Mexico’s heritage includes not one, but several, of the world’s great early civilizations. According to legend, the Aztecs were promised dominion over a powerful empire. In the modern world, Mexico strives to fulfill this destiny.
According to legend, the Aztecs were instructed by their god to leave their homes—in a mythical land called Aztlán, possibly in what is now northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States—in search of a promised land to be marked by a bird perched on a cactus devouring a reptile. In this land, it was foretold that they would establish the most powerful empire in Mesoamerica. Following centuries of wandering, they arrived at Lake Texcoco, where, on a small island in the middle of the lake, they saw an eagle on a cactus gobbling a snake, and here their arduous pilgrimage concluded. Archaeologists estimate that this moment of divine revelation occurred around 1325, when the Aztec founded upon the island the magnificent ancient city of Tenochtitlán, which scholars estimate was home to more than 200,000 residents by the time the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century.
After Spanish conquest and colonization in the 16th century, efforts by the Spanish to control flooding led to most of the lake being drained. Today the basin is almost completely occupied by México City, the capital of Mexico. The ceremonial center of the ancient city on the lake still holds a place of prominence as the Zócalo, or main square, of México City. The promise of a powerful empire by the Aztec god, it would appear, was fulfilled; and so it is that the eagle perched on a cactus consuming a snake became an essential element of Mexico’s national shield and flag.
RICH NATIVE HISTORY
The Aztec empire was actually the last of pre-Columbian Mexico’s great native civilizations. Its first known people were the Olmec, who first settled near Veracruz and Tabasco on the Gulf Coast and are remembered principally for the giant sculptures of heads that they carved from local stone. The Olmec lasted until about 100 BC The Maya, considered the most intellectually advanced of America’s pre-Columbian civilizations, thrived from 250 to 900 AD and dispersed across an area that covers southeastern Mexico and much of Central America. They developed a writing system and were so advanced in mathematics and astronomy that their calendar was the world’s most accurate until this century. They could predict solar and lunar eclipses and created large cities to serve nearby farming towns. Artisans inscribed altars with fantastical figures, both divine and human, as well as Maya history and important dates. In the city of Chichén Itzá in Mexico’s Yucatá, fantastic remains of beautifully preserved Maya construction may be found.
ANCIENT AND MODERN JUXTAPOSE
The final and most storied of the powerful native civilizations of Mexico were the Aztecs, who settled in the Valley of Mexico,
where México City is today. They became prominent around 1427 by joining forces with a group of city–states known as the Triple Alliance. Tenochtitlán, the home of the Mexica/Aztec people; Texcoco, where the Acolhua lived; and Tlacopan, the city ruled by the Tepaneca, joined forces in an unprecedented political and military partnership, conquering less-powerful groups until their empire reached from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. At their zenith, the Aztec ruled five million people.
Like their peers and predecessors, the Aztec built incredible structures and cities, including Tenochtitlán. Spanish conquistadors razed much of the city in the 16th century and built what is today México City atop the site. However, archaeologists have unearthed the complex of the Templo Mayor, or Great Temple, which was the largest pyramid of Tenochtitlán. Hidden inside this compound in the heart of modern México City, archaeologists found gold ornaments, stone knives, remains of human children and eagles—apparently sacrificed— and a tunnel to a circular platform where Aztec rulers are believed to have been cremated.
CONQUEST AND EXTINCTION
In 1519, a Spanish explorer named Hernán Cortés landed at Veracruz. The Aztec king, Moctezuma II, also known as Montezuma II, believed that Cortés was the white serpent god Quetzalcoatl, and Moctezuma asked Cortés to visit Tenochtitlán. Moctezuma’s goodwill turned tragic for the Aztecs: Cortés formed alliances with Moctezuma’s enemies as he traveled to the capital city. In May of 1521, Cortés and his new allies attacked the Aztecs, ultimately conquering them. He formed a colony in the region, which he named Nueva España. Within 50 years, Spain ruled most of the former Aztec empire and had taken many of the native residents into slavery. The Aztec might have survived but for common European diseases carried by the Spaniards, against which the native people had no immunity. European disease spread through the population and was responsible for the deaths of approximately 24 million people between 1521 and 1605.
Catholicism arrived in 1523 with the missionaries who built monasteries and set about converting natives to the Catholic faith. Over the next two-and-a-half centuries, the Catholic Church grew increasingly influential. Concerned that the church was gaining too much power, King Carlos III of Spain forced the Jesuits to leave Nueva España in 1767. In a nation that by this time had embraced Catholicism, the king’s action proved disruptive and unpopular. In 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Spain, weakening the economy and political structure of the country and diminishing Spain’s influence in the area. Tensions in the colony exploded into revolution, and Spanish rule of Nueva España permanently ended in 1821.
In the post-Spain epoch, Mexico was ruled for 30 years by General Antonio López de Santa Anna, whose presidency suffered both the revolt of Texas and the Mexican-American War of 1846. Benito Juárez became president in 1858 and presided over a period of economic and social turmoil. Hoping to break the Catholic Church’s stronghold, he separated church and state, abolished monastic orders, and nationalized church property that he had intended for the peasants but instead allowed to be scooped up by wealthy elites. By 1861, the country was insolvent, so Juárez defaulted on foreign loans. This led to occupation and eventual overthrow of the government by the French, though French rule only endured until 1867.
Subsequently, Mexico commenced a period of continual self-rule under a series of presidents, most of whom were elected by a democratic process that continues today. While the nation’s economy improved, little changed for Mexico’s poor, who in 1910 remained in virtual serfdom with 95 percent of rural families landless, a condition that led to a decade-long conflict known as the Mexican Revolution. Eventually the Constitution of 1917 architected an end to 400 years of feudalism, but in the process a different sort of servitude was ushered in with the ascension to power of what would become the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which controlled Mexico’s government from 1929 through 1997.
Peace reigned and the following landmark reforms were accomplished under PRI: rural schools and hydroelectric power facilities constructed, labor unions strengthened, irrigation projects developed, petroleum industry nationalized, steps taken to combat air pollution, develop public green spaces, and reinvigorate the oil industry. However, massive foreign debt was incurred, the peso was devalued, and citizens grew increasingly discontented with PRI domination. Finally, in 1996 the governing PRI and principal opposition parties signed landmark reform to eliminate PRI’s control of election procedures and vote counting, limit campaign spending, and add 17 constitutional amendments.
In the 1997 elections, two allied PRI opposition parties gained control of the lower house of Mexico’s congress, and three years later, PAN candidate Vicente Fox won the presidency, ending more than seven decades of PRI supremacy and ushering the nation into true multiparty democracy.
THE EMPIRE TODAY
Mexico’s official name is the United Mexican States. It is the 14th-largest country in the world, with an area of nearly two million square kilometers (755,000 square miles), a region approximately equivalent to the whole of Western Europe. On its northern border lies the United States, while to the south are the Central American countries of Belize and Guatemala. The northern border with the United States is the second-longest international border in the world, at more than 3,200 kilometers (1,989 miles).
I don’t think that high-ranking government officials are inherently corrupt, even though we have had cases of corruption in this presidency. I think most of the people who are involved in the government at high levels, even within México City and the federal government, are inherently looking out for the best interest of the country. —Ilan Katz Mayo, Partner, Katz & Gudiño, S.C.
With a population expected to reach almost 130 million inhabitants by the end of 2017, according to the World Bank, Mexico is the world’s 10th-most populous nation. It has the largest population of Spanish speakers in the world as well as the second-highest number of Catholics after Brazil, with the population is growing at 1.24 percent annually. Most inhabitants (79 percent) live in urban areas, with approximately one-sixth of the population living in the Greater México City area. Average life expectancy in Mexico is 76.9 years, putting the nation 93rd among all countries.
POLITICAL CHECKS AND BALANCES
The nation’s structure as a federal republic with 31 states and the political capital of México City stems from the Constitution of 1917. Three branches comprise the federal government—the executive, a bicameral legislature, and the judiciary. The president is elected by simple majority popular vote for a six-year term and is supported by a cabinet of 18 secretaries and the Attorney General. The legislative branch, known as the Congress of the Union, is divided into the Senate, with 128 seats elected to six-year terms, and the Chamber of Deputies, with 500 representatives serving three-year terms. Eight national political parties are registered, although the four largest hold most elected posts at the federal and state levels.
In 2015, an independent candidate won a state governorship, a first for an independent in Mexico. Owing to the scope of the political parties, since 1997 no single party has held an absolute majority in either legislative chamber, a circumstance that has catalyzed the formation of alliances between parties. Three parties have traditionally dominated national and state politics—the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the prevailing political party for much of the 20th century; the National Action Party (PAN); and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Several smaller parties also regularly field candidates but must form alliances in government. Today, the PRD is in disarray, beset with defections, while the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), the party of presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is on the rise.
ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL DICHOTOMIES
Although Mexico now enjoys a fully democratic political system, economic and social progress is mixed. Growth, while positive, has slowed. Economic opportunity for the nation’s poor remains limited and there is a marked imbalance of wealth, which sometimes leads to regional uprisings and instability. Drug trafficking, which seems to be on the rise, continues to complicate the social divide and adds to corruption among the police and the judiciary, just another issue that threatens to increase the wealth gap in Mexico. Owing to alarming levels of organized crime, related violence, and rampant tax evasion, Mexico is ranked by the Sustainable Governance Indicators as having the most serious domestic security crisis among the 41 nations rated.
“We have some of the most archaic laws on earth, and that has permitted corruption to flourish,” observes Fernando de Ovando, Partner at Jones Day, a top ten international law firm, “but we are working on repairing that, and we are clever enough to find an answer without destroying the country.” Encouragingly, the nation has produced a generation of highly qualified policy makers and professionals educated at Ivy League universities as well as Mexico’s own increasingly competitive tertiary educational institutions. Meanwhile, Manuel Galicia R., the Founding Partner of Galicia Abogados, believes that many of Mexico’s problems are not exclusive to the country, but are born of external circumstances. “While we definitely are not overlooking our internal difficulties like debt or the rule of law, they are international problems. These issues don’t derive from the particular situation of Mexico.”