The land now known as Mexico was inhabited by many of the most advanced Amerindian cultures of the ancient Americas. The Mayan civilization in the Yucatán Peninsula began about 2500 BC , flourished about AD 300–900, and then declined until its conquest by the Spanish. The Mayas had a well-developed calendar and a concept of zero; skillful in the construction of stone buildings and the carving of stone monuments, they built great cities at Chichen Itzá, Mayapán, Uxmal, and many other sites. About 1200–400 BC the Olmecs had a civilization with its center at La Venta, featuring giant carved stone heads and the first use of pyramids for worship among the Amerindians. In the early 10th century AD the Toltecs, under Ce Acatl Topiltzin, founded their capital of Tollan (now Tula) and made the Nahua culture predominant in the Valley of Mexico until the early 13th century. At that time, the Aztecs, another Nahua tribe, gained control.
The Aztec Empire, with its capital at Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City), founded in 1325, was essentially a confederation of allied and tributary communities. Skilled in architecture, engineering, mathematics, weaving, and metalworking, the Aztecs had a powerful priesthood and a complex pantheon dominated by the sun god and war god Huitzilopochtli, to whom prisoners captured from other tribes were sacrificed.
The empire was at its height in 1519, when the Spanish conquistadores, under Hernán Cortés, having set out from Cuba, landed at modern Veracruz; with superior weapons and the complicity of local chieftains, the Spaniards had conquered Mexico by 1521. First, Cortés imprisoned the emperor Montezuma II, who was wounded by stoning when he was released in an attempt to quell an uprising against the Spanish. Then Montezuma's nephew, Guatemotzin, drove the Spanish from Tenochtitlán on 30 June 1520, now called "la noche triste" ("the sad night"), during which Montezuma died, probably at the hands of the Spaniards. Eventually, Cortés returned to Tenochtitlán and defeated Guatemotzin.
The Spaniards brought Roman Catholicism to Mexico, imposed their legal and economic system on the country, and enslaved many of the inhabitants. The combination of Spanish oppression and the smallpox, influenza, and measles the conquistadores brought with them reduced the Amerindian population from an estimated 5 million in 1500 to 3.5 million a century later; not until late in the 18th century did Mexico match its pre-Columbian population. Gradually, the Spaniards extended their territory southward, to include, for a time, the captaincy-general of Guatemala, and northward as far as California, Nevada, and Colorado.
In the next 25 years, there were at least 30 changes of government. Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna, who had participated in the overthrow of Iturbide, become the dominant figure in the 1830s and 1840s and attempted to centralize the new government. Texas gained its independence from Mexico in 1836 as a result of the defeat of Santa Anna at San Jacinto; in 1845, after a period as the Republic of Texas, it joined the United States. Mexico lost the subsequent war with the United States (1846–48), which began over a dispute about the border of Texas; under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico recognized the Rio Grande as the boundary of Texas and ceded half its territory (much of the present western US) in return for $45 million. In 1853, the United States purchased a small portion of land from Mexico for another $10 million, which was widely regarded as further compensation for the land lost in the war. Spain ruled Mexico as the viceroyalty of New Spain for three centuries. Continued political abuses and Amerindian enslavement combined with the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1807 and consequential political uncertainty to produce a movement for independence. In 1810, a revolt against Spain was initiated by a priest, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, and a captain, Ignacio José Allende. Both were captured and shot by loyalists in 1811, but the revolt continued through another priest, José María Morelos y Pavón, who proclaimed Mexico an independent republic in 1813. Morelos and his followers were defeated and he was shot in 1815, but a swing toward liberalism in Spain in 1820 altered the political picture, leading Mexico's conservative oligarchy to favor independence as a way of preserving its power. In 1821, under the leadership of a rebel, Vicente Guerrero, and a former loyalist, Agustín de Iturbide, independence was again proclaimed and this time secured. Iturbide proclaimed himself emperor in 1822 but was deposed in 1823, when a republic was established; when he returned in the following year, he was captured and shot.
A reform government was established in 1855 after a revolt against Santa Anna, and a new liberal constitution was adopted in 1857. Included in the reforms were laws abolishing military and clerical immunities. Article 27 prohibited corporations from holding land, and Article 123 established federal authority in matters of worship and religious discipline. Benito Juárez, the leader of the reform movement, became president in 1858. In 1861, during a period of civil strife, French troops under Emperor Napoleon III intervened in Mexico, ostensibly because Mexico had not paid its debts; in 1863, they captured Mexico City and installed Archduke Maximilian of Austria as emperor, with his Belgian wife, Carlota, as empress. After the French troops withdrew in 1866, partly because the United States protested their presence and partly because Napoleon needed them in France, forces loyal to Benito Juárez and led by José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz regained control of the country. Maximilian was executed and the republic restored in 1867; Carlota, who had returned to Europe to plead with Napoleon to protect her husband, was driven mad by his death.
Díaz twice ran for president, in 1867 and 1871, each time leading an abortive military uprising after his electoral defeat. Finally, in 1876, Díaz seized power and assumed the presidency, a position he held (except for 1880–84, when a subordinate exercised nominal power) until 1911. Under his dictatorship, Mexico modernized by opening its doors to foreign investors and managers. At the same time, the so-called Pax Porfiriana meant suppression of all dissent, by persuasion or by force, and a complete lack of concern with improving the life of the Mexican peasant; an elite corps of mounted police, the Rurales, held the rural areas in check. As the president's aging circle of associates, called Científicos (Scientists), clung tenaciously to power, resentment among the middle classes and the peasantry continued to grow.
After Díaz was once again reelected to the presidency in 1910, the Mexican Revolution erupted. This revolution, which by 1917 had claimed perhaps one million lives, was, on the one hand, a protest by middle-class political liberals against the stultifying Díaz regime and, on the other, a massive popular rebellion of land-hungry peasants. The interests of these two groups sometimes coincided but more often clashed, accounting for the turmoil and confusion of those years. The spark that touched off the revolution was the proclamation on 5 October 1910 of the Plan of San Luis Potosí, in which the liberal politician Francisco Indalecio Madero, who had lost the vote to Díaz, called for nullification of the election. Riots in Mexico City forced Díaz to resign and leave the country in 1911, and Madero was elected president later in that year. Meanwhile, popular revolts led by Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, who refused to submit to Madero's authority, led the country into chaos. Madero, accused by the Zapatistas of not giving land to the peasants, was ousted and murdered in 1913 by Gen. Victoriano Huerta, who had conspired with the rebels.
When Huerta, a corrupt dictator, was driven from power by Venustiano Carranza and Álvaro Obregón in July 1914, a full-scale civil war broke out. This phase of the revolution ended in February 1917, when a new constitution was proclaimed; this nationalistic, anticlerical document, considered by some to be the world's first socialist constitution, embodied the principle of the one-term presidency in order to prevent the recurrence of a Díaz-type dictatorship. Article 3 established government rather than church control over schools; Article 27 provided for public ownership of land, water, and minerals; and Article 123 ensured basic labor rights.
Carranza was elected president in 1917, but for the next decade Mexico was still beset by political instability and fighting between various revolutionary groups. Most of the revolutionary leaders met with violent deaths. Zapata, still regarded by many as a revolutionary hero, was assassinated in 1919, and both Carranza and Obregón (who was president during 1920–24) lost their lives in military coups.
Political stability at last came to Mexico with the formation in 1929 of an official government party that incorporated most of the social groups that had participated in the revolution; it has been known since 1945 as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional—PRI). Although its main pillars were, at least in theory, the peasants, workers, and other popular movements, it has also been closely allied with business since the 1940s. The most outstanding political leader of the post-1929 era was Lázaro Cárdenas, president during 1934–40, who sought with some success to realize the social goals of the revolution. His reforms included massive land redistribution, establishment of labor unions with strong bargaining positions, extension of education to remote areas of the country, and in 1938, the expropriation of foreign petroleum holdings, mostly US-owned. A compensation agreement with the United States was reached in 1944, when the two nations were World War II allies.
The postwar years have been marked by political stability, economic expansion, and the rise of the middle classes, but also by general neglect of the poorest segments of the population. One serious political disturbance came in 1968, the year the Summer Olympics were held in Mexico City, when the army and police clashed with students protesting political repression and human rights abuses. The number of students shot and killed has never been revealed. Yet, for many Mexicans, the murder of the students marked the unraveling of the authoritarian PRI, which could no longer hold on to power without resorting to extreme violence.
An economic boom during the late 1970s, brought about by huge oil export earnings, benefited a small percentage of the people, but millions of peasants continued to be only slightly better off than in 1910. Declining world oil prices in 1981 led to a severe financial crisis in 1982, a year of presidential elections. Mexico's new president, Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado, immediately introduced a series of austerity measures and promised a crackdown on corruption, which has long been a problem in Mexico. After the arrest of two government officials for misuse of public funds and fraud, the anticorruption drive appeared to languish; furthermore, public resentment of austerity increased. In 1985, when the PRI was accused of electoral malpractice in local and congressional elections, resentment boiled over in violent public protest. In October 1987, the PRI named Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a 39-year-old economist, as its candidate to succeed President de la Madrid in December 1988. In September 1993, changes in federal electoral law and practices were designed to make future elections more tamperproof.
Mexico City was devastated by a major earthquake in September 1985. The official death toll was 7,000, although unofficial estimates were as high as 20,000; in addition, 300,000 were left homeless. There was widespread protest over the fact that many of the buildings destroyed had been built in violation of construction regulations and claims that foreign emergency aid had been misappropriated by the government.
In August 1992, formal negotiations regarding the North American Free Trade Agreement were concluded, whereby Mexico would join the United States and Canada in the elimination of trade barriers, the promotion of fair competition, and increased investment opportunities. NAFTA went into effect on 1 January 1994.
In January 1994, within hours after the NAFTA agreement went into effect, a primarily Amerindian group calling itself the Zapatista Army of National Liberation resorted to an armed uprising against the government. They initially took control of four municipalities in the State of Chiapas to protest what it regarded as government failure to effectively deal with regional social and economic problems. Two months after the Zapatista uprising, the nation witnessed its first high-level political assassination in over 60 years when PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was murdered in Tijuana. His replacement, Ernesto Zedillo, was elected at the end of the year in a closely monitored campaign.
The devaluation of the peso in late December of 1994 threw the nation into economic turmoil, triggering its worst recession in over half a century. Over a million Mexicans lost their jobs, and the country's gross domestic product plummeted 10.5% in the first months of 1995. The United States responded to its neighbor's distress with a multimillion-dollar bailout that averted even worse damage to the economy.
The discontent bred by this economic crisis, together with continued high levels of poverty, rising crime and corruption, and political instability, led in 1997 to a rejection of Mexico's nearly 70-year-old system of one-party rule. In June of that year, the PRI lost its majority in the lower house of the National Congress, its control superseded by the combined power of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and the conservative National Action Party (PAN), as well as two smaller parties. The PRD obtained one of its most important victories in Mexico City, where former presidential candidate Cuauhtémoc Cardenas Solórzano was elected mayor. Both parties, especially the PAN, went on to win important gubernatorial seats throughout the country.
The 1997 elections shocked the PRI, and party loyalists began to push for change. Traditionally, the president selected his successor from the PRI ranks, a practice known as the "dedazo," which means pointing the presidential finger at the new candidate. But in 1999, with the PRI celebrating its 70th anniversary, Zedillo said there would be no "dedazo," and replaced the practice with a presidential primary. By late 1999, party loyalist Francisco Labastida Ochoa had earned the party's ticket and even led some presidential polls in early February 2000. But leading to the 2 July presidential election, Labastida was facing increasing competition from PAN candidate Vicente Fox Quesada. A former Coca-Cola executive and governor of Guanajuato, Fox was gaining a wide following by openly attacking the PRI, even discussing sensitive issues that others would not touch, including the PRI's connections to illegal drug trafficking. In the meantime, Cardenas, who resigned as mayor of Mexico City in September 1999, was losing support in his third try at the presidency. Cardenas had some successes as mayor, but could not bring crime under control. Many Mexicans believe the PRI defrauded Cardenas from a presidential victory in 1988. The country now has an autonomous Federal Electoral Institute. Following the 1997 elections, when the PRI lost its supremacy at the polls, more Mexicans came to believe in their electoral system.
Yet, even with assurances of clean elections, Mexico faced many problems. Political violence continued in Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Guerrero in 2000. In late 1999, the government proposed a new peace initiative in Chiapas. In the late 1990s, the country was also facing an unprecedented crime wave that affected every facet of society. Even the historically respected military had been tainted by the arrests of high-ranking military leaders accused of being involved in the drug trade.
On 2 July 2000, after over seven decades of PRI rule, Fox was elected president in an upsetting victory over Labastida. Although he did not receive a majority of the votes, Fox won by a 7% margin. The vote was the cleanest in Mexico's history, passing standards of freedom and fairness, as well as remaining peaceful. Fox drew support from beyond his conservative PAN party, indicating voter support for his commitment to tackling government corruption and economic reform.
By mid-2003, Fox's tenure was seen as disappointing. The president lost popularity after his two most symbolic legislative initiatives failed to pass the divided congress. The president failed to solve the indigenous revolt in Chiapas. Despite an effort to pass legislation championed by the Zapatista Army, Fox's own PAN party killed the initiative. A tax reform aimed at increasing government revenues to beef up social spending was also significantly scaled back by the PRI and PRD opposition. President Fox's ambitious legislative and government agendas have moved slowly and many Mexicans are now looking at the PRI as a government alternative. Recent local and state elections have given the PRI important political victories. Yet, the 2003 midterm parliamentary elections, scheduled for July, were unlikely to drastically change the composition of the divided congress. As it is traditional in Mexican politics, presidential hopefuls begin to campaign shortly after the midterm elections show the relative weight of the different parties. President Fox will likely finish his term in late 2006 having fulfilled very few of his electoral promises.