Roundtable Spy Reports: Content, Method, and Post-1940 Historiography in Mexico’s Intelligence Archives

AHA Session 12
Conference on Latin American History 2
Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Room 209 (Hynes Convention Center)
Catherine Epstein, Amherst College
Ariel Rodríguez Kuri, El Colegio de México

Session Abstract

In 2002 former President Vicente Fox opened Mexico’s intelligence archives to the public.  With this move, millions of pages of intelligence reports came into the public domain.  Mexico’s Ministry of the Interior had gathered these reports during the one-party rule of the Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI).  The bulk of these reports date from 1947 to 1985.  The documents include reports on rural and urban political parties, unions, social movements, and an array of corporate groups associated with PRI.  The reports detail public political meetings, private conversations of leaders and members of the rank-and-file, as well as speculation about political sympathies and affiliations.  They also include examples of propaganda and organizing material developed by a variety of groups, from fringe urban guerrilla groups, to mainstream opposition political parties, to the PRI. 

While these documents offer richly detailed accounts of political organizing, excitement over this historical source must be tempered with caution.  These reports are sometimes inaccurate and the analysis they provide often only scratches the surface.  Moreover, researches have found that reporting agents would occasionally exaggerate the threat posed by groups or individuals to curry favor with their superiors and justify increased government funds for the Ministry of the Interior.  These documents typically reveal as much about state perceptions and worries as they do about the activities of groups deemed subversive.  These intelligence reports, then, tell us at least two stories.  They provide a window onto a broad array of political movements and political culture, and they reveal the concern that this political activity caused the PRI.

This roundtable aims to foster discussion about the nature and significance of these intelligence archives.  The panelists belong to the first generation of historians who have culled the archives for original research.  Using the intelligence reports, Alexander Aviña reconstructs the history of rural guerrilla groups in the 1960s and 1970s; Tanalís Padilla analyzes a radical rural teacher’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s; Gabriela Soto Laveaga explores an urban doctors’ strike in the 1960s; and Louise Walker examines urban middle-class politics in the 1970s and 1980s.  To encourage participation from the public, each panelist will speak for ten minutes and focus on one document, discussing the content, whether it is representative of the documents consulted, and the method used to draw larger arguments. 

These archives are likely to have a defining effect on post-1940s Mexican historiography.  The year 1940 is often taken to mark the end of the long Revolutionary period, and, with a few noteworthy examples notwithstanding, there is little historical scholarship on the following decades.  The commentator, Ariel Rodríguez Kuri, will appraise the importance of these archives for Mexican historiography.  Catherine Epstein will serve as chair and international interlocutor, bringing to the discussion her experience in the Stasi Archives. 

Now is a propitious time for an appraisal of the Mexican intelligence archives, with the emergence of the first historical studies that use the intelligence reports, and in an international environment of excitement (and trepidation) over similar archives elsewhere.

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