments strictly defined. Under these laws the former influence of the Church over secular affairs has been brought to an end.

The President is aided in the performance of his duties by a council and a cabinet of seven members, each at the head of one of the governmental departments. The need and duty of justice to all has been duly considered, the Supreme Court having fifteen judges, while there are numerous courts of minor jurisdiction. Criminal trials are conducted on a system resembling that prevailing in France. Juries consist of nine persons—instead of twelve as with us. These must be men with occupations, education, or independent means. There are also local courts and magistrates, dealing with small offenses, corresponding to those in this country.

With all this machinery one would think that the government should be well administered and justice rightfully and promptly dispensed. Such, however, is far from being the case. Governmental institutions are one thing, human nature is another, and the most elaborately written constitution is of little value to a people unfitted by character or want of education for its requirements. As for the courts and magistrates, prompt justice is a rare occurrence, unless it be for the peons. What these obtain from the courts is usually prompt enough, but that it is always justice is quite another matter.

There is a magic word which seems to control the courts, manana—"tomorrow." The art of putting off—the science of procrastination, shall we call it?—is thoroughly understood and practiced. Thus those who are held in prison under suspicion are apt to stay there indefinitely, awaiting in long suspense the snail-like process of the courts, in some cases serving the term of a long sentence while waiting to be adjudged guilty or innocent. In this matter, however, poor Mexico is not the only culprit. In the United States courts rapid despatch of business is far from being the rule, especially in civil cases, and before throwing mud at our neighbors it is well to make sure that our own skirts are free from defilement.

Let us now take a passing glance at the way government is administered in Mexico. Liberty prevails, the Constitution says so, but a potent ruling class, with absolute control of army and police, is capable of converting any constitution into a useless document. In fact, civil rights in Mexico are very much of a mockery. As for the Congress, it really represents only a small section of the people. Though the Constitution calls for manhood suffrage, ways have been found of limiting this right, the elections being so controlled in many cases that the party in power dictates the result. Every citizen of the republic is eligible by law to membership in the legislatures, except the clergy, who are forbidden to enter either House. But while this liberty is provided for in the fundamental law, by no means all citizens are open to help choose those whom they prefer to represent them, and aside from this, the members of legislatures have very little to do with making the laws. During the long reign of President Diaz ("reign" is the proper word) the laws came from the President's easy chair, not from the seats of the Congressmen. Such a thing as opposition to a presidential decree was almost unknown, and the missions of the senators and deputies seemed to be merely to put the seal of legislative approval upon what Diaz had already determined upon.

Law making, in fact, had grown to be a mere sham of legislative activity. The Houses of Congress, the membership of which had been chosen far more at the order of the President than by the votes of the people, were of one mind in all questions. Such a thing as an opposition party had almost disappeared. There were discussions, but they ended nowhere. The acts to be passed had already been decided upon by the President in sessions of one, and Congress was quick to pass these ready-made laws. The whole process of legislation had grown to be a fraud, and this fact could not be concealed from observant people. An autocratic rule over a supposed free people has its necessary limits. A party in opposition is sure eventually to rise, and the endeavor to suppress that party leads to revolution—in Mexico at least. Such was the story of the Diaz dictatorship, as will be shown later.

An important official in the governing system of Mexico is the jefe politico, or district governor, his district being somewhat similar to an American county, while at the same time he serves as mayor of the chief town of his district. The rural police are under his control and the power in his hands, in any case of loosely conducted government, is very considerable. Thus the drafting for the army of the rank and file, of which more than ninety-five per cent are obtained in this manner, is usually done by the jefe, and on his method of doing this there is little or no check. To get rid of those who are undesirable for any reason, political or other, the army fits in admirably. A laborer who is so daring as to strike, an editor who ventures to criticize any act of the government, rural property holders who claim to be overtaxed, are fair subjects for the draft, and any other citizen from whom graft can be had on any pretense is excellent food for prey. It would not be just to accuse all these officials of such practices, but as they often get their appointments through a round sum paid to the governor they naturally feel like squeezing the costs, and what extra is available, out of the public. We have elsewhere spoken of another mode of money getting practiced by them in the way of providing laborers for the tobacco estates.

It is not only the jefes  who abuse the power of their office. In truth, unjust and oppressive doings are much too common in Mexico, often in disregard of law. Thus the Constitution expressly stipulates that "arrest except for offenses meriting corporal punishment is prohibited," and also prohibits "detention without trial for a longer period than three days, unless justified as prescribed by law."

Mexican Rurales or mounted police at the grave of


So says the Constitution, but not such is the rule. Arrests on very slight provocation, for offenses certainly not calling for corporal punishment, are very common, the offender being marched in police control under public view through the streets to the Comisaria. Such offenses as noisy disputes, brawling, spitting, sitting in the grass in the public park, and like trifles are commonly dealt with in this manner, instead of by warning and reprimand. The detention of an accused person without trial far beyond the period prescribed is also practiced, though not as much as formerly.

A case is told of a Canadian engine-driver, now a wealthy dweller in Mexico City, who some twenty years ago ran his engine over a Mexican, killing him. He was at once arrested, locked up in a filthy prison containing 1,500 others, kept there for three days without the privilege of seeing a friend or lawyer, then detained some days in another prison before he was given a hearing of any kind. Finally he was tried and acquitted, the affair being proved to be a pure accident. Much worse was the case of another man arrested on a similar charge, who was held in prison for eighteen months before being tried. The Habeas Corpus law is in force in Mexico as elsewhere, but little heed seems paid to its enforcement or to the punishment of those who break its provisions.

It is an easy matter to become an inmate of a Mexican prison, but difficult enough to get out of it, and a Mexican prison, even the best of them, is a very disagreeable place to reside in. For what a man in America or England would be summoned to appear and answer, he is seized and locked up in Mexico. In the case of a street accident, not only the witnesses of the affair are arrested and detained, but the victim of the accident as well. They are set free, usually, after a preliminary examination, but they have suffered the disgrace of being marched through the streets under guard of a policeman. The Mexicans do not seem to mind small matters like this, as they attach no sense of disgrace to it, but it is apt to be bitterly resented by a foreign resident.

We have spoken of the conditions of Mexican prisons. There are two in Mexico City, the Penitentiary and Belem, the latter the general prison for the city and the surrounding district, and a horrible place it is said to be. In the Penitentiary only those are confined who are sentenced for more than eight years. Visitors are freely allowed there, for the place is well kept and the prisoners well fed. Belem is an old convent which now serves as a prison. With proper capacity for less than five hundred, it often contains more than five thousand, who are herded indiscriminately within its walls. This, as may well be said, is not a show place like the Penitentiary. The prisoners are inadequately fed, those who have no friends to supply them with food being allowed to die of slow starvation. Disease is rife in the place. Every year or so an epidemic of typhus claims its terrible toll of death, and the skin disease known as the itch, which fairly sets the body on fire, is sure to be contracted by every inmate who is kept for a few days within the walls. It is a result of the filthy condition of the place. Much more might be said of the horrors of Belem, but the above must suffice.

On an island in Vera Cruz harbor is an old military fortress called San Juan de Ulua, which is now used as a prison. A military prison it is called, but it is really kept for political suspects, and these in past years were so largely those who had given offense to President Diaz that it became popularly known as "the private prison of Diaz." In this place of detention for those daring to hold heretical political opinions we are told that the prison cells were under the sea level, and that sea water seeped in upon the captives, while the dark dungeons were too small for a full-sized man to lie in at length. Among those sent there were the vice-president and other members of the Liberal party organized in 1900, a leader in the strike at the El Blanco mills, and other gentlemen of note. Few who once enter within those terrible walls are ever seen again in the light of day.

The Liberal Party spoken of came into existence in the autumn of 1900, after the sixth election of Diaz was assured. It was directed against the Church, not against the administration, and no objection was made to its organization A speech made in Paris by the bishop of San Luis Potosi roused the people, who saw in it danger of an attempt by the clergy to regain their political power. Liberal clubs were soon instituted and increased so rapidly that in less than five months there were 125 of them, and about fifty newspapers to advocate the cause. Then a call for a convention was made to meet in January, 1901, at San Luis Potosi.

The convention, held in the Peace Theater, was crowded, there being many police and soldiers in the hall, while a battalion of soldiers was drawn up in the street, ready for use if needed. This was a peculiar and threatening accompaniment to a political convention, an act full of the odor of autocracy. The speakers, warned by this preparation, were careful not to criticize President Diaz, and the convention pledged itself to use only peaceful means in its campaign of reform.

The new party soon got into trouble, however, by planning to nominate a candidate for the presidency at the next election, three years later. This was far too radical for the government. It smelt of sedition, and the Liberals were soon made to see that they had gone too far. Steps were taken to break up this daring knot of politicians, who had ventured to talk of nominating a candidate in opposition to Diaz. The meetings of the club were prevented by the police, and leading members were arrested on trumped-up charges, being thrown into prison or forced into the army. Let us give an example of the methods pursued. At a club meeting held at San Luis Potosi in January, 1902, soldiers and police in citizens clothes were sent to the hall as spectators. A disturbance was quickly started by the leader of these, a shot fired into the air, and immediately a crowd of policemen pushed into the hall, using their clubs liberally on the members, though the latter had kept quiet to avoid giving any cause for violence. In the end the president, secretary, and twenty-five members were accused of resisting the police, sedition, etc., and imprisoned for nearly a year, the club being dissolved.

Similar methods were used to dissolve other clubs, Liberal newspapers were destroyed by the confiscation of plants and arrest of editors, and large numbers of club members were imprisoned or drafted into the army, while still more violent methods were at times used. In spite of this harsh treatment the new party was kept alive and some of the newspapers continued to appear. In 1908 a number of these were suspended for over-bold utterances. As a result of these persecutions on the part of the government the Liberals were goaded to revolutionary movements. The first of these was launched in September, 1906. But the government had gained information, by aid of spies or other means, of the plans of the insurrectionists, and sternly put down the few risings that were attempted. Most of the leaders had already been seized and imprisoned. Another outbreak was launched in June, 1908, most of the fighting in this being done by refugees in the United States, who crossed the border and attacked the Federals. A month's time sufficed to put down this insurrection, and peace again prevailed, the leaders and rebels seized being dealt with in the usual harsh manner. Powder and shot summarily disposed of many of those taken arms in hand.

Rapid fire squad of the Constitutionalist army at


A revolutionary movement is said to have been planned for October 14, 1909, but failed to get beyond the status of a plan. It was discovered and the leaders of the clubs charged with devising the movement were seized and condemned to two years' imprisonment. After being fourteen months in prison some of them were released, the authorities deciding that they were innocent. It is said, however, that the police seized them at the prison door, took them to the police station, and from there they were drafted for five years into the army. Thus ended the Liberal party in Mexico. Membership in it proved too dangerous an occupation. It was succeeded later by the Democratic party, of which we shall speak in a succeeding chapter.

The government of President Diaz has been spoken of as an autocracy. It would be more correct to call it an oligarchy, a government not by one man, nor by representatives of the people, but by a group of aristocrats who served as aids and advisers of the president. "He governs," says F. Carcia Calderon, "with the aid of the 'scientific' party—a group which believes in the virtue and power of science, exiles theology and metaphysics, denies mystery and confesses utilitarianism as its practice and positivism as its doctrines." The group of advisers of the President did not call themselves cientificos  (scientists). This was a nickname applied by their opposers. They were a body of clever men, friends of the President, not politicians, but men chiefly devoted to their own personal interests, men who managed by this kind of provident industry to add largely to their fortunes. President Diaz saw to it that the governors of states should be cientificos. In this way the government of Mexico was managed: the President, who took good care of his own re-election, at the head; the state governors, chosen by vote but selected by the President, as his pledged supporters; and the jefe politicos, mayors of towns and rulers of surrounding districts, chosen by the governors, as the minor agents of power in the nation. As for the people at large, they had the constitutional right of voting but very little real share in the election of officials.

Whence came the "sinews of war" for the financing of this government? For many years they came in a liberal measure from abroad, being furnished, at a satisfactory rate of interest, by such European capitalists as trusted the good faith of the Spanish American republics. The money raised by taxation or other internal measures was usually insufficient to meet the demands, the country year after year spending more than it earned, and facing a steadily increasing deficit. Such was the case up to the year 1893, the revenue never exceeding the expenditure. After that date there came a change, and until the end of the Diaz administration the balance of funds was annually on the side of the treasury. This was due to progress in Mexican industrial affairs and the increasing commerce of the nation, but especially to the work of an able financier, Senor Limantour, the Secretary of Hacienda (Department of Finance). The progress of industrial development was very largely due to the investments of foreign capital in mines, railroads, and other lines of engineering works, which, as already said, now amounts to a very large sum. As for the national debt of the country, it is largely held abroad, the internal payments upon the foreign debt amounting to about $12,000,000 annually. An equal sum has to be paid to railroad bondholders, while other amounts are paid as dividends to various private enterprises. The total foreign debt is over $300,000,000, payable in foreign Currency with the exception of $68,000,000 payable in Mexican currency. The latest additions to this debt were $13,000,000 in 1899.

The banking system appears to be well founded and solid, the leading banks being the National Bank of Mexico, with $16,000,000 capital and $13,000,000 reserves. The Bank of London and Mexico has $10,750,000 capital, and the Mexican Central Bank, $15,000,000. The total capital of all Mexican banks is given as about $100,000,000. The currency was on a bimetallic basis until 1905, when the gold basis was adopted. The fall in the value of silver, so largely mined in Mexico, was to some extent beneficial to industry, but the continual fluctuation in price had a disturbing effect on commerce. This was checked by the adoption of the gold basis and the fixing of the value of the peso, or Mexican silver dollar, at half an American dollar.

Coming now to the subject of the Mexican army and navy, the latter can be quickly disposed of, since as a navy it is almost non-existent. There are six gunboats of from 1,000 to 1,300 tons each, armed with rapid-fire guns, two transports, two training ships and some small revenue cutters. There is a naval school, a navy yard and a floating dock at Vera Cruz, a drydock at Salina Cruz, and a shipyard at Guaymas. An insignificant equipment for ocean warfare this, but one of the gunboats did good service during the rebel attack on Tampico in the autumn of 1913, aiding greatly in saving that town from capture.

The army, according to a statement of President Madero in 1912, when in full strength had 107 generals, 6,236 officers, and 49,332 men. What it numbered in the succeeding period of insurrection it is impossible to say, as the most strenuous measures were taken to fill the ranks. The system of drafting is the chief means of obtaining soldiers, the volunteer portion of the army comprising a very small percentage of the total. The jefes  are the principal drafting officials. Sometimes a governor will send culprits to the ranks instead of to jail, and in this way considerable accessions are at times made, but as a rule the jefes  perform this duty, and take care to do so in a way that will be profitable to themselves. For those whose political views are radical or in any way disturbing the army is a very convenient dumping ground. The men thus disposed of are prisoners, and this is remembered in their treatment. As a result one may hear the Mexican army spoken of as "The National Chain Gang." Occasionally the impressed soldiers, wild to regain freedom, break loose and run for liberty. In such a case they are hunted like escaping convicts.

It is common to send such convict soldiers to the territory of Quintana Roo, which in consequence has been spoken of as the "Siberia of Mexico," multitudes of political and labor agitators being sent there as army exiles. This is the most unhealthful part of Mexico and the death rate there is very large. The ostensible purpose of sending them there is to fight the Maya Indians, who are in a perennial state of revolt.

The war between Provisional President Huerta and the Constitutionalists made the demand for soldiers so large that they were recruited in the most illegal ways, men being seized in the streets when on their way home from places of labor or abroad on other necessary missions, and forced against all protests into the ranks. The newspaper offices especially felt the ill effects of this system, from the employment of their men late at nights.

The Mexican soldier has the credit of being a brave and stubborn fighter. Recruited usually from the lowest classes of the community, he is not prepossessing, either in dress or carriage. He slouches along in a very unmilitary fashion, but as a campaigner he is sturdy and tireless, surpassing in power of enduring fatigue the soldiers of more civilized lands. He can live upon less food and march farther under a burning sun in a day than the soldiers of northern armies could in two. He smokes furiously all day, and out of barracks is merry as a cricket. Usually an Indian, he at times behaves in a way demanding discipline, but as a rule he is easily managed. While on the march discipline does not always keep him in the ranks, and he slouches carelessly along, whistling gaily, until reprimanded and sent back.

There is another trained body of men in Mexico, half police and half soldiers, men of a very different type from the ordinary soldier, and trained into a splendid and highly efficient body. These are the State Rurales, or rural police. This body has an interesting history. It began with a troop organized by Santa Anna in his rough independent fighting, and received the name of Cuerados, from its costume, that of the cattle herders. When their occupation in this service ended they took to the road on their own account as bandits, in which line they had many a sharp encounter with pursuing troops. Their headquarters were in the Malinche Mountains, near Puebla; from which they swooped in frequent raids, killing all who opposed them, and carrying into captivity all who they thought could pay ransom. They came to be known as Plateados, from the plated gold and silver ornamentation of their dress and horse harness. They kept on excellent terms with the mountain peasantry, none of whom would betray them, and even government officials are known to have at times protected them and shared their plunder.

It was President Comonfort, about 1858, who found a useful way of getting rid of these plundering bands. On the principle of "set a thief to catch a thief," he induced them to enter his service, not as regular soldiers, but on a special footing, and he soon had a body of picked rural police, of unsurpassed ability in their particular function.

The Rurales, as now organized, number about 4,000 men, engaged for a five years' term of service (subject to renewal), and are moved about wherever their service may be needed in case of trouble of any kind. Their first employment was to hunt and run down the hordes of bandits with which the country was then infested, with orders to shoot on sight, never giving quarter to men of this type. Their former mode of life fitted them admirably for this work, and most of Mexico is today as free as the United States from robbers of the bandit class. Since then they have been used in trouble of any kind, and with such excellent results that the idea of employing similar bodies of men has made its way into the United States. Such a body exists in the Pennsylvania Mounted Police, whose admirable services in times of strike or other troubles have won high commendation. Most of these have been trained soldiers and are well fitted for such a duty.

The Rurales  wear a neat but simple uniform, a plain gray cloth jacket and tight-fitting trousers, a gray, corded sombrero and a red necktie. Their equipment consists of a carbine, two revolvers in holsters and one in hip pocket, and a machete, the heavy knife so commonly used in Mexican dissensions. Their horses are serviceable animals, capable of long travel and much endurance, and have handsome trappings, often embroidered in gold thread. The men get low wages, but they live very cheaply, pasturage for their horses costs nothing, and their greatest expense is probably for cigarettes, of which Mexicans smoke enormous numbers.

While the Rurales  have brought order into the country districts, the police have been equally efficient sin the cities. A generation ago the city of Mexico was infested to a frightful extent with beggars, thieves and cutthroats, murders were committed nightly, and crimes of all kinds flourished. The city was filled with police, but it was difficult to eradicate the haunts of crime and disorder. When the electric lights were installed the wires were cut nightly in the worst quarters, and even in the best quarters foul murders were committed. Many said that the police were in league with the criminals. But the government kept up the work. Policemen were stationed in numbers through the worst districts. The prisons were filled. The worst culprits were sent to Yucatan as plantation workers. As a result the city has been thoroughly renovated, and its streets are now as safe at night as those of any city in the world.