A detachment of Rurales in field uniform during the Diaz era.
|Active||1861 - 1914|
Mexican Indian Wars
Skeleton Canyon Massacre
Guadalupe Canyon Massacre
Rurales (Spanish for "Rurals") was the name commonly used to designate the Mexican Guardia Rural (Rural Guard): a force of mounted police or gendarmerie that existed between 1861 and 1914. In modern Mexico the name is applied to members of the part-time Rural Defense Corps.
The Guardia Rural was established as a federal constabulary by the Liberal regime of Benito Juárez in 1861. This mounted rural police force became best known during the long rule of President Porfirio Díaz (1877–1911).
As originally constituted under Juárez the Rurales lacked the numbers and organisation to effectively control the banditry widespread in Mexico during the 1860s and 1870s. The concept of an armed and mobile rural police organized on military lines, was derived from Spain's Civil Guard ("Guardia Civil"). Established in 1844 the Spanish Guardia had quickly won a reputation as an effective but often oppressive force.
The existing Corps of Rurales was absorbed into the Republican Army and irregular forces opposing the French intervention of 1862–1867. However the Imperial regime of Archduke Maximilian (1862–1867) created a parallel force known as the Resguardo, which by October 1865 numbered 12,263;1 indicating that the concept of a rural mounted police force had become well established. Following the Republican victory, Los Cuerpos Rurales were re-established.
President Porfirio Díaz had expanded the Rurales from a few hundred men to nearly 2,000 by 1889 as part of his programme of modernization and (eventually) repression. Initially some captured bandits were forcibly inducted into the Rurales, as had been the case under Juárez. The system of recruitment however subsequently became a more conventional one of volunteer enlistment. Officers were usually seconded from the Federal Army. The Rurales were heavily armed, carrying sabers, carbines, lassos and pistols. They were divided into ten corps, each comprising three companies of about 76 men.
The Porfirian regime deliberately fostered the image of the Rurales as a ruthless and efficient organization which - under the notorious ley fuga ("law of flight") - seldom took prisoners and which inevitably got its man. However, research by Professor Paul J. Vanderwood during the 1970s involving detailed examination of the records of the corps indicated that the Rurales were neither as effective nor as brutal as regime publicists had suggested. The daily pay of 1.30 pesos was not high and up to 25% of recruits deserted before completing their four-year enlistments.2 Never numbering more than about 4,000 men and located in small detachments, the Rurales were too thinly spread to ever completely eliminate unrest in the Mexican countryside. They did however impose a superficial order, especially in the central regions around Mexico City, which encouraged the foreign investment sought by Díaz and his científico advisers. To a certain extent the regime saw the Rurales as a counterweight to the much larger Federal army and in the later years of the regime they were increasingly used to control industrial unrest, in addition to the traditional task of patrolling country areas.3While in theory a centralized organization, the rural guards often came under the direct control of local politicians or landowners.4
The Rurales achieved a high profile internationally, rather like that of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or the Texas Rangers, whose roles they paralleled. They wore a distinctive grey uniform braided in silver, which was modelled on the national charro dress and included a wide sombrero and red or black necktie. This dress, their frequent involvement in ceremonial parades and their general reputation, invariably drew the attention of foreign visitors to Mexico during the Porfiriato. They were variously described as "the world's most picturesque policemen" and "mostly bandits". The former may have true but the latter was a distorted memory of the rough-and-ready early days of the corps. Some of the Mexican states maintained their own rural mounted police forces and an efficient city police operated in Mexico City, but none matched the Federal Rurales in notoriety or glamour.
|A graphical timeline is available at
Timeline of the Mexican Revolution
After the overthrow of Díaz in 1911, the Rurales continued in existence under Presidents Francisco I. Madero (1911-1913) and Victoriano Huerta (1913-1914). Madero left the force essentially unchanged, although introducing legislation intended to prevent corpsmen, other than senior officers, from carrying out summary executions without due trial process.5 In practice the induction of large numbers of Maderista fighters on a temporary basis while awaiting discharge simply diluted such efficiency as the corps had retained. Huerta saw a more central role for the Rurales and used a detachment to murder Madero after the "Ten Tragic Days" of 1913. He then proposed to expand the existing units into a field force of over ten thousand men serving alongside the regular Federal troops. Recruiting and desertion problems prevented this ever becoming a realistic project. The remains of the Guardia Rural was finally disbanded in July 1914 along with the old Federal Army, when Huerta fled into exile.6
Today's Rurales are a part-time militia called the 'Cuerpo de Defensa Rural (Rural Defense Corps), originally formed as village self-defence groups during the agrarian disturbances of the 1920s. They do not have any functions that parallel those of the paramilitary mounted police force of the 1861–1914 era. This corps was formally organized under army jurisdiction according to the Organic Law of 1926. Its origins, however, date back to the period when the revolutionary agrarian reform program was first implemented in 1915. In efforts to protect themselves against the private armies of recalcitrant large landowners, rural peasants organized themselves into small defense units and were provided weapons by the revolutionary government. Until 1955 enlistment in the Rural Defense Force was restricted to peasants working on collective farms (ejidos). After 1955 participation in the Rural Defense Force was expanded to include small farmers and laborers. All defense units, however, were attached to ejidos, possibly as a means to guarantee control.
The Rural Defense Force numbered some 120,000 in 1970, but was being phased out in the 1990s. The IISS's The Military Balance listed the corps as having only 14,000 members in 1996. The volunteers, aged eighteen to fifty, enlist for a three-year period. Members do not wear uniforms or receive pay for their service but are eligible for limited benefits. They are armed with outmoded rifles, which may be the chief inducement to enlist. Rudimentary training is provided by troops assigned to military zone detachments.
The basic unit is the platoon (pelotón) of eleven members under immediate control of the ejido. Use of the unit outside the ejidos is by order of the military zone commander. One asset of the corps is the capacity of its members to gather intelligence about activities within the ejidos and in remote rural areas seldom patrolled by military zone detachments. Corps members also act as guides for military patrols, participate in civic-action projects, and assist in destroying marijuana crops and preventing the transport of narcotics through their areas.
The Rurales make an appearance in O. Henry's short story, "Hostages to Momus". O. Henry, writing through the first-person narration of the character Tecumseh Pickens, gives a colorful sketch of the Rurales:
- "Rurales? They're a sort of country police; but don't draw any mental crayon portraits of the worthy constable with a tin star and a gray goatee. The rurales---well, if we'd mount our Supreme Court on broncos, arm 'em with Winchesters, and start 'em out after John Doe et al. we'd have about the same thing."
- Rene Chartrand, page 23 "The Mexican Adventure 1861-67", ISBN 1-85532-430-X
- Paul J.Vanderwood, page 101 "Disorder and Progress - Bandits, Police, and Mexican Development", ISBN 0-8420-2438-7
- Page 120, "Disorder and Progress - Bandits, Police and Mexican Development", Paul J. Vanderwood, ISBN 1-84176-9899-4
- Pages 29-30, "The Mexican Revolution 1910-20", P. Jowett & A de Quesada, ISBN 0-8420-2439-5
- Page 162, "Disorder and Progress - Bandits, Police and Mexican Development", Paul J. Vanderwood ISBN 0-8420-2439-5
- The Mexican Revolution 1910-20, P. Jowett & A. de Quesada ISBN 1-84176-989-4
- John W. Kitchens, "Some Considerations on the "Rurales" of Porfirian Mexico," Journal of Inter-American Studies," (1967) 9#3 pp 441–455 in JSTOR
- Paul J. Vanderwood. Disorder and Progress: Bandits, Police, and Mexican Development (1992) online
- Paul Vanderwood, "Genesis of the Rurales: Mexico's Early Struggle for Public Security," Hispanic American Historical Review (1970) 50#2 pp. 323–344 in JSTOR