The Rise and Fall of Mexico’s First Great Political Party
By JESSICA GUERRERO
Mexico’s independent life as a republic began in 1821, 200 years ago.
But the first hundred years of the country’s autonomy were dizzying and plagued with numerous internal conflicts. These events and circumstances unleashed the Mexican Revolution that broke out in 1910, and consisted of a civil war between several regional revolutionary forces against the authoritarian regime of President Porfirio Díaz, whose government spanned more than 30 years.
Once this episode in the history of Mexico was concluded, the modern history of Mexico officially began with the elaboration of the current Mexican Constitution in 1917, which shaped the form of government that Mexico would adopt as a constitutional and democratic republic ever since.
During the first decade after the Mexican Revolution, while the country was still recovering from the destruction and chaos caused by this civil war, a few political forces that emanated from the revolution condensed and, in 1928, formed the first political party of modern Mexico, the National Revolutionary Party (PNR), founded by politician Plutarco Elías Calles with the purpose of implementing a civilized political system to neutralize the revolutionary forces that emanated from the recent conflicts.
In 1938, the then-President of Mexico Lázaro Cárdenas del Río announced the restructuring of the PNR by introducing reforms, so as, in his own words, “to achieve a more solid alliance between peasants, soldiers and bureaucrats.” The above would also imply a name change for the party to the Mexican Revolution Party (PMR).
However, for some time the PNR leaders also considered giving the party’s name a socialist connotation that would be compatible with Cardenas del Río’s regime and ideology. Nonetheless, this was not approved by the party’s members during at the time.
The life of the PMR, like that of its predecessor, was brief, and in 1946, the third and last transformation of the party would take place, forming what is known to this day as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
The new party described itself as a national association made up of organized workers, peasants, independent workers and public employees who accepted the principles of the Mexican Revolution and believed in gender equality. Its ideals were to achieve public power through democracy and within the law, as well as the unification of the revolutionary sectors in their fight for their rights and the satisfaction of their needs.
From then on, the PRI would reap a series of victories throughout the country, maintaining its hegemony at all levels of the Mexican political stratum for more than 70 years, until the year 2000, when the PRI lost the presidency to candidate Vicente Fox Quesada of the conservative National Action Party (PAN).
During those seven decades in power, the country went through various economic and social crises that gradually tarnished the image of the PRI, while little-by-little, opposition parties grew stronger, gaining voters until the PRI was finally displaced from the presidency at the beginning of the 21st century.
The so-called Tlatelolco Massacre in 1968 was perhaps the darkest episode during the dominant period of the PRI. This took place on Oct. 2 of that year, while a group of students in Mexico City demonstrated at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas square protesting against constant persecution and repression by the city’s authorities. The response of the government of then-President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz was to attack the demonstrators by opening fire and bulldozing everything and everyone in their wake with military tanks.
The pro-government media and the government’s own sources only recognized a small number of deaths due to this fact. However, testimonies from survivors and witnesses spoke of hundreds of bodies that were transported from the scene by the authorities after the attack, as well as dozens of students that went missing after attending the demonstration, never to be found.
The authoritarianism of the PRI was again evidenced in 1997, when 45 indigenous Tzotziles from the state of Chiapas were assassinated in cold blood by paramilitaries allegedly linked to the PRI, while they congregated in a small Christian church in the Acteal community located in the aforementioned state. In addition to the deceased, another hundred residents of the same community were arrested and imprisoned.
Faced with these bloody episodes against Mexican society, the federal government (in charge of the PRI) never officially recognized its violent actions or the number of victims left by these events, thus burying the historical truth.
Acts of alleged corruption have also been an almost intrinsic element of the PRI governments as their politicians and the many of the party’s members have been involved in major scandals.
As of today, four former PRI governors are currently in jail for crimes related to embezzlement and corruption, including former Quintana Roo Governors Mario Villanueva and Roberto Borge, former Veracruz Governor Javier Duarte and former Tamaulipas Governor Tomás Yarrington. Also, the former governor of Tabasco, Andrés Granier, is currently under house arrest.
Another act of presumed corruption within the PRI happened during the presidential election of 1988, when the party unexpectedly won the presidency of Mexico in a mysterious way that as of today remains unclear. The party’s candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, wasn’t considered to be the voter’s favorite, according to the polls and trends of the time. It was the candidate Lázaro Cárdenas Solórzano of the leftist National Democratic Front (FDN) who had positioned at the top of the voters’ preferences and was expected to win the election.
The counting of the votes of that election was not carried out normally in accordance with previous elections, Instead, the Interior Secretariat head, Manuel Bartlett Díaz, who now is the director of Mexico’s Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) under the administration of leftist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), announced that there was an unusual technical issue with the vote counting process that would not allow them to announce a winner for the election on July 6, 1988. One day after the election, the PRI candidate was declared, by the government itself, a winner, generating great disagreement and distrust against electoral authorities.
Another scandal that has overshadowed the history of the PRI has been the murders of its candidates and members without any explanation. The party itself has been accused of perpetrating the crimes.
In the spring of 1994, PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, who was assassinated months before the election after a campaign event in the northern city of Tijuana, His murder was attributed (by the authorities) to Mario Aburto Martínez, a young man from the state Michoacán who did not quite fit the physical description of the killer provided by the witnesses of the shooting and who seemed in the eyes of some to be more of a scapegoat framed by the government. Aburto Martínez has been in a federal prison since that year.
Rumors and theories regarding the assassination of Colosio positioned the PRI as the alleged mastermind behind that heinous crime against its own candidate. Colosio was in lead of voter preferences at the time and was a few months away from becoming president while maintaining harsh differences with his own party for his progressive ideas and plans that threatened the party’s own agenda.
At the end of that year, another similar scandal emerged within the party after the murder of the federal deputy and the PRI’s general secretary, Francisco Ruiz Massieu, at the hands of a lone shooter named Daniel Aguilar Treviño, who hours after committing the homicide was arrested. After his apprehension, Aguilar Treviño confessed implementing other high-rankikng PRI politicians, including Raúl Salinas de Gortari, brother of then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Raul Salinas de Gortari was later acquitted and released after 10 years in prison.
The PRI’s winning streak in Mexican politics finally came to an end in 2000, when it lost the presidential election for the first time in more than seven decades. For voters, the conservative Natonal Action Party (PAN) represented a hope for change and progress in the democratic life of the country. The PAN won the next two six-year presidential terms.
But inl 2012 the PRI returned to the presidency with its charismatic candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto.
Scandalous results from a security strategy implemented by the PAN government of Felipe Calderón Hinojosa in the war on drugs, among other factors, would lead voters to reconsider their decision to cast their vote for the PAN, which until then had been considered the party of change and modernity.
It was then that Peña Nieto began his presidential mandate in 2012 after a victory over PAN candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota and the then-Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) candidate López Obrador.
For the PRI, the victory represented a new possibility to return to the presidency and regain its hegemony that it had lost 12 years before. The number of elected PRI governors also grew. However, the party’s bonanza was short-lived and began to fade synchronously with the decline in popularity of Peña Nieto, who was the constant target of criticism and ridicule from the press and Mexican society.
In addition, Peña Nieto was involved in several major corruption scandals, among which was the so-called White House scandal in 2014, with the purchase of a luxury home worth $7 million by his then-wife Angélica Rivera to Grupo Higa, a construction firm that had just won lucrative contracts with Peña Nieto’s administration.
Another event that buried Peña Nieto’s popularity was the disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ training school located in the coastal state of Guerrero after an attack by armed groups.
The official version of the federal government stated that the 43 students had been assassinated and their bodies cremated by criminal groups of the region. Then-Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam endorsed the story, leading to great controversy as the families of the students demanded the government to carry out pertinent investigations to locate the remains of their loved ones.
These events and the recent arrests of politicians and officials linked to Peña Nieto ended up burying not only his popularit,y but also the PRI’s as a whole.
The PRI, with a current unfavorable reputation, continues to stand strong, still positioning itself among the main three political forces in Mexico, maintaining at least four governorships and the third majority within the Chamber of Deputies.
The PRI’s current leader, Alejandro Moreno, has confirmed his interest in participating as a candidate for the presidency in the 2024 elections. Likewise, the party’s image is currently in a rebuilding phase, with activists trying to rejuvenate it and bring it closer to younger voters.
Over the years, the PRI has managed to stay afloat, using various strategies to remain standing in the preferences of the Mexican electorate, historically allying with civil organizations such as the movement Antorcha Campesina (Farmers’ Torch) and unions such as the Mexican Workers Confederation (CTM), among others.
This approach has, election-after-election, guaranteed the party a large volume of votes and loyal members that has strengthened its permanence in the country’s political life.
Without a doubt, it will be very difficult for the party to ever disappear. Despite its misfortunes and mistakes, it is the party that emerged alongside modern democracy in Mexico and it is fair to say that many of the current political practices in the country emanated from the PRI. The party can hardly be left behind.
Although it is true that the PRI is in a crisis folloiwing the results of the last elections, it is the most experienced political organization in the country and its own history is its greatest strength.