Mexico – The Machinery Of Government

FLOATING over the public buildings of Mexico may be seen the national flag of the Republic, a tricolor of red, white and green which in some cases bears the arms of Mexico, the traditional eagle on the cactus, and the letters “E. U. de M.” (Estados Unidos de Mexico), meaning the United States of Mexico.

Outside of the Republic this phrase is so seldom heard that one is apt to forget that this is the country’s political title. The Mexican Republic is, in fact, a confederation of twenty-seven States, two territories and the Federal District in which the capital stands, formed after the pattern of the United States of America, each State having a governor and a state legislature. There is also a Federal Congress, with its place of assembly in Mexico City, which, like its prototype at Washington, is composed of a Senate and Chamber of Deputies. It meets twice a year; and in it each State is represented by two senators, while deputies are elected for every forty thousand of the population.

All this sounds very democratic, but the truth is that the Mexican representative system is merely a paper one; for the suffrage is so severely limited that only a very small percentage of the population are ever allowed to cast votes. Politics in Mexico are, in fact, an elaborate sham. There is practically no opposition party in the houses, where discussions are academic, and can only end in the fulfilment of those resolutions which have weeks before been made in the Cadena or Chapultepec Castle by the President. Under these elaborate political fictions President Diaz wisely cloaks his dictatorship.

To these burlesques of legislative chambers every citizen is eligible with the single exception of priests, who are excluded from both houses. Senators and deputies are each paid at the rate of $1500 a year. The President is elected every four years, though, as explained in the pre-ceding chapter, this regulation has fallen into abeyance for more than twenty years.

While Mexico has the usual legislative assemblies, it also has numerous law courts. These are divided into district courts, and at the head of them is the Supreme Court, pre-sided over by fifteen judges. The legal procedure is based on the Roman law. In the criminal courts cases are con-ducted in a manner very similar to that which prevails in France. There are judges of instruction, who institute proceedings, refer them to the public prosecutor and finally present the case before the jury. The latter consists of nine persons (thirty are summoned), native or foreign, who must have occupations, education or independent means. There are also courts of lesser jurisdiction, like the American police courts, and alcaldes or local magistrates, who ad-minister a summary jurisdiction.

Though all this sounds very well, yet with the possible exception of the unfortunate erring peons, no one in Mexico ever gets quick justice. In the courts the prevailing rule is mañana — tomorrow — and from the judge to the usher they are all faithful to this magic word. But the greatest difficulty which confronts the Mexican courts is that involved in cases which concern foreigners. The whole policy of the Mexican authorities is to be civil to foreigners, and in legal matters this is as obvious as it is in administrative. Sometimes, however, Mexican judges are found too favorable to their fellow-countrymen, and then it requires the interference of the President to tip the scales of justice. Such a case was reported to me. A foreign company, so I was told, ran a cable line through some land belonging to a Mexican, with the understanding that settlement was to be made afterwards. Some ground was also occupied for other purposes. Although no damage was done to the property, the company offered the landowner a generous sum as compensation, but he refused to accept it, and the case was referred to the local judge, his intimate friend. This judge ordered the company to purchase the entire estate for $30,000 as compensation. The company appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld the decision. The case was then brought to the notice of President Diaz. He summoned the members of the court before him and said in effect: “This won’t do. You’ll have to reconsider that decision. We are inviting foreign capital to Mexico, and if foreigners discover that they cannot get justice we shall lose millions.”

The Supreme Court thereupon ordered the local judge to give the ease another hearing. This time he decided that the company must pay $20,000. Again they appealed to the Supreme Court, again that court upheld the decision, and again resort was had to the President, who, however, this time refused to interfere. When the company declined to pay, the court announced that their property would be seized and sold at public auction on a certain date. The company retaliated by pointing out that they were the only corporation rich enough to buy the property if the auction took place; and in any case they would see that the facts of the gross injustice should be published in all the leading newspapers of the world so that foreigners might learn what sort of treatment they might expect in Mexico. This threat reached Senor Limantour, the Minister of Finance, and he hurried off to the President, warning him that something must be done at once. President Diaz thereupon ordered the Supreme Court to fix the damages at $3000, the sum originally offered by the company, and this was paid in final settlement. “But,” added my informant, “suppose there had been no Diaz to interfere ! What protection should we have had? ”

The chief triumph of the Diaz regime has been the policing of the Republic by mounted police, or “rurales,” who keep order in the country districts ; and an excellent and intelligent body of men are one of the bulwarks of the government. But it is perhaps in the capital that one is best able to gauge the astounding change which has been witnessed during a single generation. Twenty-five years ago Mexico City was the prey of as foul an army of beggars, thieves and cut-throats as could be found in any city in the world. Murders were committed by half dozens every night. In the awful rookeries where the scum of the city — thieves, offal-carriers, rag-pickers, pulque-sellers — congregated, crimes of all kinds were planned and carried out with impunity. The government flooded the city with police, but at first it looked as if the forces of disorder must win. When the electric lights were first installed in the city, the vagabonds cut the wires night after night in the neighborhood of San Lazaro, one of the lowest quarters, that they might carry out their robberies unmolested. Even in the Alameda and the fashionable quarters of the city the foulest murders were committed, and it was even suggested that the police were in league with some of the worst criminals.

But the government was not to be beaten. The arm of the law was stretched out into the worst holes and crannies of Mexico City, policemen were stationed at every corner. Prisons were full to choking, and those criminals caught red-handed were transported to the hot lands in southern Mexico as plantation slaves. The result has been more than good. To-day Mexico City is one of the most orderly places in the world. One can walk from end to end at night, unguarded, with little fear of being even annoyed.

But if the Mexican police are good, they are very often arrogant. In street rows they will arrest everybody within sight and woe betide the man who resists them. The truth is, the Mexican policeman takes himself very seriously. Just as every French soldier was taught to believe that there was a marshal’s baton in his knapsack, so the Mexican “sereno” hoodwinks himself into the hope that he is an embryo Monsieur Lecoq, which self-conceit betrays him into a certain officiousness and anxiety to arrest any and everybody on the slightest provocation.

I heard of an amusing instance which illustrates this. An American visitor to Mexico City was seized with a bad cold and compelled to keep his bed at his hotel. One morning, two policemen marched into his room with a stretcher and told him he must be taken to the hospital. On his demanding why, they replied, “It has been reported that you have typhus, and you must come immediately.” They strapped him on the stretcher, took him to the hospital, where he was deprived of his clothes, given, a sort of hospital nightgown, and put into a ward with a lot of typhus patients. He did not see any doctor for a day or so. When that official did arrive, he asked, “What are you doing here?” The American replied,” They say I’ve got typhus.” The doctor said, “You’ve got nothing of the kind, so get out, senor.” When the American went to find his clothes, they had been stolen. He borrowed a blanket, and wrapping it round him tried to sneak back to his hotel through the side streets. On his way he was arrested on the charge of “appearing in public in an indecent costume,” was taken to the police station and detained there a day or two more, only being released when the U. S. consul interfered. When he complained to the authorities, they simply laughed at him, seeming to’ consider it a great joke on the Americano. Indeed, one jovial official remarked, “You came to Mexico to see sights, didn’t you? Well, you’re seeing them. Then why complain?”

Another case which ended in tragedy was that of a clerk who, buying a revolver from a friend, was putting it in the case when it went off, shooting the latter and inflicting a serious wound. A request to take the deposition of the wounded man was sent to the local magistrate, but he was drunk and could not come. Friends of the wounded man, having procured a stretcher, a journey of seven miles was made to the house of the next magistrate, who took the deposition, which was witnessed by the mayor of the village and the chief of police. The man was then sent to Mexico City for treatment, the clerk and two other friends accompanying him. He was being removed from the train when an officious policeman refused to allow him to be taken to the hospital, arrested the whole party as “suspicious persons” and conducted them to the police station, where they were confined all night. Receiving no medical attention, the victim of the accident died from the effects of the excitement and exposure. The clerk was then taken back to the place where the accident had occurred, and put into prison, charged with murder. It was only after expensive litigation that he was liberated.

Yet another case. A drunken Mexican accosted an American clerk in the main street of a provincial town, demanding money. The young fellow pushed him away, and the man dropped dead, undoubtedly from heart disease, as it was proved afterwards that he had been drinking for days and had some heart ailment. The clerk was immediately arrested. The next proceeding was taken by the local magistrate, who called in a butcher and ordered him to make a post mortem examination. After carving up the body of the dead man, the butcher reported that the internal organs showed signs of a blow; and on this evidence the young American was committed for trial for murder, and kept in solitary confinement. When I heard the story, he had been in prison for more than six months, all efforts to get him out on bail having been in vain. The law’s delays in Mexico are very tedious, and many months elapse before even in ordinary cases a trial is held. When the magistrate was asked why he did not call in a doctor to make a proper post-mortem examination, his reply was that the butcher was more convenient and the law allowed him to get a substitute if a doctor was not at hand. “Do you think that a butcher is competent to judge in such a serious case?” asked the defendant’s lawyer. The magistrate shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Quien sabe?” (Who knows ?).

In Mexico the death penalty is inflicted by shooting, a squad of soldiers being the executioners. This, of course, refers to formal executions, of which many hundreds take place in the course of the year. But there are informal death sentences carried out in any number. Quite a usual way of getting rid of a difficult prisoner is the following: While being taken from one district to another, under armed escort, he is told by his guards to go ahead, and is then shot in the back, the cause of his death being reported as “shot while attempting to escape.” This is permissible under the old Spanish Ley de Fuega or Law of Flight. Highwaymen, too, are dealt with summarily, being shot at sight. A year or two ago some desperados robbed a pay-car on the Mexican Central Railway near Cuernavaca. They were caught, taken to the scene of the robbery and without a semblance of a trial shot on the spot. At the time of my visit to the capital there were thirty-one criminals awaiting the death penalty in Belem Prison.

For the rank and file of prisoners, Mexican prisons are not so very bad. They are compelled to work, as are the convicts in an American prison, but the whole system of discipline is lax. Smoking is permitted, talking is winked at, and there is a good feeling existing between the warders and their charges. In fact, the discipline seems to be little if at all more severe than that of an English workhouse. There must, for example, be much worse places than the prison in Oaxaca. One day when I was passing,—it happened to be the afternoon for visitors,—the female friends of the prisoners, with lots of children, were pouring into the prison yard, where a military band was. discoursing lively music to the convicts who sat round in easy attitudes, smoking cigarettes, gossiping and having a thoroughly good time.

Next to policemen, soldiers are much in evidence in Mexico, the army being an important national institution. The country is divided into several military districts, and in each of these is a certain quota of troops. Nearly every town of any size has a commandancia or barracks. As mentioned in another chapter, most of the Mexican officers are trained at Chapultepec. Over a third of the commissioned members of the army graduate from that institution. The student binds himself for seven years’ service, and should he be discharged or refuse to serve, he must re-pay the government about ten dollars for each month he has remained in the academy. If there is a war, all retired graduates can be compelled to report for service. There is no conscription in Mexico and the soldier’s pay is very small.

The Mexican standing army amounts to between 25,000 and 30,000 men; but this does not represent the total forces of the Republic, which at a time of emergency could summon 86,000 reserves to the colors. Of the standing army 20,000 odd are infantry, 2000 artillery and 5000 cavalry, while there are small corps of engineers and others. Infantry and cavalry are armed with the Spanish Mauser rifles and carbines. The headquarters of the army are in Mexico City, and several battalions of infantry and regiments of cavalry are stationed there at all times.

Mexican soldiers usually wear either a blue cloth or white linen uniform, with a blue or white military cap or glazed leather Austrian-shaped kepi. One of the artillery regiments has a uniform of German appearance, blue with red facings, and a bright, spiked brass helmet. Some regiments wear the national sombrero, and in the country districts the nacionales sometimes wear a pudding-basin-shaped straw hat with a ribbon round it. All the cavalrymen have a carbine strapped to their backs, and carry revolvers as well as swords. The majority of the troops are Indians of half or whole blood.

Some of the crack regiments are presentable enough, but the average Mexican soldier looks somewhat undisciplined and sloppy. As to their fighting qualities there is a great difference of opinion, some authorities declaring them cowardly and untrustworthy, while others assert that they are brave and stubborn fighters. The truth is that there are great differences in the methods of recruiting. While the nacionales, who are equivalent to our militia, are for the most part a well-set-up, loyal body of men, the regulars are quite untrustworthy and have little or no patriotism. The explanation is simple. Most of them are men who as a penalty for some crime have been sentenced to serve in the army, thus forcing them into the service, ill-drilled and with little or no knowledge of the use of firearms, so that it is scarcely to be expected that they will make good soldiers.