Jun 112015

In summer 1987, while living in Guadalajara, I entertained a fellow UK geographer, who arrived with a long list of places he wanted to visit. Over the next few weeks, we ticked them off one by one. Near the end of his visit, he asked why I hadn’t yet taken him to see the famous Juanacatlán Falls, the “Niagara of Mexico”, despite them being in his “top ten” places to see. “OK”, I said, “let’s go!”

Traffic was heavy and as we drove across Guadalajara, I could see his impatience building. Finally, he asked me, “Where are they? How close are we?” I replied that we were “fairly close” but that I was absolutely certain that he would recognize them before they came into sight. A few minutes later and he screwed up his nose and said, “Ughh. What’s that smell?” “See?”, I said triumphantly, “I knew you’d recognize them before you saw them!”

Juanacatlán Falls in 1989. Photo: Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

Juanacatlán Falls in 1989. Photo: Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

Even thirty years ago, long before NAFTA, the Juanacatlán Falls were a sorry sight (and source of a worse smell). Since then, and since NAFTA, they have only become worse. These once-majestic falls, the first Mexican landscape on a postage stamp back in 1899, have been reduced to a trickle of foul-smelling effluent. At the start of the twentieth century, the falls provided hydro-electric power for Guadalajara and turned the wheels of a cotton and woolen mill, the ruins of which now stand to one side.

A recent piece of investigative journalism about the River Santiago, the river which created these waterfalls, makes for disturbing reading. It provides plenty of evidence that the rapid increase in factories along the river, mainly post-NAFTA, may have provided 50,000 new jobs, but has also led to worsening water quality to the point where exposure to the river presents a serious public health risk.

In “River of Death“, Steve Fisher lays bare the terrible reality faced by those living and working close to the river. This is a harrowing tale, with heart-rending testimony from several local residents. On a positive note, the related video, Fusion Investigates: Silent River (below) describes how Sofía Enciso and her family have defied death threats and are determined to confront the factories responsible, while demanding that the relevant authorities take action to enforce federal water quality regulations, and start to clean up the river.

Perhaps the most telling single statistic is that precisely zero companies were fined for failing to comply with water discharge regulations between 2005 and 2011.

In the video, the mayor of El Salto, the main town near the Juanacatlán Falls, claims that the river has become polluted in the past thirty years. I guess he must be too young to remember that they were seriously polluted long before that.

Is it too much to hope that the government, corporations and society in the El Salto area can all come together to remedy this appalling tale of willful mismanagement? Local residents are right to insist on the enforcement of existing water quality regulations and on the implementation of remedial measures to reverse the decline of this major river and its once-famous waterfalls. Even more importantly, urgent measures are needed to reverse the deteriorating public health situation faced by all those living or working nearby.

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Jun 082015

Mexico’s official online database of all the country’s roads and highways has just been updated. As of May 2015, Mexico has a total of 322,859 kilometers of roads and highways.

They are all shown on a map accessed via this web-page. [Link to http://www.imt.mx/micrositios/sistemas-de-informacion-geoespacial/servicios-tecnologicos/red-nacional-de-caminos/ver-datos.html no longer working.]

Mexico's major highways (Fig 17-3 of Geo-Mexico, the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico).

Mexico’s major highways, 2009 (Fig 17-3 of Geo-Mexico, the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico). All rights reserved.

Here is a summary of some of the more useful statistics found in the database:

  • 158,180 km of paved highways, including
    • 48,685 km of federal highways,
    • 92,590 km of state highways
    • 9412 km of toll highways
  •  36,139 km of urban roads
  • 118,812 km of rural (unpaved) roads.

The highway network connects 25,844 places, and has links to 39 ferry routes. It also includes 847 toll stations, 3476 bridges and 178 tunnels.

According to the report, Mexico currently has 6480 gas stations. However, this number is expected to increase rapidly in the next few years as competitors enters a market over which PEMEX previously held a monopoly, prior to recent energy reform laws.

If you are planning to drive across Mexico, then the online system at http://ttr.sct.gob.mx/mappir/ will give you routes, distances and estimated times and costs.

Further reading:

Jun 042015

This series of satellite images of environmental change around the town of Angangueo in the eastern part of the state of Michoacán (very close to the border with the State of México) takes a close look at the mountainous hillsides covered in pine-fir forest where the migrating Monarch butterflies spend their winters.

The pine-fir forests are found at an elevation of around 3000 meters (10,000 feet) above sea level. The butterflies congregate in a small number of locations, forming massive clumps on the trees. Any major disturbance, such as a windstorm or excessive snow, can cause the loss of (literally) millions of Monarchs. The overwintering Monarchs need just the right range of temperatures. On the one hand, they must not be so cold that they freeze or are not warm enough to flutter in search of food and water. On the other hand, if it is too warm, they may burn through their energy reserves or need to replenish too much moisture. The canopy of the pine-fir forest provides some protection, but even a partial thinning of this canopy will change the microclimate beneath.

In this post, we will will take a quick look at the images of Chincua reserve. This reserve includes the location where overwintering congregations of Monarch butterflies were reported for the first time in the mid-1970s. This is one of the areas where conservationists fear that the pine-fir forest (appearing vibrant red in the images) may have suffered too much clearing and thinning, which may have altered the area’s microclimate and made it unsuitable for successful overwintering.

When looking at the images, bear in mind that:

    • Red signifies healthy vegetation.
    • Landsat images are always taken in mid-morning, so shaded northwest slopes look darker. Shadows can vary slightly from one month to the next.
    • The images show forest clearance, but do not reveal forest thinning. The consequences of forest thinning (the removal of individual trees) may be just as significant in the context of the annual Monarch butterfly migration.
Satellite images of Chincua reserve, 1986, 2000 and 2011.

Satellite images of Chincua reserve, 1986, 2000 and 2011. Click to enlarge.

In the 2000 image, the Chincua reserve shows some rashy gray areas just above and to the right of the center of the image. These gray areas are not visible on the 1986 image. This may be evidence of a fire, or some other kind of clearing. The 2011 image seems to indicate that the vegetation in that area has recovered, at least to some extent.

A truly detailed examination of these images is beyond the scope of this short post, but high-resolution images (which can be downloaded from the USGS site) will repay a closer study. The satellite images cover three of the Monarch butterfly reserves:

Finally, it is worth remembering that the Monarch as a species is not endangered. There is, indeed, a year-round population of Monarchs in central and western Mexico that is non-migratory owing to the ready availability of milkweed, the only plant on which female Monarchs lay their eggs, throughout the year. It is only the butterfly migration that is considered an “endangered phenomenon”, and all three countries involved (Canada, USA and Mexico) have now instituted programs to try to ensure its long-term success.

Satellite monitoring of the areas of importance to the Monarch butterfly should help identify the key areas on which conservation efforts need to be focused.

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Jun 012015

The U.K. has declared 2015 as the “Year of Mexico” and is hosting numerous cultural and trade events this year related to Mexico. Not to be outdone, a Mexican-themed Pavilion exhibit has won gold at the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show, held in London in May. The show is organized each year by the Royal Horticulture Society and was first held more than a century ago.

The gold-medal winning garden design in 2015 was based on a very unusual garden created in Mexico by the eccentric Englishman Edward James at “Las Pozas” (the Pools), the home he built near Xilitla in the state of San Luis Potosí. James (1907-1984) was a sponsor of the surrealist art movement, as well as a surrealist artist in his own right. His entire estate in Mexico became his canvass for a marvelously-creative collection of sculptures and follies set in luxuriant, semi-tropical jungle.

The winning garden at Chelsea, entitled “Surreal Pillars of Mexico,” was designed by Jon Wheatley and sponsored by HSBC and the U.K.’s National Dahlia Collection. The dahlia is Mexico’s national flower:

Surreal Pillars of Mexico. Photo credit: Marcela Gutiérrez Bobadilla/Notimex

“Surreal Pillars of Mexico” had a circular structure and pillars that emulated Edward James’s garden in Mexico. It included 50 different types of dahlias, surrounded by over 100 plants and vegetables such as lettuce, cactus and the exotic agave plant.

New varieties of dahlias, first described in Mexico in 1529, had been developed via selective breeding and propagation programs even in pre-Columbian botanical gardens. The dahlia arrived in the U.K. in the early nineteenth century, via Spain and only after several unsuccessful attempts at introducing it. The National Dahlia Collection in the U.K. cultivates and promotes the flower; all the varieties existing in the U.K. originated from just three types of dahlias.

The Year of Mexico to the United Kingdom includes more than 100 separate exhibitions, concerts, festivals, academic workshops and artistic residencies; as well as trade missions, research projects, grants and scholarships. These shows will highlight the creativity of Mexican writers and artists, while also showcasing the country’s history and its modern-day industrial strength.Events are being held at a number of cities, including London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Manchester, Oxford, Liverpool and Birmingham.

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May 282015

Remittances sent home by Mexican migrants (almost all of them residing in the USA) rose to $2.26 billion in March 2015, 7.6% higher than the same month a year earlier. This was the highest monthly figure since May 2012, and the highest ever figure for March.

The average remittance sent to Mexico in March 2015 was $311.30, the highest figure since July 2012, and the number of transfers was 7.25 million.

The March figure brought the total remittances for the first quarter of this year to $5.7 billion, 4.9% higher than the same period in 2014.

Workers in California sent remittances worth $1.59 billion home during the first three months of this year, more than the workers in any other state. Texas came in second place with $763.9 million and Illinois placed third at $199.3 million.

The three main receiving states in Mexico were:

  • Michoacán – $603 million
  • Jalisco – $539 million
  • Guanajuato – $509 million

For an introduction to the topic of remittances, with links to some of the key posts on this blog, see

A comprehensive index page listing all the posts oon Geo-Mexico related to migration and remittances can be found at Migration and remittances: an index page.

May 252015

The Mexican government is funding a 100-million-dollar project to build Mexico’s first cruise ship home port at Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point) in Sonora on the Sea of Cortés (Gulf of California). Construction began in 2013 and is scheduled to be completed by early in 2017.  Proponents hope that the port will help transform the existing town (population about 60,000) into a fully-fledged tourist resort, taking advantage of its proximity to Phoenix and Tucson in Arizona. The project includes a state-of-the-art terminal and convention center.


The town already has a small international airport, inaugurated in 2008, which has a daily capacity of 2000 passengers and would need to be expanded if the port takes off.

Puerto Peñasco has an embryonic tourism industry at present, mainly attracting Arizonans (it is their nearest beach), fishing enthusiasts, and school and college students during spring-break (attracted, in part, by the legal drinking age being 18 in the town, compared to 21 in Arizona).


Puerto Peñasco also has research stations of the Universidad de Sonora: its Centro de Investigaciones Científicas y Tecnológicas (Scientific and Technological Research Center) and its Centro de Estudios del Desierto (Center for Desert Studies).

According to cruise line statistics, the number of Mexicans taking cruises in 2014 rose by 15%, but analysts argue that many Mexicans stay at home and are unable to take cruises at present because they lack a U.S. visa. Establishing a home port in Mexico, they argue, would therefore open up a significant new market. A cruise ship port at Puerto Peñasco would clearly have immense impacts on the town, boosting the local economy and generating up to 2,500 direct and 5,000 indirect jobs.

However, critics say this will come at a cost. They cite potential problems related to local residents, wildlife and biodiversity. They fear that development of the town will raise property prices beyond the level of affordability of local residents. A Tucson-based non-profit, The Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans is working with local fishermen and government agencies to “empower coastal communities in the Northern Gulf of California region with the knowledge and tools to create sustainable livelihoods that exist in concert with the surrounding natural and multicultural environment”. The research center believes the port development will lead to environmental changes adversely affecting important fishing grounds. The center has also expressed concern about the potential hazards to nesting sites used by sea turtles.

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May 212015

According to the 2015 Direct Foreign Investment Confidence Index of consultancy A.T. Kearney, Mexico is currently the ninth most attractive country worldwide for FDI (Foreign Direct Investment). Mexico has risen 3 places in the rankings since the 2014 Index was released.

The report highlights the improving business climate in Mexico following the implementation of the government’s reform agenda, and says that “investors continue to be drawn to opportunities in many sectors, including manufacturing, energy, and telecoms”.

The top 10 countries in the overall FDI rankings (see graph) are U.S., China, U.K., Canada, Germany, Brazil, Japan, France, Mexico and Australia.


The report says,

Mexico gains three spots to reach 9th, as President Enrique Peña Nieto’s reform agenda continues to improve Mexico’s business climate. Its 2013 FDI levels of $38 billion were an all-time high, with the majority of investment targeted at Mexico’s growing manufacturing sector, including high-value-added electronics. Mexico’s Economy Ministry has reported that flows fell to $22.6 billion in 2014, with inflows of $33.9 billion offset by $11.4 billion in outflows. Significant reforms in the energy sector will occur this year to allow foreign private investment.

As a result of the telecom reforms that targeted Carlos Slim’s América Móvil, which controls 70 percent of the market, customer prices fell nearly 17 percent between February 2013 and January 2015. In response to the policy changes, AT&T made a $5 billion divestment in América Móvil and subsequently acquired Grupo Iusacell SA, Mexico’s third-largest wireless operator, for $1.7 billion. Going forward, these reforms are expected to open up growth opportunities for smaller competitors.

In November 2014, the American chemicals maker PPG Industries acquired paints maker Consorcio Comex for $2.3 billion. This followed the rejection by the Mexican federal competition authority of the sale to Sherwin-Williams for a proposed $2.34 billion on the grounds that it would create unfair market conditions.

According to this recent press report, Mexico’s FDI during the first three months of 2015 totaled $7.573 billion, an all-time record for the first quarter. The figure comes from 1357 separate investments originating from the USA (59.4%), Spain (14.3%), Japan (8.2%), South Korea (4.8%), France (2.9%), and the Netherlands (2.3%), with the remaining 8.1% coming from 48 other nations.

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May 182015

We have frequently commented on the importance of migration channels linking specific towns in Mexico to particular places in the USA.

quinonesIn his latest book, Dreamland: The True Tale of Americas Opiate Epidemic, journalist Sam Quinones, one of our favorite writers about Mexico, describes the fascinating details of how one particular migration channel – from the small, nondescript town of Xalisco in the western state of Nayarit, to the city of Denver – has fueled an innovative delivery network for black tar heroin, a network that now spreads its tentacles across much of the USA.

Quinones relates the work of narcotics officer Dennis Chavez, who joined the narcotics unit of the Denver Police Department, and was determined to understand the reasons behind the escalation of black tar heroin dealing. Chavez listened carefully to his informants and a key breakthrough came when one particular informant told Chavez that while “the dealers, the couriers with backpacks of heroin, the drivers with balloons of heroin”, all looked very random and scattered, they were not. They were all connected. “They’re all from a town called Xalisco.”

Indeed they were, and the system they had set up was enterprising, innovative, and designed to avoid undue attention.

Read an excerpt:

This excerpt from Dreamland: The True Tale of Americas Opiate Epidemic, published on Daily Beast, explains how “in the 1990s, innovative drug traffickers from Mexico figured out that white kids cared most about service and convenience.”

Sam Quinones’ latest book is a gripping account of many previously murky aspects of the U.S. drug scene. It should interest anyone who wants to understand the human stories behind drug trafficking, international migration and globalization. A must-read!

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May 142015

Mexico has literally thousands of geotourism sites (locations where the primary recreational attraction is some phenomenon of geographic importance, such as a coral reef, mangrove swamp, volcano, mountain peak, cave or canyon. Many of Mexico’s geotourism sites are geomorphosites, where the primary attraction is one or more ”landforms that have acquired a scientific, cultural/historical, aesthetic and/or social/economic value due to human perception or exploitation.” (Panniza, 2001)

Here is a partial index (by state) to the geotourism sites described on Geo-mexico.com to date:

Baja California Sur






México (State of)




Nuevo León




Quintana Roo

San Luis Potosí





  • Panizza M. (2001) Geomorphosites : concepts, methods and example of geomorphological survey. Chinese Science Bulletin, 46: 4-6
May 112015

The sinking of parts of Mexico City into the former lake bed on which much of it is built is well documented, but to what extent does subsidence also affect other Mexican cities?

Estell Chaussard and her co-authors considered this question in their article entitled “Magnitude and extent of land subsidence in central Mexico revealed by regional InSAR ALOS time-series survey.” Subsidence, often resulting from over-depletion of ground water, has a range of human impacts, including decreased supply of safe water, an increase in flood risk, and a greater hazard threat from building or street failure.

In their time-series analysis of more than 600 Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR) images of central Mexico, the authors found evidence of significant subsidence in seventeen cities, including sixteen cities with a population of 100,000 inhabitants or more. The cities affected (with their population in parentheses) are listed here from east to west:

  • Puebla (2,500,000)
  • Mexico City (21,000,000)
  • Toluca (427,000)
  • Querétaro (825,000)
  • San Luis de la Paz (101,000)
  • Celaya (266,000)
  • San Luis Potosí (936,000)
  • Morelia (537,000)
  • Salamanca (144,000)
  • Irapuato (317,000)
  • Silao (147,000)
  • León (1,400,000)
  • Aguascalientes (735,000)
  • Zamora (186,000)
  • Guadalajara (3,800,000)
  • Ahuacatlán (6,500)
  • Tepic (261,000)

Their analysis suggested that the rates of subsidence over a two-year period were nearly constant at most locations, typically between 5 and 10 cm/yr. (In contrast, subsidence in Mexico City was around 30 cm/yr, in line with previous studies.)


Ground failure by groundwater withdrawal subsidence. Credit: Natural Science, Vol. 6, No 3, 2014.

An earlier study – Subsidence risk due to groundwater extraction in urban areas using fractal analysis of satellite images – had found that the intense groundwater pumping regime in Irapuato for urban supply and agriculture (the area is one of Mexico’s main strawberry-growing centers) had resulted in 18 subsidence fault systems with a total length of 27 km, causing damages to more than 200 houses.

Meanwhile, previous work in nearby Celaya – Subsidence in Celaya, Guanajuato, Central Mexico: implications for groundwater extraction and the neotectonic regime – found that subsidence in that city was due to a complex combination of factors, and not entirely due to excessive groundwater extraction. Most earth fissures in the Celaya area were related to pre-existing structural features, and the authors suggested that thermal springs also appeared to play a role.


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