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Mexico has been a largely peaceful country since its violent revolution with a century marked by increased industrialization and economic growth, but with significant challenges for its leaders to overcome. This article describes some of the more significant challenges and how they affected the country. The article also includes suggested destinations where a traveler interested in seeing or learning more about events of the late 20th and early 21st century can find things to see and do.

Mexico historical travel topics:
MesoamericaColonial MexicoMexican War of IndependencePost-Independence MexicoMexican RevolutionModern Mexico

PRI politics[edit]

Modern Mexican history made in CDMX

Everything you need to know about Mexican politics of the 20th century can be summed up in 3 letters: PRI, which stands for Partido Revolucionario Institucional (the Institutional Revolutionary Party). This was the party that rose from the ashes of the Mexican Revolution to become Mexico's dominant political force through the end of the century. They continuously held the presidency without interruption for over 70 years, as well as holding a majority in the legislature, the mayorality of Mexico City, and most state governorships. Regardless of whether a president's views leaned more liberal or more conservative, he was always a PRI man. But popular opinion of PRI faltered after an earthquake in 1985 and economic decisions that prompted a currency devaluation in the 1990s (many Mexicans blamed the devaluation on corruption during the Carlos Salinas presidency, forcing the former president into exile). But the first real crack in PRI's full body armor appeared in 1997 when they lost the mayoral office of Mexico City, and then most significantly three years later when they lost the country's presidency to Vicente Fox and his nascent PAN party. In the 21st century, PRI continues to be a powerful political force, but their inability to effectively control corruption and organized criminal violence makes them vulnerable to challengers. As of 2024, the PRI has won only one of the four presidencies since 2000.


Some sites to visit if you want to better understand Mexico's politics and political history are:

  • 1 Los Pinos, Mexico City/Chapultepec. Los Pinos has been the official presidential residence for most of the modern era. It was rejected as a residence by Andres Manual Lopez Obrador, who saw it as too pretentious. He prefers to reside in more modest accommodations in the Palacio Nacional. Los Pinos is open to the public and serves as a cultural attraction.
  • 2 Congreso de la Union, Mexico City/Centro. Mexico's legislative branch meets in two separate buildings, one for the upper house (senate) and one for the lower house (chamber of deputies). The chamber of deputies building (San Lorenzo Metro station) houses the Museo Legislativo with exhibits about Mexico's legislature and free tours through the chamber of deputies.
  • 3 Palacio Nacional, Mexico City/Centro. Mexico's capitol building is the seat of the federal government. Though the legislature moved out to larger, more modern facilities, the president moved in along with the offices of several cabinet members. The building is known for a series of murals of Mexico's history, painted by Diego Rivera in the early 20th century.

World War II[edit]

Laborers under the Bracero Program arrive by train to Los Angeles in 1942

At the outset of World War II, relations between Mexico and the United States were poor on the best of days. U.S. capitalists were angry about the Mexican government nationalizing the oil industry and seizing their assets, while many Mexicans were still upset about U.S. invasions of Mexican territory in the 19th century and the resulting loss of everything that is today the American southwest, from California to Texas. At one point, Germany thought it might be able to drive a further wedge between the two neighbors by convincing Mexico to open up a front along its shared border. Mexico wasn't interested in poking the bear so that effort went nowhere and Mexico remained neutral. But when German U-boats sank two Mexican tankers in the Gulf of Mexico in May 1942, president Manuel Ávila Camacho declared war.

Mexico's role in World War II would largely center on supply and logistics, though the president signed an agreement with the United States that Mexican nationals in the United States could be drafted for military service. Over 15,000 Mexicans served in the U.S. military, many volunteering, others being conscripted. The largest contribution to the war effort was through an agreement known as the Bracero Program, in which Mexico would send hundreds of thousands of laborers to the United States to fill jobs, particularly in the agricultural and railroad sectors. 300,000 men were sent to the United States to replace American boys off fighting the war. Only one Mexican military unit was sent to battle: an air force unit called the Aztec Eagles flew almost 800 combat missions during the Battle for the Philippines. Mexico's materiel support of the United States military enriched its coffers and is widely credited for enabling the Mexican Miracle, which will be discussed separately.

Mexican Miracle[edit]

Fundidora Steel Furnace #3 now houses science and technology exhibits for kids

Several countries experienced an economic boom in the aftermath of World War II and Mexico sure did as well. Mexico's economic boom is often called the Mexican Miracle because it was a sharp economic expansion that started earlier than in most countries and lasted through the 1970s (a period of roughly 4 decades of annual 6.8% GDP growth coupled with low inflation).

The Mexican Miracle began with the adoption of inward focused economic policies that encouraged domestic manufacturing aimed at replacing costly imports from abroad. Mexico's limited role in World War II worked to its advantage. During the war, the United States and its allies sent cash to Mexico in exchange for war materials and in many cases, sent debt instruments that Mexico would be able to redeem after the war. Mexico used foreign payments to modernize its infrastructure, building roads, railroads, ports and strategic industries. Because Mexican territory was never attacked by Germany or Japan, their modernized industry was intact at the end of the war and ready to be re-purposed to profitable civilian purposes. Modern industrial infrastructure was particularly concentrated in the Valley of Mexico and in the northern city of Monterrey, which became Mexico's most important center of industry.


  • 1 Parque Fundidora, Monterrey/Centro. Built in the early 20th century, the Fundidora steel and iron works in Monterrey was Mexico's first foundry. It underwent major expansion at the beginning of World War II to meet U.S. industrial demand and served as a training facility for steel workers who could staff more new factories. During the 1940s, Monterrey emerged as Mexico's industrial powerhouse, and Fundidora was its iconic factory. The company continued to make iron and steel into the 1980s, when it went bankrupt. The entire factory complex was transformed into a large urban park where former industrial buildings have been repurposed as museums and industrial equipment has been cleaned up and repurposed as art works and historical markers.

1968 Olympics[edit]

Memorial for protesters killed by the Mexican Army on October 2, 1968

In the first days of October 1968, Mexico City was putting the finishing touches on its new sports venues and Olympic village as it prepared for the opening ceremony of the 1968 Olympic Games (XIX Olympiad), the first time a Latin American country would host the prestigious event. A buzz of excitement ran through the city as civic leaders proclaimed the event to be "the games of peace", promoted with an icon of a dove. On October 2, protesters had gathered at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, upset that the government was spending so much money on the Olympics when they could be using the funds for social programs. Because they were the "games of peace", the government proved their commitment to peace by sending in the Army (complete with tanks rolling through the plaza). The troops opened fire on the unarmed protesters killing an estimated 350 of them and injuring more than 1,000.


  • 4 Memorial del 68, Mexico City/Centro (Plaza de las Tres Culturas). Museum chronicling the events surrounding the army's massacre of protesters at Tlatelolco in 1968, just days before the Summer Olympics, which were hosted in Mexico City that year. It's definitely worth a look, but all explanatory text and video interviews are in Spanish only, so brush up your vocabulary or bring a translator.
  • 5 University City Campus - UNAM, Mexico City/Coyoacán. Olympic events were held throughout the city but the Olympic village was the UNAM campus, whose Olympic Stadium hosted track and field events as well as the opening and closing ceremonies. It was here that Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists in a black power salute as the United States national anthem played during the medal ceremony (earning both an immediate eviction from the games).
  • 6 Ciudad Deportivo Magdalena Mixhuca, Mexico City. The Ciudad Deportivo was constructed for the 1968 Olympics. The Sports Palace dates from 1968, while other facilities, such as the Hermanos Rodriguez race track and the Estadio Harp Helu are more modern. An historical memorial acknowledges the park's role as a 1968 Olympics venue.

1985 earthquake[edit]

A 15-story apartment building after the 1985 earthquake

Natural disasters happen in all corners of the globe. Some places get droughts or plagues of locusts, Mexico gets earthquakes. Most are localized events, but the earthquake that hit Mexico on September 19, 1985 had a huge impact on the entire country. The quake was caused by shifting plates off the coast of Michoacan but it was mostly felt in Mexico City where it registered 8.3 on the Richter scale, shaking the city for more than 3 minutes, killing over 10,000 people who were crushed by falling buildings including residents of towering apartment buildings in Mario Pani's iconic Conjunto Urbano Nonoalco and patients and medical staff in the Hospital Juarez. Tears of both grief and joy intermingled as rescuers dug through the hospital wreckage finding that when the maternity ward collapsed, most of the mothers were killed but many of the newborn infants miraculously survived. Over 400 major buildings collapsed and over 3,000 other buildings.

Near the earthquake's center, a tsunami caused 10-foot waves in Zihuatanejo and 9-1/2 foot waves in Lazaro Cardenas.

Although earthquakes are natural events, many Mexicans blamed politicians for the high death toll. Some people say that the buildings collapsed because building codes were erratically enforced and developers could often skirt the law by paying bribes to the right people. In any case, the PRI saw its popularity drop after the earthquake.


  • 7 Museo Mural Diego Rivera, Mexico City/Centro (Alameda). This small museum was built to house Diego Rivera's famous mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central ('Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central'), which the painter created for the Hotel del Prado in 1947-1948. The hotel was destroyed in the earthquake of 1985, but the mural survived and was moved to this location. Hotel Prado was razed and is now the site of the Hilton Reforma.
Modern Mexican history made anywhere but Mexico City


Trade agreements between countries are generally boring, but the creation of a trade block between Mexico, the United States, and Canada was an important event for the economies of all three countries, but particularly in Mexico where it had the effect of dramatically lowering the cost of goods imported from the U.S. or Canada (benefitting middle-class families) and also providing incentives for foreign companies to establish manufacturing facilities in Mexico where labor costs were lower than in Canada or the U.S. The new factories were often built by European or Asian companies who could benefit from reduced tariffs when selling to U.S. and Canadian markets. These new factories were called maquiladoras, and while a large number of them were built in the traditional industrial hubs of Monterrey and Mexico State, concentrations were also built in Puebla, Tijuana, and other areas. Drive around any of these cities and you are likely to see modern factories bearing the names of well-known foreign corporations, all looking to cash in on "free trade".

Drug war[edit]

Submarine used by the Sinaloa cartel to smuggle drugs into United States, seized in 2010 with 1,302 kg of cocaine on board

Mexico has a long history of helping to supply the United States' insatiable appetite for illegal drugs. From the 1960s through the 1980s they were mostly growing marijuana and producing heroin, but the producers were loosely organized and operated on a far smaller scale than today's cartels. In the 1980s and the 1990s, Colombian cartels became major crime organizations, supplying the United States with cocaine. As anti-drug operations conducted by the DEA and the Colombian government began to crack the Colombian cartels, the Colombians turned to the Mexican heroin and marijuana producers for help getting their cocaine into the U.S. Mexican cartels grew in wealth and power and by 2000 were the biggest and most powerful organized crime networks. In Mexico, the approaches to dealing with the cartels varied (often radically) every 6 years as new presidents took office. Between 2000 and 2006, Vicente Fox took a relatively hands-off approach, not aggressively targeting criminal organizations. His successor, Felipe Calderon, took a very aggressive stance, declaring war on the cartels and sending large, heavily armed military units after cartel strongholds. During Calderon's administration, an estimated 43,000 people were killed in the drug war. Mexicans were almost as angry about the bloodshed as they were about criminal organizations having the ability to operate with seeming opportunity. Calderon made extensive use of the army, and by the end of his presidency, corruption among the army's officer corps was an apparent problem. In 2012, Enrique Pena Nieto was elected president with a declared goal of de-escalating the violence of the drug war. He had mixed success and was openly criticized by the United States and other allies who saw him as a weak ally. During his administration, the imprisoned head of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, escaped from the Altiplano high security prison. In 2018, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (known as AMLO) became president. AMLO has been a moderate in the drug war, not aggressively attacking cartel strongholds, but not ignoring cartel activities either. AMLO took steps to curtail corruption in Mexico's anti-cartel agencies. He dismantled the federal police (federales), replacing it with a new agency called the Guardia Nacional. He also stopped using the army for major drug operations, preferring to trust the navy and marines (who were viewed as uncorrupt, seeing as they had previously held a minor role in the anti-drug war). While violent incidents sometimes occur, they have become markedly less frequent in the AMLO years.

During the past two decades, the drug war has successfully diminished or dismantled several crime organizations, but the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) continues to identify the Sinaloa cartel as the number 1 criminal organization with the Jalisco New Generation in a somewhat distant second place. The Sinaloa cartel controls smuggling routes throughout California and the southwest as well as all major cities of the northeast United States. Smugglers use a wide range of tactics, including flying drug shipments across the border in small planes, packing drugs in shipments of legitimate goods, and even using submarines instead of the high-speed cigarette boats once favored by the Colombian cartels. In Mexico, a new president will be elected in late 2024 and it remains to be seen what direction the drug war may take.


  • 2 Culiacan, Culiacan, Sinaloa. Home turf for El Chapo's notorious Sinaloa Cartel. Narco tours are available from local taxis and moto-taxis. See also Organized crime tourism.

COVID pandemic[edit]

Every country of the world was affected by the COVID-19 virus that swept across the planet in early 2020. Like many other countries, travel was severely impacted with flights grounded and borders closed in an effort to stop the spread of the disease. Between 2020 and 2022 more than 300,000 people died in Mexico from the virus. Occasional waves of new variants continue to occur, but shutdowns no longer occur. Most travelers who have been immunized or have had the illness are at no increased risk while in Mexico. About 80% of the Mexican population has been immunized against COVID and when breakouts happen, the population is generally supportive of public health guidance to mask-up and increase sanitation.

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