Among the first complex civilisations in Mexico is the Olmec culture, which flourished on the Gulf Coast around 1500 BC. The Olmec culture spread throughout Mexico in the formative cultures of Chiapas, Oaxaca and the Mexico Valley.
In central Mexico, the heyday of the classical period saw the rise of Teotihuacan, which formed a military and commercial empire. It had the largest pyramid structures built in pre-Columbian America.
In the Early Postclassic period, Mexico was dominated by Toltec culture, and the lowland Maya had significant territories in Calakmul and Chichen Itza. In the Late Postclassic period, the Aztecs established a tributary empire that encompassed most of central Mexico. Mesoamerican cultural traditions came to an end in the 16th century, and in the following centuries Mexico’s indigenous cultures were under Spanish colonial rule. Contrary to popular belief, however, neither the Mayan nor the Aztec cultures ever completely “disappeared” and to this day many Mexicans trace at least part of their heritage back to indigenous roots and languages such as Nahuatl. Many Mayan languages are still spoken by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Mexicans. Indigenous elements are still visible today in the loanwords of Mexican Spanish, traditional dress, Mexican cuisine, architecture and even religious customs (which are “Catholic” to varying degrees). The eagle and snake on a cactus depicted on the Mexican flag, for example, refer to an Aztec legend about the founding of Tenochtitlan, the city that is now Mexico City.
Colonial and early independence
Mexico remained under Spanish colonial rule until 1821, when it declared independence under the terms of the “Iguala Plan”. After the brief Mexican Empire of 1821-1823 (former Spanish general and independence hero Augustine de Iturbide briefly declared himself emperor, but was overthrown after two years), Mexico became a republic with a fragile balance of power between liberals (mainly allied with urban merchants) and conservatives (allied with the church and large landowners). Antonio López de Santa Anna became president several times, but was also overthrown several times by his opponents, leading to eight consecutive, meaningless terms as president and five “permanent” exiles.
The first Mexican state was anything but stable, and both Texas (led by American immigrants who wanted to make Texas a slave state of the United States) and Yucatan seceded several times from Mayan rebels who fought both the Yucatan independence movement and the federal government in the “caste war”.
After the de facto independence of Texas, a disagreement over the southern border (the Nueces River as claimed by Mexico, or the Rio Grande as claimed by Texas) led the United States into a brief war, which ended with a devastating defeat for Mexico (the phrase about the “Halles de Montezuma” in the Marines’ song refers to the presidential palace in Mexico City, which was captured by the United States) and the loss of Alta California (now the US state of California), Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and the permanent loss of Texas north of the Rio Grande.
French Intervention and the Second Mexican Empire
When President Benito Juarez (see below) stopped paying the Mexican debt in 1861, France decided to invade the country to recover all or part of the money. This was only possible because the United States, which had declared in its Monroe Doctrine that it would not tolerate European interference in the sovereign states of the Americas, began its civil war that same year. After overthrowing the government (although Mexican resistance to the occupiers never ceased), the French installed a Habsburg prince as Emperor Maximilian I to act as their puppet. Although the Mexican monarchy had some support among conservatives, his days were numbered when French troops withdrew at the end of the American Civil War, and in 1867 Maximilian was executed by firing squad. Cinco de Mayo, often confused in the United States with “Mexican Independence Day”, is celebrated in memory of the Battle of Puebla, which took place during the French occupation and was decisively won by Mexican Republican forces.
Benito Juarez was the first president of indigenous origin in all of Latin America and is one of the few figures who is still seen almost exclusively in a positive light in Mexican history. He was president from 1858 to 1864 and then from 1867 until his death in 1872. His saying “el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz” (respect for the rights of others means peace) is still frequently quoted.
Porfirio Diaz, a general during the French intervention, came to power shortly after Juarez’s death and ruled Mexico from 1876 to 1911. Although initially eager and able to reform and modernise the country, the length of his rule and his corruption caused much discontent with his government, and in 1911 the Mexican Revolution broke out, initially to remove him from power.
Under the PRI
After the dust of the revolution settled, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI [pronounced /pree/] for its Spanish name) became the dominant political force and all presidents before the early 1990s were members of the PRI. However, they did not create a one-party state, and other parties were still legal and participated in elections, but the success of the PRI candidate (especially at the federal level) was almost always guaranteed. The struggles for political power therefore took place mainly within the PRI, with more conservative or left-wing factions gaining the upper hand from time to time. In 1988, during a presidential election that was close for the first time in decades, a computer that counted the votes is said to have crashed, and the words used to announce this “se cayó el sistema” are known for their ambiguity, as they can mean either “the computer broke down” or “the (political) system fell”. Nevertheless, according to the official results (which many still doubt), the PRI candidate won a six-year term and narrowly surpassed the 50 per cent threshold needed to avoid a second round. In 2000, the PRI finally lost its first presidential election when Vicente Fox of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) won a narrow victory in a three-way race. In 2006, the PAN won again with the election of Felipe Calderon as president, but in 2012 the PRI returned to power with the election of Enrique Peña Nieto, who promised to end the drug war. It remains to be seen whether this is only temporary or whether the PRI has actually regained its former dominant status.
Despite problems such as corruption and the drug war in the north (some regions are de facto controlled by different cartels), Mexico has experienced steady growth in recent years and the political system has seen many democratic multi-party elections with a peaceful transition of power and a fairly stable three-party system, with both the PAN (conservative) and the PRI (centrist, with a hang-up, sometimes left-wing) winning the presidency several times and the PRD (left of the PRI) being a serious contender in almost all elections.
The war on drugs is still ongoing and some parts of the country are still not completely safe, but the situation has improved greatly since the 2000s. In general, the north, with cities like Ciudad Juarez known for their violence, is more dangerous than the south and Yucatan is one of the safest regions in Latin America. To learn more about the impact of the war on drugs, read the Staying Safe section of this article and the articles on the different regions.