Presidents of Mexico

Mexican Flag view in Monterrey Mexico

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From Emperor Iturbide to Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico has been ruled by a series of men: some visionary, some violent, some autocratic and some insane. Here you'll find biographies of some of the most important ones to sit in Mexico's troubled Presidential Chair.

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Benito Juarez, the Great Liberal

Benito Juarez Mural

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Benito Juarez (President on and off from 1858 to 1872), known as "Mexico's Abraham Lincoln," served during a time of great strife and upheaval. Conservatives (who favored a strong role for the church in government) and Liberals (who did not) were killing one another in the streets, foreign interests were meddling in Mexico's affairs, and the nation was still coping with the loss of much of its territory to the United States. The unlikely Juarez (a full-blooded Zapotec whose first language was not Spanish) led Mexico with a firm hand and a clear vision.

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Emperor Maximilian of Mexico

Emperor Maximilian of Mexico

François Aubert/Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

By the 1860's, embattled Mexico had tried it all: Liberals (Benito Juarez), Conservatives (Felix Zuloaga), an Emperor (Iturbide) and even a mad dictator (Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna). Nothing was working: the young nation was still in a state of near-constant strife and chaos. So why not try a European-style monarchy? In 1864, France succeeded in convincing Mexico to accept Maximilian of Austria, a nobleman in his early 30's, as Emperor. Although Maximilian worked hard at being a good Emperor, the conflict between liberals and conservatives was too much, and he was deposed and executed in 1867.

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Porfirio Diaz, Mexico's Iron Tyrant

President Porfirio Diaz

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Porfirio Diaz (President of Mexico from 1876 to 1911) still stands as a giant of Mexican history and politics. He ruled his nation with an iron fist until 1911, when it took nothing less than the Mexican Revolution to dislodge him. During his reign, known as the Porfiriato, the rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and Mexico joined the ranks of developed nations in the world. This progress came at a high price, however, as Don Porfirio presided over one of the most crooked administrations in history.

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Francisco I. Madero, the Unlikely Revolutionary

Francisco Madero Posing with Horse

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In 1910, long-term dictator Porfirio Diaz decided it was finally time to hold elections, but he quickly backed off his promise when it became apparent that Francisco Madero would win. Madero was arrested, but he escaped to the United States only to return at the head of a revolutionary army led by Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco. With Diaz deposed, Madero ruled from 1911 to 1913 before he was executed and replaced as President by General Victoriano Huerta.

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Victoriano Huerta, Drunk With Power

Mexican President Victotiano Huerta

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His men hated him. His enemies hated him. Mexicans still hate him even though he's been dead for almost a century. Why so little love for Victoriano Huerta (President from 1913 to 1914)? Well, he was a violent, ambitious alcoholic who was a skilled soldier but lacked any sort of executive temperament. His greatest achievement was unifying the warlords of the revolution...against him.

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Venustiano Carranza, a Mexican Quixote

General Carranza at His Desk

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After Huerta was deposed, Mexico was ruled for a time (1914-1917) by a series of weak presidents. These men did not have any real power: that was reserved for the "Big Four" Revolutionary Warlords: Venustiano Carranza, Pancho Villa, Alvaro Obregon and Emiliano Zapata. Of the four, Carranza (a former politician) had the best case to be made president, and he did have much influence over the executive branch during that chaotic time. In 1917 he was finally officially elected and served until 1920, when he turned on Obregon, his former ally, who expected to replace him as President. This was a bad move: Obregon had Carranza assassinated on May 21, 1920.

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Alvaro Obregon: Ruthless Warlords Make Ruthless Presidents

Mexican President Alvaro Obregon

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Alvaro Obregon was a Sonoran businessman, inventor, and chick pea farmer when the Mexican Revolution broke out. He watched from the sidelines for a while before jumping in after the death of Francisco Madero. He was charismatic and a natural military genius and soon recruited a large army. He was instrumental in the downfall of Huerta, and in the war between Villa and Carranza that followed, he chose Carranza. Their alliance won the war, and Carranza was named President with the understanding that Obregon would follow him. When Carranza reneged, Obregon had him killed and became President in 1920. He proved a ruthless tyrant during his first term from 1920-1924 and he was assassinated shortly after resuming the presidency in 1928.

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Lázaro Cárdenas del Rio: Mexico’s Mr. Clean

President Lazaro Cardenas of Mexico at Train Station

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A new leader emerged in Mexico as the blood, violence, and terror of the Mexican Revolution subsided. Lázaro Cárdenas del Rio had fought under Obregón and had subsequently seen his political star rise in the 1920's. His reputation for honesty served him well, and when he took over for the crooked Plutarco Elias Calles in 1934, he quickly began cleaning house, tossing out many corrupt politicians (including Calles). He was a strong, able leader when his country needed it the most. He nationalized the oil industry, angering the United States, but they had to tolerate it with World War Two looming. Today Mexicans consider him one of their greatest presidents, and some of his descendants (also politicians) are still living off his reputation.​

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Felipe Calderón, Scourge of the Drug Lords

Felipe Calderón

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Felipe Calderón was elected in 2006 in a highly controversial election but went on to see his approval ratings rise on account of his aggressive war on Mexico's powerful, wealthy drug cartels. When Calderón took office, a handful of cartels controlled the shipment of illegal drugs from South and Central America into the USA and Canada. They operated silently, raking in billions. He declared war on them, busting up their operations, sending army forces to control lawless towns, and extraditing wanted drug lords to the US to face charges. Although arrests were up, so was the violence that had plagued Mexico since the rise of these drug lords. 

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Biography of Enrique Peña Nieto

Enrique Peña Nieto waving the Mexican flag


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Enrique Peña Nieto was elected in 2012. He is a member of the PRI party which once ruled Mexico for uninterrupted decades after the Mexican Revolution. He seems to be more focused on the economy than on the drug war, although legendary drug lord Joaquin "el Chapo" Guzman was captured during Peña's tenure.

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Your Citation
Minster, Christopher. "Presidents of Mexico." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Minster, Christopher. (2021, February 16). Presidents of Mexico. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "Presidents of Mexico." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).