Mexican Dirty War

The Mexican Dirty War (Spanish: Guerra sucia) refers to the Mexican theater of the Cold War, an internal conflict in the 1960s and 1970s between the Mexican PRI-ruled government under the presidencies of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, Luis Echeverría and José López Portillo, which were backed by the US government, and left-wing student and guerrilla groups.[8][9] During the war, government forces carried out disappearances, estimated at 1,200,[10] systematic torture, and "probable extrajudicial executions".[11]

Mexican Dirty War
Part of the Cold War

Mexican Army soldiers in the streets during the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre

Government victory

  • Continued rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party
  • Most leftist guerrilla groups disbanded

After the conflict

  • Implementation of neoliberal policies.[3]
  • Several acts of violence have not yet been clarified.[4]
  • Political defeat of the PRI in the 2000 presidential elections before the National Action Party (PAN).
  • Grouping of the political left and formation of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).[5]

Left-wing groups[1]


Supported by:

Casualties and losses
Estimated more than 3,000 people disappeared and executed, 3,000 political prisoners, and 7,000 tortured[1]:8

The judicial investigation into State crimes against political movements was opened only until the end of the 71-year long PRI regime and the accession to power of Vicente Fox in 2000, which created the Special Prosecutor's Office for Social and Political Movements of the Past (FEMOSPP). However, despite revealing much about the history of the conflict, the FEMOSPP has not been able to finalize prosecutions against the main instigators of the Dirty War.[12]

In March 2019, the President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, publicly released the archives of the defunct Federal Security Directorate, which contain a great amount of previously undisclosed information about the Dirty War and the political persecution by the PRI governments in the 20th century. López Obrador stated that "We lived for decades under an authoritarian regime which limited freedoms and persecuted those who struggled for social change" and issued an official apology on behalf of the Mexican State towards the victims of the repression. López Obrador further stated that judicial action will be taken against the surviving perpetrators of the repression, and promised that the surviving victims will be able to claim compensation under the law.[13][14]


The war was characterized by a backlash against the active student movement of the late 1960s which ended in the Tlatelolco massacre at a 1968 student rally in Mexico City,[11] in which 30 to 300 (according to official reports; non-governmental sources claim death toll in the thousands) students were killed, and in the Corpus Christi massacre, the massacre of student demonstrators in Mexico City on June 10, 1971.[8]

There were several barely connected groups fighting against the government during this period. Among the most important, the September 23 Communist League was at the forefront of the conflict, active in several cities throughout Mexico, drawing heavily from Christian Socialist and Marxist student organizations. They carried out confrontations with Mexican security forces, several kidnappings, and attempted to kidnap Margarita López Portillo, the sister of the president. In Guerrero, the Party of the Poor, ostensibly fighting against landholder impunity and oppressive police practices in rural areas, was led by the ex-teacher Lucio Cabañas; they carried out ambushes of the army and security forces and the abduction of Guerrero's governor-elect.[11]

The legalization of left-wing political parties in 1978 along with the amnesty of imprisoned and at large guerrillas caused a number of combatants to end militant struggle against the government. However, certain groups continued fighting, and the National Human Rights Commission states the hostilities continued into 1982.[11]

In June 2002, a report prepared for Vicente Fox, the first president not from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 70 years, detailed the government's actions from 1964 to 1982. The report states, according to BBC News, that the Mexican army "kidnapped, tortured, and killed hundreds of rebel suspects" in the period and accused the Mexican state of genocide. The Mexican Special Prosecutor claimed the report was overly biased against the military and that it failed to detail crimes committed by rebels, including kidnappings, bank robberies, and assassinations.[11][15] However, general consensus is that the report accurately assessed the government's culpability. Instead of ensuring the security of innocent civilians, it victimized them and killed them alike.[16][17][18][19][20][21]

Guerrilla groups

The year 1960 marked the beginning of a decade of terror in the region of Guerrero as the state slowly began to deal with the citizens and peasants there ever-more violently.[1]:46 The state enacted the acts of suppression on Guerrero to keep the numerous different political reform movements stifled, as the local people over time grew agitated with the way the government was wielding its power and meddling with their rights. As the citizens grew more determined to speak out against the government in the 1960s, the PRI continued to increase its terror tactics in the region. While that was done to keep the populace under its control, the constant stream of violence pushed many guerrillas to consider raising up arms against the PRI.[1]:46

The rising of guerrilla groups in the 1960s and 1970s provided the state an excuse to focus its resources on suppressing the armed activities of the guerrillas. The army would become infamous for its tactics in repressing the rebels in the rural areas of Mexico, where such practices such as the death flights were initiated.[22]

This period of state violence in the state of Guerrero helped to bring about numerous guerrilla organizations. One of the groups was the Party of the Poor (PDLP), which was influenced by Marxism and people like Che Guevara.[23] That group tended to be focused more on the rural regions like Guerrero, where they would be more likely to find support among the peasants there. The PDLP actions become more violent towards the rich after events such as the 1967 Atoyac massacre, where leaders like Lucio Cabañas tried to use the peasants anger to bring about true revolution.[24]

As the 1960s and 1970s would go on, the PDLP would gain attention around the nation for acts like its kidnapping of Ruben Figueroa who was a prominent leader of the PRI.[25] While this act inspired those downtrodden by the government, this also marked the decline of the organization as the government began to focus more on taking out this guerrilla group. Eventually the army found and killed Cabañas on December 2, 1974 in an attempt to cause his movement to fall apart.[26] Another school teacher turned revolutionary, Genaro Vázquez Rojas, founded the National Revolutionary Civic Association (ACNR) as a response to the governments actions in Guerrero. These two leaders and their movements emerged as the armed phase of this social struggle against a corrupt government, which would continue long after the deaths of the leaders.[1]:42


Torture was one of the many tools used by the PRI-run state in its drive to keep the numerous guerrilla groups and political dissidents repressed. While torture was illegal in many countries during this time, the numerous authoritarian regimes that sprung up from the Cold War used it to great effect. The Mexican state used torture to get information from captured rebels and guerrillas about attacks and plans. This torturing would be done at any number of clandestine detention centers, where guerrillas would be sent to before arriving at a legal prison so as the state's activities would be kept secret from outside sources.[22] Typically both male and female guerrilla prisoners would be tortured at these areas. It was more common for women to be sexually assaulted by their guards. This, combined with other forms of physical and psychological gender-based transgressions leads some to believe that the state employed this form of gender policing to try and deter women from breaking the regimes social and political norms.[27]

The detaining and torturing of political prisoners became more systematic after the student uprisings in 1968, for the government decided that heavy-handed responses were necessary to deal with the unrest. [28] This stage of violent and public repression of differing ideals was similar to the regimes of the Southern Cone governments, such as Argentina.


While Mexico's Dirty War has been over for several years, not much is known of the extent of the number of victims the war claimed, due to its elusive nature throughout its length.[29] Part of the reason for this problem is that since there was no large-scale truth commission to bring justice to the perpetrators and closure for the victim's families, Mexico never had its "Pinochet moment" in regards to the war.[1]:207 Another problem was the lack of response in the wake of the 2006 report by Carillo Prieto, which documented some of the atrocities inflicted by the PRI regime. Despite this evidence of numerous crimes that violated human rights, ex-president Echeverria and several other PRI officials had their cases dismissed and became free men.:207 The failure by the government to address these problems of the past has been a cause of tension at times in Mexico, as citizens become distrustful of a state that does not address the old regime and its reign of terror.

See also


  1. Calderon, Fernando Herrera; Cedillo, Adela (2012). Challenging Authoritarianism in Mexico: Revolutionary Struggles and the Dirty War, 1964–1982. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-88904-9.
  2. Forero, Juan (November 22, 2006). "Details of Mexico's Dirty Wars From 1960s to 1980s Released". The Washington Post. Retrieved December 29, 2018.
  4. "Fue Un Dos de Octubre".
  5. "ELECCIONES-MEXICO: Fox gana la Presidencia". July 3, 2000.
  6. "El gobierno creó en 1976 brigada especial para "aplastar" a guerrilleros en el valle de México - la Jornada".
  7. "La "brigada blanca", otro escuadrón de la muerte: Eduardo Valle - Proceso". September 23, 1978.
  8. Reuters Editorial (April 5, 2007). "Rights group urges Mexico to resolve "dirty war"". Reuters. Retrieved October 29, 2016.
  9. Michael Evans. "The Dawn of Mexico's Dirty War". Retrieved October 29, 2016.
  10. Reuters Editorial (July 8, 2008). "Mexico looks for 'dirty war' graves on army base". Reuters. Retrieved October 29, 2016.
  11. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on March 8, 2013. Retrieved March 7, 2013.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  13. "Mexico's president opens archives on 'dirty war period". Yahoo News. AFP. Retrieved March 2, 2019.
  14. Zavala, Misael. "Estado pide perdón a víctimas de represión". El Universal. Retrieved March 2, 2019.
  15. "Americas | Mexico 'dirty war' crimes alleged". BBC News. February 27, 2006. Retrieved October 29, 2016.
  16. Jornada, La. "Sedena extendió acciones de la guerra sucia contra campesinos inocentes - La Jornada". Retrieved August 17, 2016.
  17. "Desaparecidos. 'Guerra sucia' deja 480 víctimas". August 16, 2015. Retrieved August 17, 2016.
  18. "Padre de uno de los 43 admite que su hijo fue militar, pero "desertó" - Proceso". June 23, 2015. Retrieved August 17, 2016.
  19. "EPN ha provocado una cacería brutal de inocentes por medio de escuadrones de la muerte: expertos". Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved August 17, 2016.
  20. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on October 2, 2015. Retrieved September 29, 2015.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  21. "Urgente, una ley general de desaparición forzada". September 21, 2015. Retrieved August 17, 2016.
  22. Garcia, Jorge M. (November 2016). "Reconstructing the Collective Memory of Mexico's Dirty War". Latin American Perspectives. 43 (6): 124–140. doi:10.1177/0094582X16669137.
  23. Avina, Alexander (2014). Specters of Revolution: Peasant Guerrillas in the Cold War Mexican Countryside. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 138–139. ISBN 978-0-19-993659-5.
  24. Avina, Alexander (2014). Specters of Revolution: Peasant Guerrillas in the Cold War Mexican Countryside. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 141. ISBN 978-0-19-993659-5.
  25. Avina, Alexander (2014). Specters of Revolution: Peasant Guerrillas in the Cold War Mexican Countryside. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 158. ISBN 978-0-19-993659-5.
  26. Avina, Alexander (2014). Specters of Revolution: Peasant Guerrillas in the Cold War Mexican Countryside. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 160. ISBN 978-0-19-993659-5.
  27. MacManus, Vivianna B. (March 2015). "We are not Victims, we are Protagonists of this History". International Feminist Journal of Politics. 17 (1): 52 via Discover @ Georgia Southern.
  28. McCormick, Gladys (January 2017). "The Last Door: Political Prisoners and the Use of Torture in Mexico's Dirty War". Americas. 74 (1): 60 via Humanities Full Text, EBSCOhost.
  29. McCormick, Gladys (January 2017). "The Last Door: Political Prisoners and the Use of Torture in Mexico's Dirty War". Americas. 74 (1): 61 via Humanities Full Text, EBSCOhost.
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