In 1976, U.S. State Department officials in Mexico reported the rumor that outgoing president Luis Echeverría might plan to assassinate his successor, José López Portillo before the latter could take office. The diplomatic cable, reported by Animal Político and released on Wikileaks, was based primarily on an offhand phrase in a posthumous article by Daniel Cosío Villegas and rampant rumors in Mexico City. Behind the officials’ admittedly wild speculation, is a more interesting picture of Mexican political life at a key moment. Not only was it popularly believed that Echeverría was capable of great wickedness–his involvement in massacres in 1968 and 1971 was widely suspected–but it was also clear that the PRI was less stable than in previous moments. Cosío Villegas, ever an acute observer, rightly signaled that presidential transitions were often fraught moments as outgoing leaders clung to power more frequently than commonly believed. The 1976 transition was particularly problematic, especially as Echeverría had apparently packed congress and secured the loyalty of the upper echelons of the military and party leadership.
While the rumors proved just that, they were accurate interpretations of internal strains within PRI that occurred well prior to more visible breakdowns in the 1980s and 1990s. The careers of Echeverría loyalists after 1976 were often difficult, as the new President asserted his authority and clipped the wings of opponents. Whereas in past transitions such housecleanings had often allowed some room for maneuver on the part of out-of-favor politicians, López Portillo seems to have had little sympathy for his opponents. As those understandings of the political rules broke down between 1976 and 1982, the foundations of PRI rule weakened. In that sense, the atmosphere of fear and insecurity in 1976 presaged the regime’s terminal crisis in 1993-1994.