Small Wars Journal

SWJ El Centro Book Review – Los servicios de inteligencia en México, ayer y hoy

Sat, 02/05/2022 - 4:34pm

SWJ El Centro Book Review – Los servicios de inteligencia en México, ayer y hoy

Paloma Mendoza-Cortés

This book review is available in Spanish here.

Intel MX

Lucía Carmina Jasso López and Otto René Cáceres Parra. Los servicios de inteligencia en México, ayer y hoy. Mexico City: Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), 2021 [ISBN: 978-607-30-5297-9, E-Book, 198 páginas]


In the broad field of security and defense studies, Intelligence studies are less examined for several reasons. In the specific case of Mexico, the strong culture of secrecy of the intelligence services themselves is a strong deterrent. In addition, inherent prejudices reduce Intelligence to a simple act of espionage, and also the difficulty of access by researchers and academics to intelligence archives. Consequently, the mistrust of citizens to government actions resulting from misinformation is reproduced at certain times by the media and social networks.

In very revealing and extensive research, the book Los Servicios de Inteligencia en México, ayer y hoy, by Lucía Carmina Jasso and Otto Cáceres, we can find an introduction to the main challenges of the intelligence services that precede a historical recount of the evolution of Mexican Intelligence.

The book examines classic intelligence authors such as Sherman Kent and Kendall Willmore, and authors who developed the first intelligence studies in Mexico into the state-of-the-art debate: Servicio de Inteligencia y transición a la democracia en México [1] and La Charola. Una historia de los servicios de Inteligencia en México by Sergio Aguayo;[2] Inteligencia y seguridad nacional. Apuntes y reflexionesby Luis Herrera-Lasso[3] and the highly elusive works CISEN 20 años de historia. Testimonios published by CISEN[4] and CISEN: Auge y decadencia del espionaje mexicano by the Mexican journalist Jorge Torres.[5] The book also addresses various interviews with Jorge Tello Peón and General Jorge Carrillo Olea as former directors of the Mexican intelligence service.

The Intelligence Function

This book presents a generalized study that describes Intelligence's main definitions and models in a guiding sense, mainly for newcomers to this field of research. The authors postulate that: “Intelligence is that which enables the selection of more convenient alternatives for solving a problem” (p. 16), and in its operational complexity, considered from various approaches: as specialized knowledge, as an organization or as an activity and its conceptualization. Intelligence practice is directly related to all levels and orders of security, with strategic studies and national interests.

The authors also point out that since Intelligence can have a high strategic level and therefore has achieved its upper scope in the state government, most intelligence production is focused on national security. It practically becomes the only source of knowledge for informing strategic decision-making by the state. However, the authors warn that both Intelligence and national security are vulnerable to being used under an authoritarian logic to justify unilateral decisions or impose a “Reason of State” of dubious legality or morality (Ragion di Stato). The authors emphasize that among the main functions of an Intelligence service are, in the first place, providing timely information for decision making. Thanks to its predictive nature, it also provides knowledge about the nature and magnitude of risks and threats and identifies crisis scenarios.

Los Servicios de Inteligencia en México clarifies that it is currently essential for a State to have an Intelligence system at all levels of government. The capacity and predisposition for inter-agency cooperation, known as Intelligence Fusion, which results in the transformation of data and information into actionable knowledge for security operations and public policies, is a theoretically ideal framework for having efficient intelligence services that are politically neutral.

Similarly, Jasso and Caceres carry out an account of the challenges of intelligence services, especially in Latin America, in the transformation of their intrinsically secret nature towards their adaptation to more democratic forms such as the existence of checks and balances and accountability mechanisms, transparency, the transition of intelligence services from military to civilian, the establishment of strict regulations and limits, as well as continuous vigilance for the sake of human rights and individual guarantees of the population. The authors conclude that these limits are not only for the benefit of the population but also for the intelligence services themselves in the long term.

In the case study of Mexico, the authors establish that security institutions are also the result of socio-historical processes framed in the authoritarian exercise of power by the Mexican state after the Mexican Revolution, where the power struggle was the main reason why state security merged with the protection of the presidential and single-party regime.

Consequently, the Mexican intelligence services have been, since their foundation, the reflection of authoritarian presidencies that partially hindered the arrival and consolidation of the exercise of democratic government, in the face of an intermittent internal struggle, at least in the civil intelligence service, for optimizing professionalization and balancing professional ethics against the wishes and preferences of the Mexican president. Later, during the Cold War, the national security doctrine was the basis to legitimize the political persecution of the opposition.

The Evolution of Mexican Intelligence

The publication indicates that the intelligence services have gone through two political party changes in power in recent decades. First, in 2000 with the government of Vicente Fox from Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) and then again in 2018 with Andrés Manuel López Obrador from the Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional(MORENA). In each transition, there has been a debate about its institutional role starting from its origins during the presidential regime of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). However, both Fox and López Obrador,  as candidates for the presidency, publicly denounced being spied on by CISEN (Centro de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional or Center for Investigation and National Security).

The book explains how Mexico's national security has been used repeatedly as a framework to legalize and legitimize government actions to self-protect its continuity, both against internal political opposition and external aggression. Thus, in Mexico, historically, the survival of the state has been confused, apparently deliberately, with the continuity of the regime; perhaps it is another reason why the studies of Intelligence and national security were exclusive, for a long time, for the military elite and a tiny part of the civilian government.

One of the hypotheses from Jasso and Caceres’ analysis is about the national security focus on the control of the citizens of Mexico, as well as on the systematic repression of enemies and political dissidents.  Consequently, civilian Intelligence, in particular, concentrated the information monopoly on only three individuals: the President of Mexico, the Government Secretary, and the Director of the intelligence agency.

The authors also point out that Mexico requires the construction of a conceptual apparatus based on theoretical-methodological patterns that explain the causes of insecurity while allowing the formulation of efficient and effective public policies. At the same time, needs to draw distinctions in the field of Intelligence between Strategic Intelligence and Criminal Intelligence, as well as between Military Intelligence and Police Intelligence. According to Los Servicios de Inteligencia en México. Ayer y hoy, we can distinguish at least nine historical stages of the civil intelligence services in Mexico, each one as a clear reflection of the political context of its time:

First, the creation of the confidential investigation services by Venustiano Carranza during the Mexican Revolution. Also, the establishment of the Seccion Primera (Confidential Services) in 1918. The Sección Primera was a specialized organism outside the army in the Government Secretary. Years later, in 1929, the First Section was transformed into the Departmento Confidencial under Plutarco Elías Calles as Government secretary. At this time, we can find the first intelligence service structure with analysis groups marked in the book. In 1938, during the government of Lazaro Cardenas, the Oficina de Información Política y Social was established, with an even more discreet profile but still without professional features.

Second, in 1941 in the Second World War, it became Departamento de Investigaciones Políticas y Sociales, mainly for the political and migratory control of suspected foreigners or sympathizers of the Axis Powers through the Oficina de Asuntos Extranjeros and the creation in 1942 of the Jefatura de Servicios de Vigilancia Política into de Government Secretary. This period is significant for the analysis of Mexican intelligence agencies due to the coexistence of at least four other intelligence services: the Mexican Army, the Office of the Attorney General, the Secret Service of the Mexico City police chief, and the Special Services of the President.

Third, in 1948 the Departamento de Investigaciones Políticas y Sociales changed its name to the Dirección General de Investigaciones Políticas y Sociales (DGIPS), its agents were divided into two groups: political information agents and confidential agents; however, the creation of the Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS) affected its powers and influence.

Fourth, the direct creation of the Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS) by the first civilian President Miguel Aleman Valdes in 1947 as an instrument of control subordinated first to the office of the President of the Republic and later to the Government Secretary with operational capabilities that merged into a single body the capabilities and operations of matters that during his time considered as intelligence and State security, in addition to having a unique and direct link with the President of Mexico.

Although the military did not participate in the creation of the DFS, in the same year of its creation, officers who graduated from the Mexican military college (Heroico Colegio Militar) were incorporated, and its first director was a colonel of the Mexican Army, these soldiers shaped a system of political Intelligence used discretionally against enemies of the regime. Thus, the authors carry out a recount of the DFS as the main protagonist, an institutional history of almost forty years of corruption, espionage, political persecution, and violation of the human rights of the enemies of the regime known as Guerra Sucia (the dirty war), a fact simultaneous to the protection and links to drug trafficking of DFS agents, an order of things that exceeded its limits in 1985 with the murders of DEA agent Enrique Kiki Camarena and journalist Manuel Buendía.

Fifth, with the disappearance of the DFS in 1985, President Miguel de la Madrid first requested that  Colonel Jorge Carrillo Olea, the Government Undersecretary design the new intelligence agency together with Jorge Tello Peon. Their work continued under President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

Sixth, as a result of the merger of the remnants of the DFS and the DGIPS, the Dirección de Investigaciones Políticas y de Seguridad Nacional (DIPSEN) was created, which shortly changed its name to the Dirección General de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional (DISEN). The novelty was that DISEN only focused on analysis and did not carry out operational actions. DISEN would not be a public security agency but rather a national security agency and was part of a visionary project to establish an intelligence and national security system. Unfortunately, that system never was achieved due to political issues. From that project, only CISEN survived.

Seventh, the foundation of the Centro de Investigación para la Seguridad Nacional (CISEN) in 1988 during the Carlos Salinas de Gortari presidency, simultaneously with establishing the National Security Cabinet in which the director of CISEN was the technical secretary to improve interagency coordination. However, this failed to achieve the intended benefits as struggles and competition within the security cabinet undermined the efforts to improve coordination.

According to the authors, under the direction of Jorge Tello Peón during the government of Ernesto Zedillo, the structure of CISEN was modeled after and inspired by the intelligence services of the United States, Israel, and Germany. In the same period, CISEN initiated regular identification of threats to national security, only for internal distribution, called Agenda Nacional de Riesgos similar to the Strategic National Risk Assessment (SNRA). However, CISEN survived its first crisis in that period as its effectiveness was questioned when many blamed intelligence failures for the armed uprising of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN).

Eighth, in 2005, during the presidency of Vicente Fox, Congress approved the National Security Law (Ley de Seguridad Nacional), which was essentially a law on the powers and legal framework of CISEN. Congress also created a bicameral National Security Commission defining the legal criteria for intervention by CISEN in the private life of the population.

Also, the National Security Council replaced the National Security Cabinet, and the figure of the National Security Adviser was created, who replaced the director of CISEN, which ultimately resulted in more significant conflicts with the other members of the security council who bristled at being subordinate to someone other than the President of Mexico. Another aspect emphasized by the authors is that there was a perception within CISEN of an environment of operational and institutional weakening to strengthen the National Security Council during the Fox government.

A significant advance that Jasso and Cáceres point out was the foundation of the Intelligence School for National Security (Escuela de Inteligencia para la Seguridad Nacional – ESISEN) in 2009. ESISEN began the creation of programs in other educational institutions such as the specialty and master's degree in Intelligence in the National Institute of Public Administration (Instituto Nacional de Administración Pública – INAP) and the intelligence bachelor degree at the Anáhuac University for the training and updating of an intelligence community and the promotion of an intelligence culture.

The authors also point out that during the government of Felipe Calderón, the public perception of CISEN as a center of political and social espionage, oriented mainly to carrying out telephone interventions to satisfy the President of Mexico's political interest. From this point of view, CISEN faced two more media scandals. First, the intelligence failures that led to the inability to anticipate the escape of Joaquín Loera “El Chapo” Guzmán from the maximum-security prison El Altiplano in 2015. Next, the international scandal in 2017, revealed that the private communications of Mexican journalists, opposition politicians, and human rights defenders were intercepted through the use of Pegasus spyware from the Israeli company NSO Group.

Ninth, the National Intelligence Center (Centro Nacional de Inteligencia – CNI) replaced CISEN from the first day of the government of current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2018, with three significant changes. First, founded as a decentralized body; second, the CNI went from the Government Secretary to the Security and Citizen Protection Secretary; and third, for the first time in decades, a military man, the retired Major General Audomaro Martínez Zapata, was named as General Director of CNI. However, the authors emphasize that the faculties, structure, and personnel inherited from CISEN prevailed even with the changes.

Contemporary Intelligence Challenges

Finally, Jasso and Cáceres underline the unquestionable fact that, in a democracy, neither the intelligence services nor the national security agencies define national objectives. Rather, their function is only technical and advisory. In the end, it is the political power that decides. Similarly, Intelligence faces numerous dilemmas that have been debated practically throughout the world, mainly in the most advanced democracies, on balance between strengthening intelligence systems and transparency and access to information.

In some cases, the transcendental step meant the democratization of intelligence services through access to information. In this sense, for example, in Argentina, the “Files of Repression” that contain the files of the Intelligence Directorate of the Police of the Province of Buenos Aires (DIPPBA) and that remained hidden under reserve for reasons of "national security," they managed to be declassified. UNESCO even recognized the files as a World Heritage Site in 2008.

In Mexico in 2002, President Vicente Fox, in a historical event, ordered the declassification and publication of the files of the DFS and the Mexican Army, which transferred to the General Archive of the Nation (Archivo General de la Nación – AGN) for public consultation; however, over the years, an essential part of them disappeared, and even researchers publicly denounced the difficulties for their access. Eighteen years later, in 2019, President López Obrador signed a decree ordering the transfer to the AGN of historical documents related to human rights violations, political persecution, and acts of corruption by previous governments.

Similarly, it is essential to promote an Intelligence culture capable of transforming the population's historical perception of intelligence services, stereotypes, prejudices, and narratives of the collective imagination that lower the public prestige of intelligence analysts and agents. This process goes hand in hand with the professionalization of the intelligence services personnel for the sake of their specialization.

Another dilemma mentioned in the book is the double edge of the use of technology in Intelligence that, on the one hand, allows greater efficiency in the collection and analysis capacity while exposing field agents less and guaranteeing the secrecy of information. Nevertheless, on the other hand, the same can also be a risk of dependence on foreign technology companies.

In conclusion, the dilemmas of the Mexican intelligence services such as the monopoly of information, the need for political neutrality, transparency, and access to information remain. Also, the difficulty in creating a community and a culture of Intelligence and the vulnerability of the intelligence services to be dependent on foreign technologies is one of the consequences of the unfinished democratic transition in Mexico. Perhaps they are part of the variables that condemn the intelligence services to continue being part of the Mexican bureaucracy.


[1] Leonardo Curzio, La seguridad nacional de México y la relación con Estados Unidos. Ciudad de México: Centro de Investigaciones sobre América del Norte, Universidad Nacional Autónomia de México, 2007.

[2] Sergio Aguayo Quezada, La Charola. Una historia de los servicios de inteligencia en México. Ciudad de México: Grijalbo, 2001.

[3] Luis Herrera-Lasso, “Inteligencia y seguridad nacional. Apuntes y reflexiones” in Arturo Alvarado and Mónica Serrano, Eds. Los grandes problemas de México. Seguridad nacional y seguridad interior. Ciudad de México: El Colegio de Mexico,2010,  pp. 191–225.

[4] CISEN 20 años de historia. Testimonios, Ciudad de México: Centro de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional (CISEN), February 2009.

[5] Jorge Torres, CISEN. Auge y decadencia del espionaje mexicano. Ciudad de México: Debate Editorial, 2009.

[6] Giovanni Botero, Botero: The Reason of State. Edited by Robert Bireley. Cambridge Cambridge University Press, 2017.


Categories: El Centro - SWJ Book Review

About the Author(s)

Dr. Paloma Mendoza-Cortés Paloma Mendoza-Cortés is a Mexican Professor, researcher, and consultant on national security, defense, intelligence, and private military issues. She holds a degree in Political Science and Public Administration, Master in Government and Public Affairs, from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and a PhD in Government and Public Affairs  from the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (UAM). She is a graduate of the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies (CHDS), National Defense University (NDU),  Washington, DC, Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM), Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE), and Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Penales (INACIPE). She has been a professor at the Heroico Colegio Militar (HCM – Heroic Military College), the Centro de Estudios del Ejército y Fuerza Aérea (CEEFA – School of Intelligence of the Center for Army and Air Force Studies, and the Sistema de Desarrollo Policial de la Comisión Nacional de Seguridad (CNS – National Security Commission). She has been a guest lecturer at the Centro de Estudios Superiores Navales (CESNAV – Center for Naval Higher Studies), and the Association of Graduates of the National Defense College. Paloma Mendoza is currently Director of Analysis Coordination at M-B Consulting, a member of Foretell Georgetown University, member of the Research Committee of the Network of Women in Security and Defense in Latin America and the Caribbean (Amassuru), member of Women in International Security (WIIS), an Asociación Mexicana de Arqueología e Historia Militar (Mexican Association of Archeology and Military History) Fellow, and Academia de Ciberseguridad y Derecho Digital  (Academy of Cybersecurity and Digital Law − AMCID) Fellow.