Mexican Dirty War
Part of the Cold War and Operation Condor

Mexican Army soldiers in the streets in 1968

Government victory

  • Continued rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party
  • Most leftist guerrilla groups disbanded

After the conflict


Left-wing groups[1]


Casualties and losses
Estimated at least 3,000 people disappeared and executed, 3,000 political prisoners, and 7,000 tortured[1]: 8 

The Mexican Dirty War (Spanish: Guerra sucia) was the Mexican theater of the Cold War, an internal conflict from the 1960s to the 1980s between the Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)-ruled government under the presidencies of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, Luis Echeverría and José López Portillo, which were backed by the US government, and left-wing student and guerrilla groups.[6][7] During the war, government forces carried out disappearances (estimated at 1,200),[8] systematic torture, and "probable extrajudicial executions".[9]

In the 1960s and 1970s, Mexico was persuaded to be part of both Operation Intercept[10] and Operation Condor,[11] developed between 1975 and 1978, with the pretext to fight against the cultivation of opium and marijuana in the "Golden Triangle", particularly in Sinaloa.[12]

The operation, commanded by General José Hernández Toledo,[13] was a flop with no major drug-lord captures; however, many abuses and acts of repression were committed.[14]

The judicial investigation into State crimes against political movements was not opened until the end of the 71-year long PRI regime and the accession to power of Vicente Fox in 2000, which created the Special Prosecutor's Office for Social and Political Movements of the Past (FEMOSPP). However, despite revealing much about the history of the conflict, the FEMOSPP has not been able to finalize prosecutions against the main instigators of the Dirty War.[15]

In the early 1960s, previously schoolteachers, Genaro Vázquez Rojas and Lucio Cabañas, created their own “armed rebellion” in Guerrero’s mountains. Rojas and Cabañas’ rebellion group would work together to attack other groups for their own gain, rob others, and kidnap for ransom. Wherever there was an attack meant for the Mexican government or military, Mexican civilians suffered the consequences of being robbed, kidnapped or having their homes overthrown. An example of these events occurred in 1971 with three major kidnappings which produced “millions of pesos” through ransom for the rebelling forces.[16]

In March 2019, the President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, publicly released the archives of the defunct Federal Security Directorate, which contain a great amount of previously undisclosed information about the Dirty War and the political persecution by the PRI governments in the 20th century. López Obrador stated that "We lived for decades under an authoritarian regime which limited freedoms and persecuted those who struggled for social change" and issued an official apology on behalf of the Mexican State towards the victims of the repression. López Obrador further stated that judicial action will be taken against the surviving perpetrators of the repression, and promised that the surviving victims will be able to claim compensation under the law.[17][18]


Poster denouncing the forced disappearance of Felix Barrientos Campos, arrested on July 5, 1975 in Acapulco (Guerrero, Mexico) and whose whereabouts are unknown until the date of the poster's placement in 2010. The announcement was placed in the Alameda Central of Mexico City.

The war was characterized by a backlash against the active student movement of the late 1960s which ended in the Tlatelolco massacre at a 1968 student rally in Mexico City,[9] in which 30 to 300 (according to official reports; non-governmental sources claim death toll in the thousands) students were killed, and in the Corpus Christi massacre, another massacre of student demonstrators in Mexico City on June 10, 1971.[6]

There were several mostly independent groups fighting against the government during this period. Among the most important, the September 23 Communist League was at the forefront of the conflict, active in several cities throughout Mexico, drawing heavily from Christian Socialist and Marxist student organizations. They carried out confrontations with Mexican security forces, several kidnappings, and attempted to kidnap Margarita López Portillo, the sister of the president. In Guerrero, the Party of the Poor, fighting against landholder impunity and oppressive police practices in rural areas, was led by the ex-teacher Lucio Cabañas; they carried out ambushes of the army and security forces and the abduction of Guerrero's governor-elect.[9]

Cessation of hostilities

The legalization of left-wing political parties in 1978 along with the amnesty of imprisoned and at large guerrillas caused a number of combatants to end militant struggle against the government. However, certain groups continued fighting, and the National Human Rights Commission states the hostilities continued into 1982.[9]

In June 2002, a report prepared for Vicente Fox, the first president not from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 71 years, detailed the government's actions from 1964 to 1982. The report states, according to BBC News, that the Mexican army "kidnapped, tortured, and killed hundreds of rebel suspects" in the period and accused the Mexican state of genocide. The Mexican Special Prosecutor claimed the report was overly biased against the military and that it failed to detail crimes committed by rebels, including kidnappings, bank robberies, and assassinations.[9][19] However, general consensus[according to whom?] is that the report accurately assessed the government's culpability. Instead of ensuring the security of innocent civilians, it victimized them and killed them alike.[20][21][22][23][24][25]

Guerrilla groups

The year 1960 marked the beginning of a decade of terror in the region of Guerrero as the state slowly began to deal with the citizens and peasants there ever-more violently.[1]: 46  The state enacted the acts of suppression on Guerrero to keep the numerous different political reform movements stifled, as the local people over time grew agitated with the way the government was wielding its power and meddling with their rights. As the citizens grew more determined to speak out against the government in the 1960s, the PRI continued to increase its terror tactics in the region. While that was done to keep the populace under its control, the constant stream of violence pushed many guerrillas to consider raising up arms against the PRI.[1]: 46 

The rising of guerrilla groups in the 1960s and 1970s provided the state an excuse to focus its resources on suppressing the armed activities of the guerrillas. The army would become infamous for its tactics in repressing the rebels in the rural areas of Mexico, where such practices such as the death flights were initiated.[26]

This period of state violence in the state of Guerrero helped to bring about numerous guerrilla organizations. One of the groups was the Party of the Poor (PDLP), which was influenced by Marxism and people like Che Guevara.[27] That group tended to be focused more on the rural regions like Guerrero, where they would be more likely to find support among the peasants there. The PDLP actions become more violent towards the rich after events such as the 1967 Atoyac massacre, where leaders like Lucio Cabañas tried to use the peasants anger to bring about true revolution.[28]

As the 1960s and 1970s would go on, the PDLP would gain attention around the nation for acts like its kidnapping of Ruben Figueroa who was a prominent leader of the PRI.[29] While this act inspired those downtrodden by the government, this also marked the decline of the organization as the government began to focus more on taking out this guerrilla group. Eventually the army found and killed Cabañas on December 2, 1974 in an attempt to cause his movement to fall apart.[30] Another school teacher turned revolutionary, Genaro Vázquez Rojas, founded the National Revolutionary Civic Association (ACNR) as a response to the governments actions in Guerrero. These two leaders and their movements emerged as the armed phase of this social struggle against a corrupt government, which would continue long after the deaths of the leaders.[1]: 42 


Torture was one of the many tools used by the PRI-run state in its drive to keep the numerous guerrilla groups and political dissidents repressed. While torture was illegal in many countries during this time, the numerous authoritarian regimes that sprung up from the Cold War used it to great effect. The Mexican state used torture to get information from captured rebels and guerrillas about attacks and plans. This torturing would be done at any number of clandestine detention centers, where guerrillas would be sent to before arriving at a legal prison so as the state's activities would be kept secret from outside sources.[26] Typically both male and female guerrilla prisoners would be tortured at these areas. It was more common for women to be sexually assaulted by their guards. This, combined with other forms of physical and psychological gender-based transgressions leads some to believe that the state employed this form of gender policing to try and deter women from breaking the regime's social and political norms.[31]

The detaining and torturing of political prisoners became more systematic after the student uprisings in 1968, for the government decided that heavy-handed responses were necessary to deal with the unrest.[clarification needed][32] This stage of violent and public repression of differing ideals was similar to the regimes[according to whom?] of the Southern Cone governments, such as Argentina[citation needed].


While Mexico's Dirty War has been over for a number of years, not much is known of the extent of the number of victims the war claimed, due to its elusive nature throughout its length.[32] Part of the reason for this problem is that since there was no large-scale truth commission to bring justice to the perpetrators and closure for the victim's families, Mexico never had its "Pinochet moment" in regards to the war.[1]: 207  From the early 2000s onward, some local investigations have been carried out by NGOs, providing some insight into the tactics and dynamics of the war, as well as the scale of crimes. One example, conducted by the Association of Relatives of Victims of Disappearance, Detention and Human Rights Violations in Mexico (AFADEM) documented over 470 disappearances at the hands of state forces during the 1970s just in the municipality of Atoyac.[33] Another problem was the lack of response in the wake of the 2006 report by Carillo Prieto, which documented some of the atrocities inflicted by the PRI regime. Despite this evidence of numerous crimes that violated human rights, ex-president Echeverria and several other PRI officials had their cases dismissed and became free men.: 207  The failure by the government to address these problems of the past has been a cause of tension at times in Mexico, as citizens become distrustful of a state that does not address the old regime and its reign of terror.[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Calderon, Fernando Herrera; Cedillo, Adela (2012). Challenging Authoritarianism in Mexico: Revolutionary Struggles and the Dirty War, 1964–1982. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-88904-9.
  2. ^ Boyle, Kate. "Human Rights and the Dirty War in Mexico". Archived from the original on April 21, 2023. Retrieved September 19, 2023.
  3. ^ Forero, Juan (November 22, 2006). "Details of Mexico's Dirty Wars From 1960s to 1980s Released". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on December 29, 2018. Retrieved December 29, 2018.
  4. ^ "Fue Un Dos de Octubre". Archived from the original on June 14, 2018. Retrieved January 22, 2017.
  5. ^ "ELECCIONES-MEXICO: Fox gana la Presidencia". July 3, 2000. Archived from the original on February 1, 2019. Retrieved January 22, 2017.
  6. ^ a b Reuters Editorial (April 5, 2007). "Rights group urges Mexico to resolve "dirty war"". Reuters. Archived from the original on March 9, 2018. Retrieved October 29, 2016. ((cite web)): |author= has generic name (help)
  7. ^ Michael Evans. "The Dawn of Mexico's Dirty War". Archived from the original on December 19, 2003. Retrieved October 29, 2016.
  8. ^ Reuters Editorial (July 8, 2008). "Mexico looks for 'dirty war' graves on army base". Reuters. Archived from the original on June 16, 2018. Retrieved October 29, 2016. ((cite web)): |author= has generic name (help)
  9. ^ a b c d e "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on March 8, 2013. Retrieved March 7, 2013.((cite web)): CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  10. ^ Fernández-Velázque, Juan Antonio (2018). "La Operación Cóndor en los Altos de Sinaloa: La Labor del Estado Durante los Primeros Años de la Campaña Antidroga". Ra Ximhai. 14 (1): 63–84. doi:10.35197/rx.14.01.2018.04.jf. S2CID 240455351. Archived from the original on November 8, 2022. Retrieved July 7, 2022.
  11. ^ México, Redacción El Sol de. "Operación Cóndor, el inicio de la guerra contra el narcotráfico". El Sol de México | Noticias, Deportes, Gossip, Columnas (in Spanish). Archived from the original on July 7, 2022. Retrieved December 18, 2022.
  12. ^ Astorga, Luis (2004). "Géopolitique des drogues au Mexique". Hérodote. 112 (1): 49–65. doi:10.3917/her.112.0049. Archived from the original on March 15, 2022. Retrieved July 7, 2022.
  13. ^ "Drug Trafficking in Mexico - Discussion Paper 36". Archived from the original on July 7, 2022. Retrieved July 7, 2022.
  14. ^ "Operation Condor, the War on Drugs, and Counterinsurgency in the Golden Triangle (1977-1983) | Kellogg Institute for International Studies". Archived from the original on July 7, 2022. Retrieved July 7, 2022.
  15. ^ Archived July 13, 2019, at the Wayback Machine [bare URL PDF]
  16. ^ "The Dawn of Mexico's Dirty War". Archived from the original on December 13, 2023. Retrieved December 13, 2023.
  17. ^ "Mexico's president opens archives on 'dirty war period". Yahoo News. AFP. Archived from the original on March 6, 2019. Retrieved March 2, 2019.
  18. ^ Zavala, Misael. "Estado pide perdón a víctimas de represión". El Universal. Archived from the original on March 6, 2019. Retrieved March 2, 2019.
  19. ^ "Americas | Mexico 'dirty war' crimes alleged". BBC News. February 27, 2006. Archived from the original on October 29, 2016. Retrieved October 29, 2016.
  20. ^ Jornada, La. "Sedena extendió acciones de la guerra sucia contra campesinos inocentes - La Jornada". Archived from the original on May 30, 2017. Retrieved August 17, 2016.
  21. ^ "Desaparecidos. 'Guerra sucia' deja 480 víctimas". August 16, 2015. Archived from the original on April 6, 2019. Retrieved August 17, 2016.
  22. ^ "Padre de uno de los 43 admite que su hijo fue militar, pero "desertó" - Proceso". June 23, 2015. Archived from the original on December 26, 2015. Retrieved August 17, 2016.
  23. ^ "EPN ha provocado una cacería brutal de inocentes por medio de escuadrones de la muerte: expertos". Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved August 17, 2016.
  24. ^ "La guerra sucia en México - Cambio de Michoacán". Archived from the original on October 2, 2015. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  25. ^ "Urgente, una ley general de desaparición forzada". September 21, 2015. Archived from the original on July 21, 2018. Retrieved August 17, 2016.
  26. ^ a b Garcia, Jorge M. (November 2016). "Reconstructing the Collective Memory of Mexico's Dirty War". Latin American Perspectives. 43 (6): 124–140. doi:10.1177/0094582X16669137. S2CID 220735744.
  27. ^ Avina, Alexander (2014). Specters of Revolution: Peasant Guerrillas in the Cold War Mexican Countryside. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 138–139. ISBN 978-0-19-993659-5.
  28. ^ Avina, Alexander (2014). Specters of Revolution: Peasant Guerrillas in the Cold War Mexican Countryside. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 141. ISBN 978-0-19-993659-5.
  29. ^ Avina, Alexander (2014). Specters of Revolution: Peasant Guerrillas in the Cold War Mexican Countryside. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 158. ISBN 978-0-19-993659-5.
  30. ^ Avina, Alexander (2014). Specters of Revolution: Peasant Guerrillas in the Cold War Mexican Countryside. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 160. ISBN 978-0-19-993659-5.
  31. ^ MacManus, Viviana Beatriz (January 2, 2015). "We are not Victims, we are Protagonists of this History". International Feminist Journal of Politics. 17 (1): 40–57. doi:10.1080/14616742.2013.817847. S2CID 143243977.
  32. ^ a b McCormick, Gladys (January 2017). "The Last Door: Political Prisoners and the Use of Torture in Mexico's Dirty War". The Americas. 74 (1): 57–81. doi:10.1017/tam.2016.80.
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Further reading