From Police to Paramilitaries: An Analysis of the Mexican Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS)

By Megan DeTura


In August 1981, members of the FBI briefed the Mexican Attorney General on a trans-border stolen car ring. A group of twenty-eight men had appropriated several sport, recreational, and luxury vehicles violating trade prohibitions established by the Mexican government in the process. And while such reports were not atypical, this briefing was slightly different. Of the twenty-eight indicted in the crime, more than half were members of an elite intelligence agency known as the Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS). The men had used their credentials to bypass necessary checkpoints with agents from various rankings participating in all stages of the ring from initial requests to final transport. Even the director, Miguel Nazar Haro, was suspected of receiving at least one of the trafficked cars. The Attorney General was faced with the challenge of moving forward as the same agency once responsible for similar briefings had suddenly become the subject of these reports.[1]

From its earliest years the DFS existed as a highly polemic bureau unlike standard intelligence agencies both domestic and foreign. In an abuse of power, members utilized the badge to facilitate grand larceny or drug trafficking, while presidents deployed the agency to physically suppress internal resistance. A reputation of corruption soon developed, with the indictments of chief officials in various crimes ultimately motivating its dissolution. Despite various litigations levied against DFS agents, the majority of the human rights violations committed during the directorate’s thirty-eight year existence remain untried.

This institutionalized impunity provokes a certain degree of curiosity surrounding means of government control. For instance, what factors enable a state organization to physically repress its own citizens while remaining in the international focus? Furthermore, how was a violent response to a student movement in 1971 sanctioned when the same agency massacred hundreds of students just three years prior? Such questions guide the forthcoming analysis of the Dirección Federal de Seguridad, an analysis perhaps more accurately described as a case study of state terrorism.

Preexisting exploration of the DFS has frequently focused on its historical and/or social significance, emphasizing in particular the consequences of the agency’s use of violence. Mexican citizens are classified as survivors or victims, subject to the corruption of agents and government officials in their search for power. Despite a similar foundation from a cultural analysis standpoint, the incorporation of political theory sets apart the methodological approach of this exploration. The DFS and related officials who typically labeled the aggressor instead become the focus as we strive to understand the government’s deployment of the DFS and the tactics of the agents themselves. Such actions will be analyzed through the lens of Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben and the concepts established in State of Exception.

In his theories of state violence and repression, Agamben maintains that this so-called state of exception is a “threshold of indeterminacy between democracy and absolutism,” (3) that exists following the developed distinction between state and law. Through this distinction, “the state continues to exist while the presence of law recedes” (qtd. in Agamben 31). Similar to the state of exception are the state of necessity and the state of siege. In the state of siege, government officials regard the country as one under attack of internal sedition, requiring the intervention of extraordinary police measures. The state of necessity serves as a foundation of the state of exception, with the notion of necessity one that does not recognize any law but creates its own law (24). These three states (exception, necessity, and siege) maintain similar characteristics and can therefore be used interchangeably.

Among these shared features are increased military authority into the civil sphere and the suspension of legal norms intended to protect civil rights (4) such that over time these rights violations become more the norm. In the exception, institutionalized repression is justified as a lawful approach to expanding or simply maintaining state power, specifically when those in command perceive a threat. Although this theory is often applied in contexts of totalitarian states and states engaging in civil war (3), it may be extended to democracies as well.

Using this theoretical foundation to examine the DFS, we argue that the state’s capacity to repress two student movements is transformed from a series of seemingly unfathomable events into an understandable progression. Accordingly, Presidents Díaz Ordaz and Echeverría considered the student movements and resistance of the guerrilleros, or guerrillas, forms of opposition that questioned their authority. The resistance threatened government control, placing the Mexican nation into a state of siege in which any means necessary could be used to maintain some semblance of order and to restore legitimacy to the presidents and their regimes. The legality of intervention by state intelligence and security agencies such as the DFS became less significant as a state of exception was soon established. And with their proclivity toward repression, both presidents succeeded in dissolving this resistance through extralegal efforts they justified as maintaining juridical norms. To understand this progression, let us first turn to the presidency of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964-1970), and the response to the 1968 student movement.

Lasting just shy of ten weeks, the Mexico student movement of 1968 began with a seemingly insignificant clash between members of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and the Instituto Politécnico Nacional (IPN). Riot police known as the Cuerpo de Granaderos were dispatched in an effort to quell the students but quickly escalated the conflict as they initiated an assault. In response, students of both schools united in a protest of police brutality and of subsequent acts they interpreted as the state’s violation of the university’s autonomy. Conflict between the two sides (the state and students) continued to escalate, and with a state maintaining a positive stance on coercion[2], the students found it necessary to direct their claims toward the central government, creating of the Consejo Nacional de Huelga (CNH) in the process.

In an attempt to suppress further growth of resistance efforts, the president turned to the DFS, entrusting the tracking of the students’ activities to its agents. As a historical analysis of the agency demonstrates, the DFS was often incapable of effectively fulfilling its surveillance responsibilities. Agents issued sporadic reports of insufficient analysis received with delays, often containing nothing more than an elaboration on the assumed connection between students and the Partido Comunista Mexicano (PCM), or Mexican Communist Party. They suggested ties with leftists, members of foreign student movements, communists, and extremists, heightening the government’s suspicions and in turn increasing the administration’s dependency on the DFS for tasks beyond data collection (Trevizo 64). And while the greater liberties allotted to agents satisfied personal goals of advancing power and status, they would ultimately inhibit the efficient suppression of student resistance. In fact, they primarily heightened tensions between the opposing sides.

President Díaz Ordaz’s own scrutiny of the conflict, found in two particular moments of public discourse, offers an explicit window into the president’s outlook. This factor must be considered since it is the sovereign leader who implements the state of exception (Agamben 1). In the first address, the president offered a compromise with students, extending his outstretched hand for any demonstrators who cared to repent and accept (Krauze 695). Students interpreted the so-called “mano tendida” speech from August 1 as a suggested concession to government demands and immediately rejected what they perceived as an insulting disregard of their fight.

The second discourse is from Díaz Ordaz’s fourth State of the Union Message, or Informe, offered just one month later on September 1, 1968. With several minutes of the speech dedicated to a discussion of the student movement, the president upheld the legality of his regime’s actions while simultaneously denying any violations of the university’s autonomy and the concept of political prisoners. Díaz Ordaz maintained that all actions taken followed judicial norms and procedures, contextualizing the student movement by considering similar international instances where “from the beginning or having tried alternative means of settlement, the use of force was necessary in order to stop or diminish the riots” (La transición en México DVD 34).[3] In the case of the Mexican state, police intervention was described as fulfilling an “obligation to impede destruction,” used “only in cases where absolutely necessary” to protect the people and maintain inner order and tranquility (La transición en México DVD 34). Through this speech, the deployment of extralegal police forces including the DFS was officially and publicly condoned, as Díaz Ordaz answered the student’s call for public dialogue with a firm and authoritarian declaration.

The concluding remarks of Díaz Ordaz’s Informe entail a reference to the Mexican constitution linked to a discussion of the use of extreme force. There exists no better evidence of the established state of exception than the content of these remarks, wherein the president verbally crosses the distinction between legality and extralegality and publicly commissions the necessary use of state violence. The Díaz Ordaz regime met both requirements for this state, namely the increase of military authority into the civil sphere and the suspension of legal norms intended to protect civil rights (Agamben 4). The president had deployed paramilitary forces against its own citizens and transformed the constitution into an instrument used to target rather than defend the public. In this situation of necessity, where the nexus between law and legality is denied, agents of the DFS and officials could disregard juridical norms as they had done prior, for “necessity doesn’t recognize any laws,” it creates them. (24). Any hesitancy toward repression had in essence been declared obsolete, as with the president’s public affirmation during the Informe, the state appropriated greater freedoms. The consequences of these liberties would be felt just one month later during one of the most infamous massacres in recent Mexican history: the massacre of numerous students on October 2, 1968 at Tlatelolco.

As the Díaz Ordaz presidency came to a close in 1970, the sense of turmoil that had come to characterize his regime remained, albeit to a lesser extent. The student movement centralized in the capital city steadily dissipated, so that by December 4, 1968, students returned to classes. Some protestors transitioned their efforts to locales outside of the capital city, beginning a string of violence that would continue for years to come. This move was matched by government restraint, with military zone commanders given “authority to move against disorderly students in the provinces without checking with the capital.”[4] Yet with parapolitical processes having become more the norm, such restraint remained primarily uncontested in the urban sector as much of the Mexican state prepared to transition to the regime of Luis Echeverría Álvarez. Of course any enduring unrest would provide opportunities for the continuation of extralegal policies and repression, tactics the new president had grown accustomed to during his tenure as Secretariat of the Interior under President Díaz Ordaz.

When Luis Echeverría Álvarez took office in 1970, it seemed as though his slate had been wiped clean. His predecessor Gustavo Díaz Ordaz assumed responsibility for the violence surrounding the 1968 student movement, overlooking Echeverría’s participation during his tenure as Secretary of the Interior just prior to being elected (Krauze 727). Echeverría himself attempted to placate remaining tensions as he welcomed former members of the student movement into his cabinet and advisory council and even increased government subsidies for universities. Just one year into his term, the president offered amnesty to political prisoners from the 1968 student and 1955 railway movements,[5] a strategy to foster his image in staunch opposition to the conservative Díaz Ordaz.

These policies promoting ideals of progressivism and openness offered a clear distinction between Echeverría and Díaz Ordaz; however, the administration’s actions soon began to mirror those of the previous six-year regime. Double standards ensured that in the face of opposition, officials “ruthlessly crushed any expression of armed rebellion, rejecting its political and social cause, minimizing its scale, [and] hiding every unjust violation of human rights and abuses that occurred” (Condés Lara 26).[6] Surveillance efforts remained a standard practice, with police and agents from the DFS working intently to collect information about any group considered “potentially subversive” (Reyes Peláez 406). And with the remaining demonstrators from urban-centered student movements having transitioned to more rural regions, subsequently allying with outlying guerrilla movements, several groups would fall under this category.

To accomplish surveillance and eradication efforts, Echeverría turned to paramilitary organizations, with which dissent could be thwarted. As analyst Dolores Trevizo describes, these agencies “functioned both as movement provocateurs and assassins while, at the same time, they coordinated intelligence and even action with the police and military” (72). They expanded the role of the government, proliferating the state of exception established under Díaz Ordaz as a means of control. One such organization was the Halcones, whose frequently denied existence exemplified the president’s penchant for duplicity.[7] Their participation in the student massacre in June of 1971 led to what has since been regarded as Echeverría’s version of the massacre at Tlatelolco, effectively foiling the president’s peacemaking efforts.

A remnant of the Díaz Ordaz regime created in 1968, the Halcones were comprised of young male workers and delinquents from the Distrito Federal and surrounding regions. The organization attracted as many as 2,000 members who were divided into four sections, namely the Charros, Acuario, Pancho Villa, and the Halcones proper (Sierra Gúzman 399), each receiving counterinsurgency training from the army.[8] As a paramilitary organization coordinated by the state, their primary tactics entailed undercover operations and the instigation of rebellions, characterized by the frequent use of violence and heightened autonomy. And with such training, its members were prepared to exterminate opposition tracked by intelligence agencies such as the DFS while disregarding any possible legal consequences.

The Halcones maintained a limited visible presence throughout much of their three-year existence, infiltrating universities and student organizations even terrorizing the public, all without discernable leaders or key members. And since the majority of their measures were performed undercover, their surreptitiousness hindered any accountability especially among the press. The tides changed on the afternoon of June 10, 1971, when Echeverría deployed the group against a student demonstration held in the capital city. On that Corpus Christi Thursday since known as the Halconazo, a crowd of more than 8,000 students gathered in Mexico City to march in solidarity with students of the Autonomous University of Nueva León in Monterrey. The students discredited Echeverría’s interventions to protect the university’s autonomy—namely, the annulment of recently developed bylaws and the overruling of the governor of Nuevo Leon’s decision to occupy the campus—instead maintaining their decision to hold a public manifestation (“The Corpus Christi Massacre”). Echeverría was presented an opportunity to handle the student movement and would need to decide whether an aggressive stance was appropriate. As the students began their march at the Casco de Santo Tomás with the police and members of the Halcones waiting by, the decision was finally made. At approximately 5pm, the operation was initiated and the Halcones set out on the offensive. The objective was simple: stop the student protest using any means necessary; violence was an option.

By deploying the Halcones, Echeverría followed the pattern of repression established in the preceding Díaz Ordaz administration. Since the use of state violence had proven a somewhat successful means of eliminating protest throughout the 1968 student movement, repeating these violent tactics proved to be logical for Echeverría, especially given improvements in training and specialization of agents during the subsequent months. As political scientist Christian Davenport describes, the presence of state repression may be partially explained by the observation that repression tends to be a repeated choice. More specifically:

Previous repression decreases the costs of engaging in this behavior later because it familiarizes political leaders with what is involved when they employ such behavior, thereby reducing uncertainty. At the same time, using repressive behavior creates and reinforces an ethos within the relevant state organizations responsible for this activity (Davenport 40).

Considering this explanation, Echeverría’s use of repression against the Corpus Christi march therefore becomes the more predictable course of action. He had already intervened in Monterrey on the students’ behalf; to enable the student manifestation in Mexico City would be to enable resistance, ultimately questioning the legitimacy of the administration and of the president himself. It would be a sign of weakness the new president would not allow.

Echeverría maintained his delusive tactics beyond the deployment of the Halcones, issuing two separate orders immediately following the Halconazo. In a desire for control, the president ordered the burning of bodies of the deceased as well as the restriction of photography, thus minimizing any trace of government involvement (Scherer García 52). At the same time, on the night of the massacre Echeverría made a televised announcement, demanding an investigation into the events “no matter where the blame may fall” (Krauze 746). The president manipulated opposing interests, protecting his own agents and satisfying the public through the resignations of the Distrito Federal regent and police chief. Their departures would rid Echeverría of any guilt, as the dismissed officials would assume full responsibility. And with the dissolution of the Halcones by the end of 1971, the events and the identity of agents responsible would remain contested pieces of Mexican history, facilitating a continuation of state violence with limited consequences.

The state violence characteristic of the Echeverría administration would continue to develop during the remaining five years of his tenure. As many survivors of the Corpus Christi Massacre pursued alliances with rural guerrilla movements, unrest soon spread to numerous states beyond Nueva León and the Distrito Federal. Echeverría would establish a new elite group known as the Brigada Blanca, or “White Brigade,” tasked with confronting the developing guerrilla movements throughout the country. Their tactics included the arrest, torture, and disappearance of hundreds of Mexicans as they worked to eliminate any act of subversion and social unconformity (Munguía 10). And by maintaining impunity, the brigade continued the fight in a period of Mexican history termed the Guerra Sucia that lasted from 1972 until 1982—a decade roughly corresponding to the existence of the Brigada Blanca.[9]

By the time the Dirección Federal de Seguridad and its associated paramilitary branches disintegrated under the Hurtado administration (1982-1988), standard Mexican intelligence practices had been severely altered. Instructions of kidnapping, torture, and disappearances replaced initial training manuals that emphasized overt and simple surveillance. An insatiable thirst for power translated to agents’ involvement in drug trafficking or auto theft, further blurring the distinction of legality even among the leading officers. In a period of thirty-eight years, the select group of elite agents once trusted with protecting the state had established a new norm characterized by the acquiescence of violence condoned and ultimately promoted by the state. And while tempting to consider the DFS an extreme case or even an exception, many claim the agency’s foundational security ideology, with its increasingly repressive and parapolitical techniques, has extended into the present-day intelligence operations of the Centro de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional (CISEN).

The case of the DFS is particularly significant in an era of shifting politics in Mexico, with the 2012 return of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and recent intelligence missteps having raised levels of concern. Perhaps the most notable case occurred with the indictment of thirteen former CISEN agents in 2008, following charges of espionage levied by Mexican Senator Manlio Fabio Beltrones (Méndez 13). Once more, the denial of civil rights entered into the forefront of Mexican politics as through wire-tapping and the possession of classified documents, basic civil liberties were infringed. With the return of the PRI, the new administration’s reshaping of public security efforts will remain pivotal, especially as it faces increasing threats from contemporary challengers; namely, the cartels.


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México, D.F.: Fondo De Cultura Económica, 2010. Print.

Arce Ibarra, Francisco Pérez. El principio (1968-1988: Años de rebeldía). BPR, 2007. Print.

Condés Lara, Enrique. Represión y rebelión en México (1959-1985). México, D.F.: Miguel Ángel Porrúa, 2007. Print.

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[1] AMEmbassy Mexico to SecState WashDC, “Briefing of Mexican Attorney General on FBI Investigation into Stolen Car Ring,” Mexico, 1981Mexico10090, August 1981, Mexico Documentation Project, Miscellaneous (3): Brigada Blanca Chiefs N-20030138DOS031, The National Security Archive, Washington, D.C.

[2] President Díaz Ordaz had already handled prior protest movements with a strict policy that favored the stick over the carrot. The demonstrations of intern and resident doctors in 1964 for higher pay and the 1966 student movement were met by an equally intransigent stance, in which the use of the granaderos helped to ensure the supremacy of government objectives.

[3] In the original Informe, Díaz Ordaz is quoted as having said, “situemos estos hechos dentro del marco de las informaciones internacionales sobre amargas experiencias similares de gran número de países en los que, desde un principio o tras haberse intentado varios medios de solución, se tuvo que usar la fuerza o sólo ante ella cesaron o disminuyeron los disturbios” (La transición en México DVD 34).

[4] “Mexican Government Readies for More Student Trouble,” Weekly Summary, 1 November 1968, October 2003 Mexico EBB: Tlatelolco Massacre, The National Security Archive, Washington, D. C.

[5] The release of political prisoners was one of the six goals held by the Consejo Nacional de Huelga, including prisoners from the 1955 railway strike led by Demetrio Vallejo. For more information about this earlier strike, see Evelyn P. Steven’s “Legality and Extra-Legality in Mexico” (1970).

[6] The original states: “Mont[aron] un discurso de simulación que…presentar[on] una cara de legalidad, progresismo y apertura hacia la opinión pública nacional e internacional y, simultáneamente, aplastar[on] sin miramientos toda expresión de rebelión armada, negando su casualidad política y social, minimizando sus dimensiones, ocultando toda arbitrariedad, violación a derechos humanos y abusos ocurridos” (Condés Lara 26).

[7] Several Mexican government officials have been reported as stating on record, “the Halcones do not exist;” “The Halcones are a legend” (Scherer García 173).

[8] According to Sierra Gúzman, the four groups were divided as follows: “the Charros, armed, the Halcones, batterers, the Acuario, composed of youth with long hair and resembling students used to infiltrate universities and student organizations, and the Pancho Villa, an expansive group used to terrorize campuses” (399).

[9] As has been the case with many dates, the start and end point of the Dirty War as well as the years of the White Brigade’s existence remain heavily contested. Alternative sources adduce the brigade’s presence from 1976 until 1983 (Condés Lara 28) or 1984 (Scherer García 195) and the Guerra Sucia from 1965 through 1978 (Arce Ibarra 139).