PUEBLA, Mexico — People in the United States make a bigger deal about Cinco de Mayo than Mexicans in Mexico do.
North of the border, Cinco de Mayo involves a lot of beer and nachos, and it is celebrated in every city with a bar, even if no Mexicans are around.
In Mexico, though, there’s an awesome reenactment of a ferocious cavalry charge and hand-to-hand combat with machetes. Plus, cannons. Lots.
But when President Felipe Calderon vowed Thursday that his troops will never surrender, he wasn’t talking about the 19th-century fight here against Napoleon III and the French interventionists.
He was talking about the narcos.
In the United States, Cinco de Mayo is a happy, popular and exceptionally vague celebration of Latino culture. In Mexico, and especially here in this historic state capital, the celebration is mostly a martial one — with jet flyovers and a military parade — to commemorate the Mexican army’s decisive victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.
Like many things in Mexico these days, the celebration of the 149th anniversary of the battle swung quickly toward the current drug war. In remarks before laying a wreath to the fallen, Calderon spoke of Mexico’s new enemies: the criminals who rob, extort, kidnap and murder — the kind of opponents who beat 183 people to death and buried them in mass graves 90 miles south of Brownsville, Tex., last month.
“Our troops will not retreat in this fight against organized crime,” Calderon declared. “We will not even consider surrender.”
In his remarks before the troops, Calderon retold the tale of Puebla, “how a young, brilliant general, Ignacio Zaragoza, and the brave soldiers of a young nation, outnumbered, showed themselves to be heroes as they faced the foreign bayonets and beat the best army in the world.”
As a civil war raged in Mexico, the impoverished government of Benito Juarez defaulted on loans from Europe. The emperor of France, Napoleon III, along with Spain and England, sent a joint expeditionary force to collect on the bill.
The foreign troops landed in the gulf port city of Veracruz and marched over the mountains to Puebla. Napoleon’s motives were more than financial. He hoped to install his ally and puppet, Austrian Archduke Maximilian, on the throne in Mexico, and he bet that the United States would not be able to do much about it, as the northern neighbor was consumed by the Civil War and in no position to enforce its Monroe Doctrine that claimed American hegemony over the hemisphere.
Eight thousand French soldiers and artillery were under the command of Gen. Charles de Lorencez, who engaged 4,000 Mexican troops and cavalry at a pair of hilltop forts outside Puebla.
At a military base near Puebla, several thousand modern Mexican soldiers reenacted the battle on a dry ravine. The loathsome French (yes, there is a polite “Boo” from the audience), dressed in red pantaloons and funny hats, were the attackers. But the Mexicans held the good ground, at the top of the hill, with two forts.
As a small number of dignitaries, including Calderon and his security cabinet, watched from the bleachers, an announcer introduced the combatants and narrated the battle. It makes good TV, and that is how Mexicans experience the event. Few citizens are allowed onto the base to watch.
“The first attack!” the announcer barked, and the media’s cameras whirl away on motor drives.
Lorencez was overconfident. Zaragoza had fortified his positions with trenches. The Mexicans withstood three assaults. Lorencez’s cannons ran out of ammunition, which is not good. The emboldened Mexicans surged forth, routing the French with a cavalry charge and flanking actions.
In the Battle of Puebla, 83 Mexican soldiers and Republican Guard members lost their lives, alongside 462 French troops. It wasn’t a major strategic victory in the struggles against the French, but it was a win for the home team and morale booster in a David vs. Goliath contest.
Mexicans may wonder what the final outcome of the current war will be. In four years of fighting the drug mafias, 243 Mexican troops and 2,076 police officers have died. More than 35,000 citizens have been killed. It is hard to imagine what a reenactment of the Battle of Ciudad Juarez would look like in 150 years.