MEXICO CITY Mexico's military, struggling to attract new recruits, is expanding opportunities for a population it has all but overlooked for decades: women.
For the first time, Mexico is allowing women to train in elite military schools to become engineers, pilots and other careers that can rise to the rank of general.
The changes, ordered by President Felipe Calderon shortly after he took office in December, are profound for Mexico and its male-dominated, machismo society. Women still aren't allowed in combat roles, but the moves are the first expansion of military opportunities for women in 31 years.
Up before dawn at boot camp this month, Patricia Vela, 18, joined male cadets in marching, obstacle courses and basic weaponry training at a military camp in the central Mexican highlands. She's studying administration, a military career previously closed to women.
Although she won't be allowed to study weaponry as a career or take part in combat, like all female cadets, even those who came before her, she must learn to arm, fire and dismantle a gun.
She said the reception from her male counterparts has been positive.
"There were so many people who couldn't get in, and here I am, one of the first," said Vela, who competed against 13,500 males applicants for 2,007 slots. "It's impressive, and gives me strength from I don't know where."
Sprinkled through the lines of rifle-toting cadets are at least 215 women this year. While the initial boot camp is and always has been the same for both men and women from all schools, some of the women entering the previously closed military careers will face grueling physical and educational tests in the months ahead.
And they will be held up to the same standard as men in all cases, said Agustin Radilla, who oversees military education. He said that, so far, the male cadets have welcomed the women into the new schools, and he credits the changes for a "healthy competition" between the sexes.
Other Latin American countries such as Bolivia, Chile and Guatemala already allow women to participate in combat, and Radilla said Mexico was studying the possibility.
The U.S. military has allowed women a much greater role in recent years but still prohibits deploying female infantry members in direct combat. But women often come under fire in Iraq, where frontlines are blurred. At least 82 female U.S. soldiers have been killed in the Iraq war to date.
Women first joined Mexico's armed forces in 1938 as nurses. By 1973, they could become military doctors, and three years later, dentists. Today, women have access to 17 of the military's 39 career schools. And with access has come increased interest: 3,326 women applied for military schooling in 2007-08, up 61 percent from the year before.
Currently, women make up only 6,309 of the 191,000 members of Mexico's military.
Radilla predicts that could rise to 8,920 by 2012 a modest increase but a sign of the future: "We believe this will change public opinion by showing that, even in the army, women can achieve the same as men."
Some observers say the change is coming very slowly, and reluctantly.
"The reason they made this change, I believe, is that it has become increasingly difficult to keep men in the military," said Roderic Ai Camp, a Mexico expert at Claremont-McKenna College in California. "By allowing women to fill more positions, and hopefully to become longtime careerists, they can increase the percentage of men in combat operations."
Increasing the number of soldiers on the ground is key to Calderon's nationwide crackdown on the drug trade, a violent battle that is taxing Mexico's military resources.
Vela believes the military, usually slow to change, is setting an example for Mexican society."This is huge progress that Mexico really needed, because equality of the sexes is fundamental right now," Vela said.
Contributing: Eduardo Verdugo