Voting Amid Violence
Murder, Impunity, and the Mexican State
In October of 1927, General Francisco R. Serrano and 13 of his closest allies were murdered by federal soldiers by the side of a highway outside of Huitzilac, Morelos. The events, which are (infrequently) remembered as the Huitzilac Massacre, put a speedy, if bloody, end to a political rebellion led by Serrano and General Arnulfo Gómez. The federal government’s objective in ordering these killings was to preemptively quash an expected armed insurrection by the two generals, both stymied opposition presidential candidates who sought to block the return to power of former president Alvaro Obregón in the 1928 election.
Although the government claimed that the murdered men had been convicted as rebels in a court martial and condemned to death, more than one of its own agencies later concluded that no form of trial had ever taken place. Hundreds of sympathizers with the dead men’s cause were also killed by the government in the weeks and months that followed, only a few with any semblance of due process, and politicians that supported them were purged from the federal legislature.
This is generally regarded in Mexican history as a relatively minor bump in the road towards the consolidation of the single party-dominated system that took root two years later with the founding of the National Revolutionary Party (PNR), the first precursor to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI): the Gómez-Serrano rebellion and the mass assassination of its leaders are somewhat understandably overshadowed by other, larger and more immediately consequential revolts of the same period, most notably the De la Huerta rebellion of 1923-4, and the Cristero War of 1926-7.
Nearly a decade later, the government of president Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40) opened the first official investigation of the massacre. However, the inquiry clearly had purposes other than providing long-overdue justice. First, it was carried out to publicly exonerate the Mexican political system of a violent crime committed by its own agents and in its name, a mass assassination designed to assure political stability in a time when there were not political institutions capable of peacefully managing dissent within the ruling clique. Second, and also in the service of regime consolidation, it was designed to sully the reputations of former president Plutarco Elías Calles and his Minister of War Joaquín Amaro, who had ordered the massacre and were now personae non gratae as they and their allies attempted to publicly undermine Cárdenas. Third, it was meant to signal that the state had now abandoned its older, ad hoc, and sometimes violent (Callista) ways of solving political dilemmas, in favor of institutions, transparency and accountability.
The year-long investigation in 1937-8 resulted in no convictions or even trials, nor did it reveal anything new about the massacre, beyond confirming what most Mexicans already knew: that the victims were murdered by the state for their political convictions, and that the perpetrators would never be held accountable. The distraught mother of one of the men killed wrote to the investigators in one of several pleas for justice for her son: “In that terrible era I had only crying sobs of terrible pain upon receiving the corpse of my noble son, shot by confused soldiers without any right, other than the power of the guns of our Nation.” 
But the investigation that she and others demanded did not provide her or anyone else with any justice. Instead, it was designed to stand in for real accountability, by publicly absolving the military, the judiciary and the presidency from responsibility for a particularly dark and shameful episode in the recent past, as all implicated institutions were given the opportunity to demonstrate their respective lacks of either legal competency or jurisdiction to pursue the matter further.
This case helps us to understand that selective state-sponsored violence and state consolidation were effectively two sides of the same coin in postrevolutionary Mexico, even during the reformist, progressive Cárdenas era, and that criminal impunity for political violence was not necessarily an oversight but sometimes a considered political calculation. During the twentieth century, this balancing act helped maintain the hegemonic PRI regime’s power. Peace and stability were secured through selective, strategic and relatively sporadic acts of violence by the state—not just when the postrevolutionary political system was in its decline in later decades, and not just when the PRI’s preferred strategies of cooptation and selective repression failed, but consistently, and from the very beginning.
Referring (albeit obliquely) to the Huitzilac massacre, Cárdenas bemoaned that “respect for human life” had sometimes been “underrated” in the years following the Mexican Revolution. Political expediency in the 1920s and 1930s at times meant compromises that were never revisited—in part because the compromises were quite successful, at least as far as the ruling party’s leaders were concerned. Arguably equally important were strategic choices to not prosecute both state and non-state perpetrators of violence, even when the consequences of that violence ran contrary to the obvious greater good but served the purposes of particular, powerful individuals or groups, and above all the ruling party itself. Criminal impunity for the perpetrators of the massacre was not the investigation’s principal goal, just an evidently accepted cost. If the investigation sent a message to the political class that intra-elite violence would no longer be tolerated, for the public, it became clear that grand, symbolic gestures of justice were the state’s best, and only, response.
Photo: Fototeca Nacional/D.R. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México
Political violence is a spectrum, in Mexico just as everywhere else. In the Mexican case, there are notorious examples, both present and past, of violence and murder either committed openly by agents of the state (Huitzilac, Tlatelolco, Corpus Cristi) or, more frequently in recent decades, which the state chose to allow, either by fiat (Acteal), evident indifference (Ciudad Juárez’ long-term plague of femicide) or gross negligence (Ayotzinapa, Allende, the utter failure of the state to protect journalists), with some measure of overlap in these categories in all cases.
All of these acts of violence were committed and/or permitted for reasons we may never fully understand, other than that we may surmise that the violence was done in the interest of someone or some group that is either very powerful or protected by someone very powerful. Conspiracy theories inevitably run rampant in the dire absence of both accountability and transparency, and in a country where people commonly assume the state is protecting perpetrators of violence, if not the perpetrator itself: the unsolved 1994 assassination of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio is a particularly prominent case in point, but again, just one of many.
Of course, sometimes both violence and criminal impunity for violent acts are carried out in the interests of the state itself. But if we study political violence only in its most narrow interpretation as an act of harm or killing or the threat of such by the state, and even if we extend that understanding of political violence to the absence of any official accountability for non-state perpetrators (and their sponsors, as applicable), we are fundamentally missing the bigger picture of the long-term consequences of that violence, even in its absence.
Near total criminal impunity for acts of violence is itself arguably an act of violence by the state against its citizens; it is also a powerful act of political disenfranchisement that in Mexico over the past 20 years has deeply complicated and undermined an ongoing process of electoral democratization. But it is a mistake to see seemingly unchecked violence today principally as a symptom of that process, although, particularly when it comes to drug-related violence since the advent of electoral democracy in Mexico, there clearly is a causal relationship. Rather, we must confront the deep roots of violence which are tightly twisted around the very foundations of the modern Mexican political system, and the ways in which the numerous forms of political violence confronting Mexico are interrelated.
A pervasive lack of faith by citizens in their local and national government to reliably provide them with protection from criminals (or, for that matter, police and soldiers), or with due process, is just as corrosive to the relationship between state and society as are repeated examples of the corruption and undermining of democratic processes. It is also critical to recognize that both of these are arguably not due to flaws in the functioning of Mexico’s postrevolutionary political system but to its very features: that is to say, many of the most vexing problems Mexico faces today are the result of historical legacies of the design and construction of its political system in the early twentieth century.
As protesters demanding answers and justice for the Ayotzinapa massacre of 2014 memorably wrote in candles across the massive Mexico City zócalo: “FUE EL ESTADO”: perhaps agents of the state were actively, directly involved in the killings of 43 students, but equally, the lack of any solid answers for the public from authorities about what happened that night in Iguala, and why, was also a form of state violence, and another accumulated rupture in the compact between the state and its citizens.
The study of history doesn’t solve any problems in the present, but it is instructive. In the case of Huitzilac, a massacre nearly one hundred years ago underscores that compromises that were made in those days, including the sanctioning of murder of dissidents in the name of stabilizing the infant postrevolutionary state and protecting it from imminent political threats, continue to haunt the present.
Selective state-sponsored repression, violence and even killing are often seen, and not incorrectly, as evidence of weak states resorting to desperate measures when other options to achieve particular goals (usually to stifle dissent) are unavailable. But if we are to fully understand the depths and the pervasiveness of both state-led violence and the long-term perpetuation of near-total impunity for most perpetrators of violence in Mexico, we must come to terms with the difficult reality that violence either committed or effectively sanctioned by the state has always been an element of postrevolutionary governance.
Violence should therefore not be understood as an aberration but as an integral part of the system, even during the height of postrevolutionary progressive reform under Cárdenas, even in the heyday of the PRI when its political tools were well-oiled and in good working order, and even when Mexico was at its most peaceful, particularly compared to neighboring countries in the region that were less discreet in the violence they committed against their citizens. Scholars of drug trafficking in Mexico have already shown this, and there is growing scholarly consensus that the state and so-called “cartels” have never been as neatly separated across a single battle line of good and evil, or even separate at all, as either would have us believe. We must extend this insight both outwards from drug violence and backwards in time to better understand state-led and state-sanctioned violence in Mexico in both the present and the past.
1. Archivo Histórico de la Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional (online special collection), Departamento de Archivo Correspondencia e Historia. Expediente XI/481.5/412.Tomo II, Fojas 381-4. Refugio Robles de Capetillo to Agustín Mercado Alarcón, 17 November 1937. The military’s records of the investigation of the massacre were briefly made available online at its historical archive’s website (http://www.archivohistorico2010.sedena.gob.mx) between 2010 and (roughly) 2014. I have written more extensively about this case and its significance: Sarah Osten, "Out of the Shadows: Violence and State Consolidation in Postrevolutionary Mexico, 1927–1940," The Latin Americanist 64, no. 2 (2020).
2. As quoted in: John W. F. Dulles, Yesterday in Mexico: A Chronicle of the Revolution, 1919-1936 (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1961), 679-80.
Sarah Osten is an associate professor of history at the University of Vermont. Her research is on revolutionary politics and political violence in 20th century Mexico.
Voting Amid Violence
Voting Amid Violence is a project of the Mexico Violence Resource Project. It has received support from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime and the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego. To download a PDF mini-book of the essays, click here. For more information about the Mexico Violence Resource Project, visit our About page by clicking here.