Mexico - A Country Overview
Information on Mexico; its place geographically, history, government, climate, security, tourism and foreigners living in Mexico...
Mexico borders the United States to the north, and Belize and Guatemala to the south. The Rio Grande River, which flows from Colorado into the Gulf of Mexico, forms a natural border between the United States and Mexico. The country’s maritime borders are the Pacific in the west, and the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico in the east. Numerous surrounding islands also belong to the country, as do Islas Revillagigedo and Isla Guadalupe in the Pacific Ocean.
Mexico’s bio-diversity includes rugged mountains, deserts, high plateaux and coastal plains. The Sierra Madre and Rocky Mountains extend south from the border with the United States. Much of the north of the country is desert, while the south is home to mountains and jungles where there are ruins of Mayan and Aztec cities.
The country’s highest peak is the 5,700m Pico de Orizaba, a volcano, which is also known as Citlaltépetl and last erupted in the nineteenth century. It is the third-highest mountain in North America and is located at the eastern end of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, or Sierra Nevada, a volcanically active region which extends across the central-southern part of Mexico. Mexico has numerous volcanoes: the most active is Colima, which is regularly responsible for the evacuation of inhabitants living nearby. Popocatépetl, another active volcano, is the second-highest peak in the country and poses a threat to Mexico City. A number of other volcanoes have been active in the past, including San Martín, Socorro, Tacan, Barcena, Ceboruco, Michoacan-Guanajuato and El Chichón. There is also a significant earthquake risk as Mexico is one of the most seismically active countries in the world.
Mexico City is the capital city. Located in a large valley in the high plateau, or altiplano, in the center of the country, the city is at an elevation of 2,240m. The Federal District of Mexico City is surrounded by the states of Mexico and Morelos.
Human life in Mexico can be traced back over 20,000 years ago with the first settlements appearing along the coast approximately 3,500 years ago. These settlements were the beginning of highly developed cultures including the Toltec, Olmec, Zapotec, Teotihuacan, Maya and Aztecs. Some of these cultures developed advanced civilisations with major urban areas where commerce, politics and religion were focused.
Spain conquered Mexico in the sixteenth century. Hernán Cortés marched overland to the country’s central valley from Veracruz, which he founded. The conquest of the Aztecs, who were the dominant civilisation at the time, was done with the help of an Indian army amassed from the Aztec’s enemies. The Aztecs were overthrown in 1821 and Cortés was named Governor and Captain General of New Spain in 1523. In the early years of colonial rule, millions of the native Indians died from European diseases brought by the Spanish, against which they had no immunity. The University of Mexico was founded in 1551 in Mexico City – the first university in the Americas.
The country remained a Spanish colony until 1821 when it finally gained its independence after more than a decade of struggle. Mexico made little political or economic progress during its first 50 years of independence. In 1848, after a few years of war, parts of both Texas and California were lost to the United States.
Insolvency resulted in a suspension of payment of foreign loans in 1861 and the British, French and Spanish occupied Veracruz to collect their debts. While the British and Spanish withdrew quickly, the French overthrew the government and declared it an empire under the Austrian Emperor Maximilian. The French withdrew when the United States, at the end of its own civil war, threatened to send troops into the country. Maximilian was executed in 1867.
There followed several years of turmoil before rule by dictatorship under Porfirio Diaz, who tried to modernize the nation. As well as huge gains in the country’s imports and exports, he became very rich and gave land away to friends and foreign speculators; by 1910 more than 95 percent of rural families had no land. Following a fraudulent election in the same year there was a revolution, which is said to have been started by Francisco Madero. He was subsequently made president, but proved to have little political skill. The years until the formation of the Mexican Constitution of 1917 were chaotic. Effective one-party rule came in 1929.
Politics and Government
Mexico has a federal republic government. The country is divided into 31 states and one federal district, and is run by a president who is elected by popular vote to a single six-year term of office; a second term is not permitted. The president is the head of government, the chief of state and the commander of the armed forces. The president appoints a cabinet, although consent from the senate is needed to appoint the attorney general, senior treasury officials, and the head of the Bank of Mexico.
The government’s legislative branch is a National Congress (Congresa de la Unión) which is made up of a Senate (Cámara de Senadores) and a Chamber of Deputies (Cámara de Diputados). The Senate is made up of 128 seats, 32 being allocated based on each political party’s share of the vote, while the rest are elected. The Chamber of Deputies has 500 seats; 300 are elected by vote for three-year terms, while the remainder are allocated based on each political party’s shares of the vote.
There are both Federal and State courts overseeing laws under their jurisdiction. The Supreme Court of Justice (Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación) is run by justices appointed by the president with Senate consent.
Mexico has a rapidly developing free market economy which is the second largest in Latin America. Today, the economy is a mixture of modern and old-fashioned industry and agriculture; it is one of the world’s biggest oil producers and the government is highly dependent on its income. Major industries in the country include the manufacturing of textiles, food and drinks, chemicals, motor vehicles and tobacco, as well as tourism, financial services, and communication. Corn, which is one of the world’s major grain crops, is thought to have originated in Mexico.
The private sector is becoming increasingly dominant in the country’s economy and tourism is playing a big part. The implementation of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 resulted in Mexico’s share of United States imports increasing from seven to twelve percent and Mexico’s moving to an open economy. Nevertheless, a number of structural problems need to be overcome to modernize the economy and increase the average standard of living.
Mexico experienced an economic downturn following the 2008 global financial crisis, which resulted in a sharp rise in the number of people living in poverty. There has been a return to growth, although low wages, unemployment and large income inequalities remain major problems, particularly for those living in the poorer southern states.
The climate varies from tropical to desert. In the high plateaux and mountains, the climate is warm and temperate, while much of the rest of the country experiences tropical weather. Desert dominates much of northwest Mexico continuing the dry zone seen to the north in Arizona, California and New Mexico. In contrast, the eastern coasts have a similar climate to the Caribbean islands: tropical with a wet season in summer.
Mexico’s north is a place of extreme temperatures, hot in summer and cold in winter, when waves of air from the Canadian Arctic sweep down. Snow and freezing conditions can occur for a few days on the east coast, even in the tropics. The mountains and plateaux of central Mexico protect the west of the country from these cold snaps.
Much of the country experiences sunny weather for most of the year. The wet season occurs between May and October, when the sun is at its strongest. The low-lying Caribbean coast experiences the highest rainfall; the Gulf of California is much drier. Both of Mexico’s coasts can experience tropical storms, although hurricanes are rare.
Crime and violence are widespread in Mexico, in both urban and rural areas. Much of it is fuelled by organized crime and the drug trade. The area around the border with the United States is particularly violent. The Mexican government has deployed the military and federal troops to some areas and checkpoints are common.
Foreigners are not allowed to participate in political activities. This is stated in the Mexican constitution and foreigners should avoid all demonstrations or other activities which could be classed as political. Failure to do so can result in deportation or detention.
There are high rates of crime, which is often violent. The most common crimes in cities are pickpocketing, armed robbery and carjacking. Some Mexican cities, particularly in the north, have high murder and kidnapping rates. Significant efforts are being made to reduce crime in tourist resort areas, but problems remain. Ciudad Juárez has particularly high levels of violent crime.
Mexico is a popular tourist destination, particularly with tourists from the United States and Latin America. Visitors come to enjoy the climate, Mexican food, and visit the country’s many beautiful beaches, Meso-American ruins and colonial cities. Activity-based holidays and ecotourism are rapidly developing in rural areas of the country. Popular choices include canyoning near Monterrey, hiking in the cloud forests of Oaxaca, snorkeling or diving in the Yucatan’s coral reefs, and cooking lessons in the countryside around Veracruz.
- For more information about the tourist industry in Mexico, see the VisitMexico website
- CIA World Factbook page on Mexico