I take stock of Mexico’s violent transition to democracy by observing the accelerating militarization process and path-dependent political settlements. Through a historical-institutional analysis, this article studies the evolution of public security policies and constitutional reforms to militarize the country from 1994 to 2018. I argue that militarization and democratization are two sides of the same coin because they were promoted concurrently. The Mexican electoral system was reformed without a corresponding democratization in the social order and the State. The political settlements of the transition created a path-dependent trajectory, where military institutions accumulated sufficient veto power to foment their role in public security. Recent scholarship has demonstrated that electoral competition disintegrated local political settlements, which increased violence. However, I argue that there was no transition from a ‘limited access order’ to an ‘open access order’ because at the national level semi-authoritarian settlements were sustained or updated. Institutional capacity building understood as the formation of a rational-legal Weberian bureaucracy, failed because the Mexican ruling coalition has always been intent on protecting its rent-seeking opportunities. These are precisely the kind of privileges that rational-legal authorities are designed to eliminate. Building a rule of law entails investments in democratic institutions and legitimacy by developing professionalized local police. Instead, the Mexican State has militarized to manage violence, but this has exacted high costs and had direct impacts on the institutional arrangements of the Mexican political system.