Mexican architect proposes city straddling Mexico-U.S. border

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Oct 032016

This proposal sounds a lot more 21st century than Trump’s plan for a wall along the Mexico-U.S. border. Will either proposal ever actually happen? Most likely not. But that does not prevent us from considering the former project one more than worthy of mention here.

Young Mexican architect Fernando Romero has long believed that “building bridges” is preferable to creating obstacles and that conventional boundaries “are just becoming symbolic limits.”Romero was named a “Global Leader of Tomorrow” at the World Economic Forum in 2002.

Masterplan for trans-border city. (Fernando Romero Enterprise)

Masterplan for trans-border city. (Fernando Romero Enterprise)

To illustrate his viewpoint, Romero recently released a master plan for a walkable, super-connected metropolis straddling the U.S.-Mexico border. More than a decade ago, Romero’s architecture firm proposed a tunnel-like “Bridging Museum” crossing the Mexico-U.S. border in the Rio Grande Valley. His more recent suggestion of a utopian border city, presented at the London Design Biennale, is far more ambitious and would take advantage of the concept of special economic zones (employed earlier this year by Mexico’s federal government to stimulate development in several southern states).

To read more about this exciting proposal, with numerous stunning images of what it might look like, see “Instead of Trump’s Wall, Why Not a Binational Border City?

For more about the U.S.-Mexico border zone, see these related Geo-Mexico posts:

Jan 132015

At this time of year, Mexico attracts millions of visitors seeking to escape the cold weather further north. The vast majority of visitors will never experience any problem during their travels in Mexico, but both the US State Department and Canadian government continue to issue regular warnings to those considering travel in Mexico. Some of these warnings are specific to certain stretches of highway; others are broader and focus on cities or regions. Click below for the current US travel warnings related to Mexico.

  • Current US Travel Advisory for Mexico

The states left white on the map below all have advisories in effect (as of mid-January 2015) for most or all of the state in question. For the states shaded light green, only small parts of the state have advisories in place, while no advisories are currently in place for those states shaded dark green.

US Travel Advisory Areas, December 2014

US Travel Advisory Areas, December 2014: All states, other than those colored dark green, have travel advisories in place for at least part of the state

The Canadian government offers its own travel warnings for Mexico:

The Canadian advisories apply to all those states left white on the map below. States shaded dark green have no travel advisory in effect so far as the Canadian government is concerned.

Canadian Travel Advisory, November 2014. No advisory in effect for states colored dark green.

Canadian Travel Advisory, November 2014. No advisory in effect for states colored dark green.

The most obvious difference between the maps is that the US State Department is relatively unconcerned about the states of Jalisco and Nayarit, while the Canadian authorities have included them in a regional advisory.

States shaded dark green on both maps are areas where the US State Department and the Canadian government have no serious concerns about travel safety. These states, where travel is considered safe, include Guanajuato (including the cities of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende), Querétaro (including Querétaro City), Hidalgo, Puebla (including Puebla City), Oaxaca (Oaxaca City, Puerto Escondido and Huatulco), Chiapas (Tuxtla Gutiérrez and San Cristóbal de las Casas), Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán (Mérida) and Quintana Roo (Cancún, Riviera Maya).

As always, tourists visiting Mexico and traveling within Mexico are advised to be cautious about visiting rural areas (especially in states where travel warnings are in place), to check local sources such as web forums for updates on the latest conditions, and to avoid driving at night.

Safe travels! Enjoy your trip!

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Nuevo León’s unusual shape

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Jan 032015

The northern state of Nuevo León is an industrial powerhouse, centered on Monterrey, Mexico’s third-largest city. The state’s shape on a map is unusual in more ways than one. The state has a long north-south axis and is very narrow from west to east. The strange indentation south of Monterrey is largely determined by relief. The peaks of the mountains on the Nuevo León side of that state boundary comprise a National Park, the Parque Nacional Cumbres de Monterrey.

Source: Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León (UANL)

Source: Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León (UANL)

Perhaps the strangest aspect of the shape of Nuevo León is the peculiar extension that forms the state’s north-eastern extremity (see map above). This small section of the state, about 15 km across, is sandwiched between the states of Coahuila and Tamaulipas, and extends to the Río Bravo and the U.S. border. The reason for this particular extension must date back a long time since it is clearly shown on this 1824 map of Mexico.

(Note that the shape of the neighboring state of Tamaulipas, with its lengthy extension north-west paralleling the US border, made much more sense in the early nineteenth century before the current international boundary was established).

While we’re not sure of the precise timing or reasons for the “neck” of land that gave Nuevo León access to the Río Bravo even before the current international boundary was fixed, it has certainly brought the state some benefit in recent decades in terms of economics and trade. Nuevo León is the smallest of the combined ten “border states” in the USA and Mexico.

A closer look at the Google Map image (above) of this area shows the border crossing of Laredo-Colombia across the Solidarity International bridge. Colombia is the name of the small grid-pattern town on the Mexican side, just west of the crossing.

Zooming in on the area of the crossing reveals the distinctive street pattern of a major border crossing, with extensive parking and loading areas.

The 371-meter-long (1216 ft) bridge has eight lanes for traffic and two walkways for pedestrians. It is one of four vehicular international bridges close to the city of Laredo, Texas. The community of Colombia and the international bridge were built to give Nuevo León its only international “port” for direct trade to and from the USA.

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Mexico is a major net importer of “virtual” water

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Oct 132014

The concept of “virtual water” was developed by Professor J.A. Allan of King’s College (London University) and the School of Oriental and African Studies. Allan used it to support his argument that Middle Eastern countries could save their scarce water resources by relying more on food imports. The idea was sufficiently novel for Allan to be awarded the 2008 Stockholm Water Prize.

In Allan’s words, “The water is said to be virtual because once the wheat is grown, the real water used to grow it is no longer actually contained in the wheat. The concept of virtual water helps us realize how much water is needed to produce different goods and services. In semi-arid and arid areas, knowing the virtual water value of a good or service can be useful towards determining how best to use the scarce water available.”

As one example, producing a single kilogram of wheat requires (on average) around 1.5 cubic meters of water, with the precise volume depending on climatic conditions and farming techniques. The amount of water required to grow or make a product is known as the “water footprint” of the product.

Hoekstra and Chapagain have defined the virtual-water content of a product, commodity, good or service, as “the volume of freshwater used to produce the product, measured at the place where the product was actually produced”. The virtual water content is the sum of the water used in the various steps of the production chain.

Additional examples, showing the water footprint of producing one kilogram of:

  • biodiesel from soya –  11.4 cubic meters
  • beef –  15.4 cubic meters
  • butter –  5.5 cubic meters
  • chocolate – 17.0 cubic meters
  • pasta –  1.85 cubic meters
  • sugar (from cane) –  0.2 cubic meters

While the idea of virtual water has attracted some attention, its methodology is contested, and its quantification is not yet sufficiently precise to offer much potential for policy decisions.

Imports and exports of virtual water represent the “hidden” flows of water involved when food and other commodities are traded from one place to another. The map below (from Hoekstra and Mekonnen, 2012) shows the net imports (imports minus exports) of virtual water for different countries for the decade 1996-2005. Note that only the major flows are shown.

water-virtual-tradeIn North America, both the USA and Canada have a significant positive virtual water balance (i.e. they are major exporters of virtual water), whereas Mexico has a significant negative water balance, and is clearly one of the world’s largest importers of virtual water.

As Allan’s original work suggests, this is not necessarily bad news since it may imply that Mexico is currently using less of its own (limited) water resources than it might otherwise have to. In other words, Mexico’s virtual water imports may be delaying the inevitable crunch time when water usage becomes a critical limiting factor in the nation’s development.

Source of map

A.Y. Hoekstra and M.M. Mekonnen. 2012. The water footprint of humanity. Proc. Nat. Academy of Sciences, 109, 3232-7. Map was reproduced in “Spotlight on virtual water” by Stuart N. Lane in Geography, vol 99-1, Spring 2014, 51-3.

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The Magic Town of Jiquilpan in Michoacán

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Apr 102014

For a small Mexican town of somewhat nondescript architecture, Jiquilpan de Juárez, in Michoacán, has considerable claim to fame, well deserving of its Magic Town status. Jiquilpan is the birthplace of two Mexican Presidents, who played pivotal roles in national affairs, and several distinguished artists. Its unprepossessing exterior appearance offers no hint of the important works of art—including sculptures and a singular mural—which are to be discovered in the town.

The first former President associated with the town is Anastacio Bustamante, who had the distinction of being President three times 1830-32, 1837-39, 1839-41). In the interim between his first two governments, Mexico was forced to cede a large part of its territory, including Texas, to the USA. Bustamante, considered one of the more honest nineteenth century politicians, seized power for the first time in 1830, overthrowing Vicente Guerrero. He was in turn overthrown by Santa Anna in 1832, and fled to England. On resuming office in 1837, after the rather unsavory incidents which robbed Mexico of Texas, Bustamante immediately faced the “Pastry War” crisis.

The Pastry War began when Mexico refused to pay compensation for damages to a pastry shop, owned by a Frenchman in Mexico City. The shop had allegedly been looted during riots in 1828. Ten years later, the French government used this pretext, and other losses which had occurred at the same time to other French property, to demand 600,000 dollars in damages from the Mexican government of Bustamante. The French also sought a preferential trading agreement with Mexico. Bustamante considered the claim for looted pastries to be preposterous and refused either to pay, or to consider the trade agreement. Outraged, the French brought up a fleet from the Caribbean island of Martinique and blockaded Veracruz. Seven months later, the French added a further 200,000 dollars to their demand to cover the costs of the blockade. Bustamante finally gave in and paid in full, whereupon the French fleet sailed off.

The second former President associated with  Jiquilpan is Lázaro Cárdenas, born in the town on the 21st May, 1895. As national President (1934–40), he presided over a massive agrarian reform program and in 1938 nationalized the railways and the oil industry. He was the last President to be held in sufficient esteem to occupy important ministerial posts including Defense Secretary after the end of his term as President.

jiquilpan-sm2On Jiquilpan’s main street, appropriately named Avenida Lázaro Cárdenas, are the library and the town museum. During Lázaro Cárdenas’ presidency, a nineteenth century church in Jiquilpan was converted to a library and embellished with two impressive works of art. The new door of the library, in which are sculpted the heads of 22 of the most outstanding figures of the early twentieth century, was designed by Guillermo Ruiz. It is a beautiful tribute to the greatest thinkers and scientists of the time (Edison, Marti, etc.).

The murals decorating the interior of the library were painted by an even more prominent figure in the history of Mexican art: José Clemente Orozco, one of the famous “Big Three” of Mexican Muralism, alongside Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Orozco painted, literally singlehandedly (having lost his left hand in a childhood accident) a series of sketchy black-and-white murals depicting political parties and revolutionary Mexico on either side of the former nave and an unusual and striking full-color, nationalistic mural known as “A Mexican Allegory”.

The modern Jiquilpan museum, east of the town center beyond the very friendly Hotel Palmira, includes a collection of archaeological pieces unearthed from a nearby shaft tomb. In addition to the archaeological pieces, the museum houses the Centre for Studies of the Mexican Revolution. Even non-Spanish speakers can gain insights into the turbulent and complex times that comprise the Mexican Revolution by looking at the extensive photographic exhibition on the museum’s first floor. The exhibition details the life and works not only of Lázaro Cárdenas but also of other key figures in twentieth century Mexican politics including General Francisco Múgica, who was in the group which proposed for inclusion in the Constitution of 1917 (still current today) Article 27, which encompassed agrarian reform and land redistribution, and Article 123 which dealt with the rights of workers, including an eight-hour day and guaranteed minimum wages. The museum in Jiquilpan is a fitting tribute to these much revered politicians.

Moving away from politics and towards the arts, Jiquilpan was the birthplace of artist Feliciano Béjar, who passed away in 2007, and received national acclaim for his inspiring sculptures, painting and weaving. Rafael Méndez, arguably the world’s greatest ever trumpet virtuoso, was born into a musical family in Jiquilpan and later moved to the USA. His legendary technique and tone have never been equaled. Jiquilpan hosted an international trumpet festival named for him in 2011.

Elsewhere in Jiquilpan are a statue of Christ on the Cross, said to date from the times of Emperor Charles V (now in San Francisco church), and a fountain sculpted by Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras, Mexico’s most famous nineteenth century sculptor and architect. This fountain was originally on the El Cabezón hacienda, owned by the Cañedo family, in Jalisco, but the family later gave it to Lázaro Cárdenas to beautify his native town. Known as “The Fisherman’s Fountain” (Pila de los Pescadores), it is a few blocks from the main plaza. Another, newer fountain on the plaza, “La Aguadora” (The Water Carrier), commemorates the first anniversary of the nationalization of the oil industry.

The ancient hieroglyph for Jiquilpan, from pre-Columbian times, is a horizontal line of earth with two indigo plants above it, linking the town to the color blue. One of Jiquilpan’s most famous poets, Ramón Martínez Ocaranza, also linked his birthplace to the color blue, christening it, “the city of jacarandas”, a tag that quickly caught on and is still used today. Anyone who drives through the town during jacaranda season (February–March) will certainly agree that the tall trees  with their lavender-blue blossoms bordering the main avenues are a magnificent sight.

Note: This is a lightly edited excerpt from chapter 6 of my Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury (Sombrero Books, 2013)

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Why Is Mexico in the OECD?

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Jan 172013

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was founded in 1961 to promote economic growth. Its current 34 members include 25 European countries along with Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Chile and Israel. Mexico joined the group in 1994. Four new members were admitted in 2010: Chile, Slovenia, Estonia and Israel. Russia is not yet a member but is moving toward that goal. The current Secretary General of the OECD is Mexico’s  José Ángel Gurría Treviño, first appointed in 2006; his current term in this position extends to 2016.


OECD member countries are among the most highly developed and wealthiest countries on the planet. Though OECD members represent only 18% of the world’s population, they account for 55% of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), measured on a Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) basis. Among OECD members, Mexico has the lowest per capita GDP, slightly behind Chile and Turkey. In terms of the UN Human Development Index (HDI) Mexico trails all the others except Turkey. How did Mexico become a member of this very elite set of countries?

There are three main criteria for OECD membership:

  1. Democracy and respect for human rights
  2. Open market economy
  3. GDP per capita (PPP) at least as high as the poorest OECD member

When Mexico became a member in 1994, it was a democracy albeit a one party democracy. It was very clearly an open market economy and its per capita GDP was slightly higher than Turkey’s. Consequently, it met the criteria and was admitted by other OECD members. (See Elżbieta Czarny et al., The Gravity Model and the Classification of Countriesin Argumenta Oeconomica, 2 (25) 2010.)

What are the benefits of OECD membership?

As a member, Mexico fully participates in OECD discussions concerning economic, social and environmental situations, issues, experiences, policies, and best practices. OECD collects and analyzes a very wide range of data which enables Mexico to monitor its position and progress on numerous important dimensions. OECD also has numerous world class experts and committees that can assist countries on specific issues and policies.

Certainly being a member of this elite group provides Mexico with an amount of international prestige. On the other hand, most development analyses and comparative OECD reports show Mexico near the bottom on most measures and rankings.

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Is Mexico the world’s 13th or 14th largest country?

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Jul 022012

One would think that with satellite imagery there would be no question concerning the land area of countries. However, when talking about area there are some definitional issues. Are we talking about “land area” or “total area” which includes land area and inland water bodies such as lakes, reservoirs and rivers? This can be important when talking about the relative size of countries.

Without question Russia is the largest with nearly twice the area of the second place country. What are the second, third and fourth place countries? If we are talking about “land area”, excluding inland waters, then China is second (9.570 million square kilometers), the USA is third (9.162m sq km) and Canada is fourth (9.094m sq km). However, when inland waters are included to get “total area” then Canada is second (9.985m sq km), China is third (9.597m sq km) and the USA is fourth (9.526m sq km). Generally “total area” is the measure used to compare the geographic areas of countries (see table).

Total area of the world’s largest countries (millions of square kilometers)

RankCountryArea (millions of sq. km)RankCountryArea (millions of sq. km)
2Canada9.98512Saudi Arabia2.150
5Brazil8.51515Sudan (post 2011)1.861

Generally we might expect a country’s geographic area rank to stay the same from year to year and even decade to decade. However, this is not the case. Prior to 1991 Mexico was considered the world’s 13th largest country. However with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 2011, Kazakhstan became an independent country ranked 9th in total area. This pushed Mexico down to 14th.

When South Sudan split away from Sudan in mid 2011, the area of “new” Sudan was reduced by over 25%. This dropped Sudan from 10th to 15th on the list of the world’s largest countries. It also moved Mexico from 14th back up to 13th place on the list. Such political changes can have enormous impact on the size of countries. For example, prior to 1951 when Tibet was considered an independent country, the size of China was an eighth smaller than it is now. Mexico before 1846 was almost twice its current size and perhaps the fifth largest independent country behind only Russia, China, the USA and Brazil.

Another issue concerns whether Greenland (2.166m sq km)  is counted as a country. While Greenland is officially a dependency of Denmark it has been moving toward independence. In 1985 it left the European Economic Community (EEC) while Denmark remained in the EEC. Greenland has its own Parliament and Prime Minister; in June 2009 Greenland assumed self-determination with Greenlandic as its sole official language. If/when Greenland becomes officially an independent “country” it will be the world’s 12th largest, bumping Mexico back into 14th place. Until this happens, Mexico remains the world’s 13th largest country.

The changes in rank discussed above came about for political reasons. They did not involve any physical changes. With global warming and rising sea levels some countries will actually become geographically smaller. However these changes will not affect the area ranking of the 20 largest countries for at least the next hundred years.

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Mexico and USA sign agreement for development of Gulf of Mexico oil reserves

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Feb 272012

The USA and Mexico share the Gulf of Mexico, with periodic arguments about the precise offshore limits of each country’s jurisdiction. An earlier post includes a brief summary of the history of negotiations over this contentious maritime boundary:

The reason this boundary matters is because the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico are thought to have massive deep-water oil and gas fields. The USA has encouraged major oil multinationals such as Shell and BP to explore relatively deep parts of the Gulf, those lying more than 500 meters or 1,640 feet below sea level.

location of doughnut holesDeveloping these fields requires advanced, specialist deep-water drilling techniques, which only a small number of major international (multinational) oil firms currently have the expertise to undertake. As was seen not long ago, accidents in these fields can be very difficult to avoid and any resulting damage very difficult to clean up:

The legal battle connected to that spill has been postponed; it had been due to start today (27 February 2012) in a New Orleans court. The April 2010 accident killed 11 oil workers and released up to 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf.

In the Mexican sections of the Gulf of Mexico, very little oil exploration and development has yet been carried out. All oil exploration and development in Mexico is managed by state-owned oil giant Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), though they can contract other firms to undertake work on their behalf if or when needed. Pemex is the world’s third-largest oil producer and the largest contributor to Mexico’s federal budget. It is one of the very few oil companies worldwide that manages all aspects of the productive chain, from exploration to refining and marketing. Pemex has had more than its fair share of serious environmental issues:

Mexican experts believe that up to 29.5 billion barrels of oil might reside in Mexico’s share of the Gulf, but Pemex has little to show for almost a decade of deep-water drilling apart from some relatively minor gas finds.

A few days ago, Mexico and the USA finally signed an accord that, in the words of Mexican President Felipe Calderón, “ensures that each country can develop its corresponding oil and natural gas deposits in the trans-border area of the Gulf of Mexico.” In a joint formal statement, Mexico’s Foreign Affairs and Energy Secretariats said that the “historic” agreement “will generate the necessary legal certainty for the long-term development of resources that may be found in that area.” It remains to be seen just how quickly and efficiently Pemex can actually take advantage of the deep-water drilling opportunities that the new agreement is designed to safeguard.

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Will the mighty Colorado River ever reach its delta?

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Feb 062012

A few months ago, we highlighted the outstanding work of photographer Peter McBride. McBride traveled the length of the  Colorado River from its source high in the Rocky Mountains to its vast delta in the otherwise arid Sonoran desert in northern Mexico where the river emptied into the Sea of Cortés (Gulf of California). Now, McBride has released (on Yale Environment 360) a visually stunning video about his experiences tracing the Colorado River. The last third or so of the video focuses on the Colorado delta region in northern Mexico.

McBride follows the natural course of the Colorado “by raft, on foot, and overhead in a small plane, telling the story of a river whose water is siphoned off at every turn, leaving it high and dry 80 miles from the sea.”

The river enters Mexico (see map below) at the Southerly International Boundary where a gauging station records the river’s discharge. Sadly, this river is one of the most altered river systems in the world.The Río Colorado delta wetlands once created ideal conditions for a rich variety of wildlife. Today, the Río Colorado wetlands have been reduced to about 5% of their original extent, and the potential water supply for the rapidly-growing urban centers of Mexicali, Tijuana, Tecate and Rosarito has been compromised.

Map of the Colorado delta

Map of the River Colorado delta. All rights reserved. Click to enlarge.

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Rivers, reservoirs and water-related issues are discussed in chapters 6 and 7 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Ask your library to buy a copy of this handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography today! Better yet, order your own copy…

How might the USA adjust to “narco-refugees” from Mexico?

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Jan 072012

The impacts of Mexico’s “War on Drugs” in recent years have been apparent in many parts of the country, particularly in the Mexico-USA border region. Apart from the obvious and well-documented increased levels of violence in several northern border states, we have looked briefly in a previous post at how some businesses closed their factories or offices in northern Mexico and relocated to the relative safety of Mexico City and central Mexico. Individuals living in the areas where drug-related violence has increased have also had tough choices to make, and many families have chosen to move, either to other areas of Mexico or to the USA or Canada.

Canada recorded a sharp spike in the number of Mexicans entering the country and claiming asylum on the grounds that their lives were in danger if they returned to Mexico. The number rose from 2,550 in 2005 to 9,309 in 2009, with about 10% being accepted as legitimate claims. Canada’s response to the sudden increase in applicants was to impose strict visa restrictions which made it far harder for Mexicans to enter Canada legally. The changes led to an 80% drop in the number of Mexicans applying for asylum in 2010.

Several US border cities have also experienced an influx of Mexican migrants. In Mexico’s “Narco-Refugees”: The Looming Challenge for U.S. National Security, Dr. Paul Kan, Associate Professor of National Security Studies and the holder of the Henry L. Stimson Chair of Military Studies at the U.S. Army War College, looks at how Mexican “narco-refugees” (who leave Mexico “unwillingly”) could influence US policymakers and force them to reconsider national security priorities.

Dr. Kan considers three alternative scenarios, which, he argues, “would force the narco-refugee issue onto the [US] national policy-making agenda”:

  • 1. the “new normal”, in which drug-related violence in the USA and Mexico becomes “a fact of life in relations between the two countries”, as drug gang and cartel activities spread into the USA along the corridors used to transport drugs.
  • 2. an “accidental narco” syndrome developing in Mexico, in which the Mexican government, in order to demonstrate its commitment towards lowering cartel violence,  may collude with one or more smaller cartels to help gain intelligence about the larger, more violent cartels prior to clamping down on them. Such a policy could lead to a sharp increase in the number of narco-refugees, as the core areas of stronger cartels see increasing violence as the cartels fight for survival.
  • 3. the emergence of a “Zeta state.” In this third scenario, a kind of “parallel state” emerges, in which private security firms play a much larger part as wealthy Mexicans seek to protect themselves, relying on their own resources, rather than on the government’s law and order or security forces.

As Dr. Kan emphasizes, these three scenarios are not mutually exclusive, and could coexist in different areas of the country simultaneously. Equally, some parts of the country might escape the effects of all three of the scenarios he analyzes.

Kan repeats anecdotal and other evidence which suggests that “narco-refugees” are becoming an important trend, with serious consequences for Mexico’s economy. For example, “One young Mexican executive at cement giant Cemex SAB, which has headquarters in Monterrey, said he can count at least 20 different families from his circle of friends who have left—nearly all of them for nearby Texas.” Reduced US investment in Mexico is not a good sign. According to the US Chamber of Commerce in Mexico, 25% of its members are “reconsidering their investments in Mexico as a result of worries over security”, with 16% having suffered extortion and 13% having experienced kidnappings. According to J.P. Morgan’s chief economist for Mexico, “the country likely lost approximately $4 billion in investment in 2010 when companies reconsidered such plans because of drug violence.”

At a more local level, in Ciudad Juárez, “more than 2,500 small grocery stores have closed due to extortion or because customers have left the city; the Mexican social security administration believes that 75,000 residents there have lost their jobs since 2007.”

Clearly, the impacts of Mexico’s “war on drugs” are far-reaching. Let’s hope that the situation improves in 2012, despite it being a year of federal elections in both Mexico and the USA.

Previous posts about the geography of drug trafficking and drug cartels in Mexico:

US firms are near-shoring jobs from China to Mexico

 Mexico's geography in the Press, Updates to Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on US firms are near-shoring jobs from China to Mexico
Aug 112011

 Near-shoring means “the transfer of business or IT processes to companies in a nearby country, often sharing a border with your own country” (definition from It is closely related to offshoring, now usually limited to similar transfers as near-shoring, but to more distant locations. Among the best examples of near-shoring are the hundreds of US companies that have set up factories and assembly plants in Mexico under the long-running maquiladora program (analyzed in detail in chapter 20 of of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico).

Maria Elena Rigoli, the President of Collectron International Management Inc., which helps companies make the move from the USA to Mexico, was interviewed about near-shoring for the 20 December 2010 issue of Food Manufacturing News. Despite reflecting her obvious vested interests,  the transcript of the interview is still interesting reading for geographers.

Rigoli first explains how Mexico’s maquiladoras work and then lists the major benefits of moving a company’s operations to Mexico:

  • Extremely fast shipping times offered by such a close location
  • Reduced labor costs
  • Trade agreements with many different countries, including NAFTA
  • Decades of experience in manufacturing and exporting
  • Highly-skilled, well-educated workforce

Quotes from the interview:

“Mexico is one of the world’s five largest developing economies. Global market research firm EuroMonitor International forecasts that Mexico will replace Italy as the 10th largest economy in the world within the next decade.”

“The technology used when producing goods in [Mexico’s] maquilas is the same or superior to that in the United States, as technology is typically transferred by the contracted companies individually. Additionally, the large pool of educated technicians coming out of Mexico’s many technical universities are trained to assemble, package, test and manufacture products in a maquiladora setting. This training is either on par or above the average training manufacturing personnel receive north of the border.”

“The growth of Mexico’s share in the aerospace industry speaks volumes about the craftsmanship and quality of products produced in Mexico. Originally, companies like Boeing and Bombardier only outsourced high volume-low tech operations to Mexico, now entire fuselages are designed and built here.”

How do Rigoli’s claims match up to what is happening today?

Well, among the numerous press reports that US manufacturers have started ‘near-shoring’ work from Asia to Mexico, is this one in Asian Shipper., that quotes figures from a survey conducted by consultancy AlixPartners of 80 big US companies.

The survey found that:

  • 9% have already shifted some or all of their operations from Asia to the Americas (= near-shoring).
  • 33% are considering doing it in the next three years

Is Mexico the most attractive location for near-shoring?

  • 63% say, “Yes!”
  • 19% think the USA is better.

What are the major advantages of near-shoring?

  • 30% said lower freight costs
  • 25% said speed-to-market
  • 18% claimed lower inventory costs
  • 16% said time-zone advantages such as easier management coordination
  • 11% liked closer cultural ties with North American managers.

What started as a trickle of US firms moving manufacturing back from China to Mexico seems to be becoming a clear trend. Globalization may have expanded the reach of many such US firms, but near-shoring now seems to be pulling some of them back, closer to home.

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Jul 242011

This week’s “Sunday short” is about ziplines across the Guatemala-Mexico border, between El Carmen (Guatemala) and Talisman (Mexico). The story was reported by Mexico’s Televisa (a CNN affiliate). What might at first glance appear to be an enterprising form of adventure tourism is actually a means for undocumented migrants to enter Mexico on their way to the USA.

  • Migrants use zip line to cross Guatemala-Mexico border (includes video with commentary in English)

Apparently, there are several ziplines across the Suchiate River, which forms the border in this southeastern part of Mexico. The ziplines are not expensive, either. Whereas a similar ride might cost you US$60.00 in the USA or Canada, whizzing across the Suchiate River will cost you only 15 pesos or 10 quetzals (about $1.25).

Guatemalans normally require a visa to enter Mexico, but here, the local immigration authorities turn a blind eye, according to Rafael Romo, the Televisa correspondent. It is assumed that most of the Guatemalans crossing into Mexico are heading for the USA and the possibility of finding work there.

Too few discussions of the issues surrounding illegal migrants in North America recognize that Mexico faces its own problem of illegals— Central Americans desperate to cross the southern border with Guatemala, travel the length of Mexico and then cross into the USA.

If you find the zipline rates in the USA and Canada exorbitant, and want a less expensive adventure tourism experience, then head for the southern jungles of Mexico, but don’t forget to bring a Guatemalan visa with you if you plan to zipline across the Suchiate River!

Jun 252011

Over the past year, the US State Department has issued repeated warnings about travel in Mexico. Some of these warnings are specific to certain stretches of highway; others are broader and focus on cities or regions.

Travel Weekly has produced a handy map showing the areas currently affected by advisories (a version of this map appears below). Resorts colored green are “presumed to be safe”, while yellow means “caution” and red means “warning issued”.

  • Link to the Travel Weekly pdf map with full details, explaining the significance of each numbered location,
Traveler Safety in Mexico. Map Credit: Travel Weekly –

Note that “Sombrete” on the map, near Fresnillo, should actually be Sombrerete. (Curiously, this is the exactly same mistake made recently by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in the text accompanying a display about silver in Latin America. Sombrerete was a very important silver-mining center during colonial times, and the town is well worth visiting, advisories permitting, for numerous fine colonial buildings).

Given the map, it is perhaps not really a great surprise that Mexico’s federal Tourism Department is currently actively promoting the Caribbean coast and “Mundo Maya” (Maya World), a region well removed from the red-colored zones on the map.

According to a slew of articles in Mexico’s Spanish-language press:

Jun 102011

‘War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”

This quote is commonly attributed to Ambrose Bierce, the American journalist and satirist, who fell off the map in Revolutionary Mexico in 1913, never to be seen again. However, as pointed out by an alert reader (see comments), the quote has never been established as originating with Bierce and may well derive from “War was God’s way of teaching us geography”, a line delivered by comedian Paul Rodriguez in 1987 (quoted in the LA Times).

To ensure that this post has a link to Mexico, In The Devil’s Dictionary, Bierce defined Boundary:

BOUNDARY, n. “In political geography, an imaginary line between two nations, separating the imaginary rights of one from the imaginary rights of the other.”

The changing political frontiers of Mexico are the subject of chapter 12 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico, your handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography. Ask your local library to buy a copy TODAY! Also available from

Cultural adaptation: the Cinco de Mayo holiday is far more widely celebrated in the USA than in Mexico

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May 022011

The Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo (5 May) commemorates the Battle of Puebla, fought on May 5, 1862. The battle marks Mexico’s best-known military success since its independence from Spain in 1821.

Today, in a curious example of cultural adaptation, the resulting holiday is celebrated far more widely in the USA than in Mexico.

The background to the Battle of Puebla

The nineteenth century in Mexico was a time of repeated interventions by foreign powers, including France, Spain, Britain and the USA, all of which hatched or carried out plans to invade.

US stamp for Cinco de MayoThe first French invasion, in 1838, the so‑called Pastry War, lasted only a few days. A decade later, US troops entered Mexico City, and Mexico was forced to cede Texas, New Mexico and (Upper) California, an area of 2 million square kilometers, about half of all Mexican territory, in exchange for 15 million pesos.

A new constitution in 1857 provoked an internal conflict, known as the Reform War (1858‑60), between the liberals led by Benito Juárez, who supported the new constitution, and the conservatives. The War decimated the country’s labor force, reduced economic development and cost a small fortune. Both sides had serious financial problems. At one point in this war, the liberals reached an agreement with the USA to be paid four million pesos in exchange for which the USA would receive the “right of traffic” across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec “in perpetuity”. Fortunately, this treaty was never ratified by the US Senate.

The financial crisis deepened, eventually leading Mexico to suspend all payments on its foreign debt for two years. The vote was approved by the Mexican Congress by a single vote. The foreign powers involved were furious; in 1861, Britain, France and Spain decided on joint action to seize the port of Veracruz on Mexico’s Gulf coast and force Mexico’s government to pay. The UK and Spain quickly agreed terms and withdrew their military forces, but the French decided to stay.

The French are confident of victory

France’s emperor, Napoleon III (Louis Napoleon Bonaparte) had grand ambitions and envisaged a Mexican monarchy. To this end, he decided to place Austrian archduke Maximilian von Habsburg as his puppet on the Mexican throne. The French Army moved inland from Veracruz and occupied the city of Orizaba. The French commander was supremely confident that his forces could crush any opposition. (Following their defeat at Waterloo in 1815, no-one had beaten the French in almost fifty years.) The Commander, Charles Ferdinand Latrille, the Count of Lorencez, confidently boasted that, “We are so superior to the Mexicans in race, organization, morality and devoted sentiments that I beg your Excellency [the Minster of War] to inform the Emperor that as the head of 6,000 soldiers I am already master of Mexico.”  (Quoted in “Betterment for Whom? The Reform Period: 1855‑1875” by Paul Vanderwood, chapter 12 of The Oxford History of Mexico (edited by Michael C. Meyer and William H Beezley, O.U.P. 2000).

Mexican resistance

Marching towards Mexico City, the French needed to secure Puebla, which was defended by 4,000 or so ill‑equipped Mexican soldiers. Ironically, given the eventual outcome, many of the defenders were armed with antiquated weapons that had already beaten the French at Waterloo, before being purchased in 1825 by Mexico’s ambassador to London at a knock-down price! The Mexican forces, the Ejército de Oriente (Army of the East) were commanded by General Ignacio Zaragoza, a Texas‑born Mexican. Zaragoza dug his forces into defensive positions centered on the twin forts of Loreto and Guadalupe.

The events of 5/05

On the 5 May 1862, Zaragoza ordered his commanders to repel the invaders at all costs. Mexicans received unexpected help from the weather. After launching a brief artillery bombardment, the French discovered that the ground had become so muddy from heavy unseasonable downpours that maneuvering their heavy weapons was next to impossible.

Painting of Battle of Puebla

Bullets rained down on them from the Mexican troops that occupied the higher ground near the forts. At noon, the French commander ordered his troops to charge the center of the Mexican lines. But the lines held strong, and musket fire began to take its toll. Successive French attacks were rebuffed. The Mexican forces then counter‑attacked, spurred on by well-organized cavalry, led by Porfirio Díaz who would subsequently become President of Mexico.

As the afternoon wore on, and the smoke began to clear, it became apparent that the defenders of Puebla had successfully repelled the European invaders. The French troops fled back to Orizaba before retreating back to the coast to regroup. A crack European army had been soundly defeated by a motley collection of machete‑wielding peasants from the war‑torn republic of Mexico….

A few days later, on 9 May, President Benito Juárez declared that the Cinco de Mayo would henceforth be a national holiday.

Aftermath: the French return with reinforcements

Back in Paris, Napoleon was enraged. He ordered massive reinforcements and sent a 27,000-strong force of French military might to Mexico. This strengthened French army (under Marshal Elie Forey) took Mexico City in 1863, forcing Benito Juárez and his supporters to flee. Juárez established himself in Paso del Norte (now El Paso) on the US border, from where he continued to orchestrate resistance to the French presence. Supported by the conservatives, Maximilian finally ascended to the throne in May 1864. By this time, in the USA, the Unionists had taken Vicksburg, and the US government was considering its position. In May 1865, General Philip Sheridan led 50,000 US soldiers to ensure that French troops did not cross the Mexico‑USA border. Diplomatic pressure for a French withdrawal intensified and Napoleon III finally agreed to remove his troops in February 1866.

After the French had departed, President Juárez reestablished Republican government in Mexico, and put Maximilian on trial, ending an extraordinary period in Mexican history.

The significance of 5/05

With the passing of time, the Cinco de Mayo has assumed added significance because it marks the last time that any overseas power was the aggressor on North American soil.

In Mexico, the Cinco de Mayo is still celebrated with lengthy parades in the state and city of Puebla, and in neighboring states like Veracruz. There is at least one street named Cinco de Mayo in almost every town and city throughout the country.

In the USA, the Cinco de Mayo has been transformed into a much more popular cultural event, and one where many of the revelers think it commemorates Mexican Independence, not a battle. (Mexico’s Independence celebrations are in mid-September each year).

Many communities in the USA, especially the Hispanic communities, use Cinco de Mayo as the perfect excuse to celebrate everything Mexican, from drinks, music and dancing, to food, crafts and customs. The Cinco de Mayo has become not just another day in the calendar, but a very significant commercial event, one now celebrated with much greater fervor north of the border than south of the border.

Where to go to see more — Texas

General Ignacio Zaragoza died on September 8, 1862, only a few months after the Battle of Puebla. In 1960, the General Zaragoza State Historic Site was established in his birthplace, near Goliad, Texas, to commemorate his famous victory. In Zaragoza’s time, the town was known as La Bahía del Espíritu Santo.

Where to go to see more — Puebla

The Guadalupe and Loreto forts are in parkland, about 2 km north‑east of Puebla city center. The Fuerte de Guadalupe is ruined. The Fuerte de Loreto became state property in 1930. It is now a museum, the Museum of No Intervention (Museo de la No Intervención), complete with toy soldiers. The park has an equestrian statue of General Zaragoza and is the setting for the Centro Civico 5 de Mayo, with its modern museums, including the Regional Museum (history and anthropology), the Natural History Museum and the Planetarium (IMAX screen).

Geography research in Oaxaca funded by the US military stirred up a storm of protest

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Feb 282011

In 2005, a geography research project known as México Indígena, based at the University of Kansas, received 500,000 dollars in funding from the US Defence Department to map indigenous villages in two remote parts of Mexico, in collaboration with the Autonomous University of San Luis Potosí , Radiance Technologies (USA), SEMARNAT (Mexico’s federal environmental secretariat) and partnered with the US Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO).

Under some circumstances, this might not be a huge problem. After all, the large-scale survey maps of many countries were developed primarily by military engineers with military funding, in the interests of national security. In the past, several countries, including France and the UK, extended their map-making to cover their colonies or dependent territories.

What sets México Indígena apart is that, between 2005 and 2008, under the guise of “community participatory mapping”, US researchers, funded by the US military, collected detailed topographic, economic and land tenure information for several villages in Mexico, an autonomous nation, whose people have long viewed their northern neighbors with considerable suspicion. After all, in the mid-19th century, the USA gained a large portion of Mexico’s territory.

The indigenous villages mapped were in the Huasteca region of San Luis Potosí, and in the Zapotec highlands of Oaxaca, the most culturally diverse state in Mexico. The villages mapped in Oaxaca included San Juan Yagila and San Miguel Tiltepec.

México Indígena is part of a larger mapping project, the Bowman Expeditions. In the words of the México Indígena website:

“The First Bowman Expedition of the American Geographical Society (AGS) was developed in Mexico…  The AGS Bowman Expeditions Program is based on the belief that geographical understanding is essential for maintaining peace, resolving conflicts, and providing humanitarian assistance worldwide.”

“The prototype project in Mexico is producing a multi-scale GIS database and digital regional geography, using participatory research mapping (PRM) and GIS, aiming at developing a digital regional geography, or so-called “digital human terrain,” of indigenous peoples of the country.”

Mexico’s indigenous communities are the poorest in the country, beset by poverty, poor access to education and health care, and limited economic opportunities. Among the common concerns voiced by protesters against the mapping project were that the information collected could be used for:

  1. Counter-insurgency operations
  2. Identification and subsequent acquisition of resources
  3. Biopiracy

Despite attempts at clarification by the project leaders, some communities remain upset, claiming that they were not made aware of the US military’s funding, and have demanded that all research findings either be returned to the community or destroyed (see, for example, this open letter from community leaders in San Miguel Tiltepec).

Choose the conclusion you prefer:

1. Mexico’s indigenous peoples face enough challenges already. Their best way forward is if US military funding for mapping beats a hasty retreat, or

2. Mexico’s indigenous peoples face enough challenges already. Their best way forward is to welcome and embrace offers of help from outside their community.

Further reading/viewing:

The México Indígena controversy is the subject of a short film entitled, “The Demarest Factor: US Military Mapping of Indigenous Communities in Oaxaca, Mexico”. The film investigates the role of Lt. Col. Geoffrey B. Demarest ( a US Army School of the America’s graduate) and the true nature of the mapping project. It discusses parallels between US political and economic interests within the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and a US military strategy designed to secure those very interests.

Things to think about:

  • Should academic research in foreign countries ever be funded from military sources?
  • Does the right of self-determination mean that indigenous peoples can refuse to cooperate with academic researchers, even when the research may bring benefits to the community?
  • Should researchers ever be allowed to collect information from a community without the community’s express consent?

The irony about the choice of “Bowman” for the AGS research expeditions.

Isaiah Bowman (1878-1950), born in Canada, was a US geographer who taught at Yale from 1905 to 1915. He became Director of the AGS in 1916, a position he only relinquished when appointed president of Johns Hopkins University in 1935. He served as President Woodrow Wilson’s chief territorial adviser at the Versailles conference in 1919. Bowman’s best known work is “The New World: Problems in Political Geography” (1921). His career has been subject to considerable scrutiny by a number of geographers including Geoffrey Martin (The life and thought of Isaiah Bowman, published in 1980) and Neil Smith who, in American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization (2003) labels Bowman an imperialist, precisely the claim made by many of its opponents about the México Indígena mapping project.

USA agrees to “bank” some of Mexico’s entitlement of Colorado River water

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Jan 222011

In an earlier post, we described a 1944 treaty that guaranteed Mexico would receive at least 1750 million cubic meters of water  each year along the Colorado River (via the Morelos diversionary dam in the Mexicali Valley). However, in April 2010, the Mexicali area was rattled by a large earthquake, so powerful that it moved the southern part of California,  and severely damaged the irrigation infrastructure used by Mexican farmers on land in the lower Colorado River valley and the Colorado River delta. In all, 640 kilometers of irrigation canals were damaged, affecting 60,000 hectares of farmland.

The damaged infrastructure meant that Mexico was unable to use effectively its total annual allocation of water. Even as urgent repairs were begun on pumps, pipelines and irrigation channels in the Mexicali region, Mexican authorities opened talks with the USA to discuss the possibility of deferring receipt of  some of their annual water quota.

The two governments have now agreed “Minute 318” which permits Mexico to decrease its consumption from 2010 to 2013 and then receive the “saved” water later when the irrigation channels are all operational again.

Another major related development concerning the Colorado River is also now getting underway. The two governments are starting talks this year towards a comprehensive new long-term bilateral agreement covering the management of the Colorado River.

Mexico’s water resources and water-related issues are the subject of chapters 6 and 7 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Ask your library to buy a copy of this handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography today! Better yet, order your own copy…

Mexican drug traffickers expand their influence to Central America

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Jan 182011

According to an article by Nacha Cattan in The Christian Science Monitor, one of Mexico’s most violent drug gangs, the Zetas, have now expanded into Central America. It is yet another instance of the shifting allegiances which require another redrawing of the “map” showing the cartels’ competing and partially overlapping spheres of influence.

The Zetas started out in the 1990s as a group of ex-military strong-arm enforcers who had previously worked exclusively for Mexico’s Gulf Cartel. The Zetas rapidly established a reputation for extreme brutality, leaving severed heads as a sign of what they would do to anyone who opposed them. By the start of 2010, the Zetas had grown into an independent force controlling ever-increasing areas of north-eastern, central and western Mexico. They were pushed further west and south by an unlikely coalition of the Sinaloa cartel, the Gulf cartel and La Familia Michoacana, known as the New Federation. The Zetas have not limited themselves to drug trafficking, but have gradually extended their field of operations into many kinds of organized crime, especially kidnapping, extortion and the sex trade.

Now it seems that the Zetas have garnered support in Central America, where they have used local former military agents to keep their brand of discipline as they snare poverty-stricken youth into their organization. In Guatemala, the Zetas accused Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom of accepting millions of dollars in drug money, and threatened a sharp rise in civilian casualties if authorities continued to target their activities.

Honduras and El Salvador are also reported to house Zeta cells. This has prompted Mexico and several Central American countries to discuss forming anti-cartel alliances. The links between the Zeta cells in Central America and the hard-line Zeta forces in Mexico remain unclear. While some analysts claim the Zetas move to the south is because of successful law enforcement efforts in Mexico, others suggest that the Zetas are expanding in order to exert complete control over supply routes that originate or cross Central America.

Related posts about drug cartels in Mexico:

Mexico and USA agree to talk about oil rights in the Gulf of Mexico’s “Western Doughnut Hole”

 Books and resources, Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Mexico and USA agree to talk about oil rights in the Gulf of Mexico’s “Western Doughnut Hole”
Nov 152010

In 1970, the UN Law of the Sea Convention formally awarded each country the right to natural resources in its 200-mile (322 km) Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Where claims overlapped, the Law of the Sea requires the competing countries to negotiate separate bilateral or multilateral agreements.

By 1979, the US and Mexico had agreed a treaty governing the basic delimitation of their respective EEZs. However, the treaty was never ratified by the US Senate. While the treaty had fixed seven points on the boundary, there were still two areas where the countries’ claims overlapped. The two portions were called the Western and Eastern Polygons (or Gaps), but were quickly nicknamed the Doughnut Holes. Together they straddle about 200 km of border.

The Western Doughnut Hole has a surface area of 17,467 square kilometers (6,744 square miles). The Eastern Doughnut Hole is about 20,000 square kilometers (7,720 square miles) and partially overlaps with the EEZ of Cuba.

location of doughnut holesTo date, no deposits of hydrocarbons have yet been found which straddle the maritime boundary, even though the Western Doughnut Hole is thought to hold untapped reserves of oil and gas. However, oil wells on one side of the boundary would likely extract some oil from the other side, hence the potential for conflict. In a parody of US politician Ross Perot’s famous 1992 line about the likely impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which would cause “a giant sucking sound” as US jobs moved south to Mexico, Mexican journalists have described the likely result of drilling in the Doughnut Hole as a “giant sucking sound” as US firms used their superior deep-water technology to suck up Mexican oil from the other side of the border.

Presidents Calderón and Obama agreed in May 2010 to extend the moratorium on any oil exploration drilling in the Western Polygon until January 2014, giving both sides time to hold joint discussions towards a permanent agreement.

The major oil spill from Deepwater Horizon has helped drive both governments to prioritize joint regulations governing oil and gas activities close to their shared border. Discussions are expected to cover not only deep water oil extraction, but also shallow water activities, including resources other than oil and gas.

For more details, see these two articles by Javier H. Estrada Estrada, Analitica Energética S.C.:

The changing political frontiers of Mexico are the subject of chapter 12 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Oil reserves and exploitation are discussed in chapter 15.  If you have enjoyed this post, please consider purchasing a copy of Geo-Mexico so that you have your own handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography.

Mexico’s long connection with the Philippines – exploration, seafaring and geopolitics

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Aug 232010

In 1559, King Philip II of Spain ordered a fleet to be prepared to sail west from New Spain (Mexico) to the Philippines. Barra de Navidad, on the shores of Jalisco, was one of the centers of New Spain’s maritime activity at the time. It offered a sandy beach in a well-protected bay; with tall forests inland to provide the necessary timber. Barra de Navidad echoed to the sounds of hammering and sawing, as the Spanish fleet was readied.

Mexican postage stamp commemorates 400 years of Mexico-Philippines friendship

Mexican postage stamp commemorating 400 years of Mexico-Philippines friendship

All western Mexico was mobilized to support the venture. Roads were built to ferry supplies from the city of Guadalajara to the Barra de Navidad boatyards. To this day, the main Guadalajara-Barra de Navidad road is known as The Philippines Way. Food, planks, sails and rigging – all had to be acquired and transported to the port. Every village had to support the effort, which was not without its dangers. For example, the Indians from Ameca complained of “many killed in the transport of rigging to Puerto de la Navidad where they are building boats to go to China.”

The expedition finally set sail at 3:00am on 21 November 1564, marking the start of more than 400 years of friendly contact between Mexico and the Philippines.

The expedition’s commander, López de Legazpi, fearing a mutiny, did not reveal their true destination to his sailors until the boats were well under way; no previous expedition had ever managed to find its way back across the Pacific Ocean. The expedition landed in the Philippines in March 1565. López de Legazpi remained there, putting his 17-year-old grandson in charge of finding the way back. In one of the most amazing feats of sailing of all time, his grandson was successful, but when the expedition reached Acapulco in October the crew was too exhausted to drop anchor. The return voyage had cost more than 350,000 gold pesos, and is commemorated today by a simple monument in Barra de Navidad’s small plaza.

The map on the stamp issued in 1964 to celebrate 400 years of friendship between Mexico and Philippines shows the expedition’s routes across the Pacific. The southern line marks the outward route, the northern line the route home.

The Spanish authorities quickly decided that bringing Asian goods from their colony in the Philippines back to Spain by crossing the Pacific, transshipping the cargo across Mexico and then sailing from Veracruz to Spain was preferable (more secure) to any alternative. Barra de Navidad soon became a regular port-of-call for Spanish sailors plying the so-called China route between Acapulco and Manila. To enable easier communication between Mexico City and Acapulco, a Camino Real (Royal Road) for pack mules was built between Mexico City and Acapulco. (A road suitable for wheeled vehicles between these cities was not completed until well into the 20th century.)

Demonstrating strong complementarity, for 250 years Spanish galleons carried Mexican silver to Manila and returned with spices, silk, porcelain, lacquer ware and other exotic goods from the Orient. These “China galleons” displaced 2000 tons and were the largest seafaring vessels of their time in the world.

But the lure of easy treasure drew pirates such as Englishman Francis Drake. In 1579, Drake sacked the small port of Huatulco, now a premier multi-million dollar tourist resort in the state of Oaxaca, and attacked the Manila galleon off the coast of California, exposing the vulnerability of Spanish sea traffic. For the next forty years, all the west coast ports, including Barra de Navidad, saw more pirates and corsairs than was good for them. Then, slowly but surely, the center of colonial operations moved further north into Sinaloa and Baja California.

Related Post

The development and characteristics of Mexico’s transportation network are analyzed in chapter 17 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy of this invaluable reference guide today!

Fascinating new book about the Colorado River

 Books and resources, Excerpts from Geo-Mexico, Maps  Comments Off on Fascinating new book about the Colorado River
Aug 162010

The Río Colorado formed a vast delta in the otherwise arid Sonoran desert in northern Mexico where it enters the Sea of Cortés (Gulf of California, see map.) The delta wetlands created ideal conditions for a rich variety of wildlife. The river enters Mexico at the Southerly International Boundary where a gauging station records the river’s discharge. This river is one of the most altered river systems in the world.

Map of the Colorado delta

Map of the River Colorado delta. All rights reserved.

The amount of water reaching Mexico has declined dramatically as a result of the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams and other diversions of Colorado River water in the USA. The few years of higher flows in the 1980s coincide with flood releases from US dams when they had been filled by heavy rains.

The river’s drastically reduced annual discharge violates a 1944 treaty under which the USA guaranteed that at least 1750 million cubic meters would enter Mexico each year via the Morelos diversionary dam in the Mexicali Valley. The Río Colorado wetlands have been reduced to about 5% of their original extent, and the potential water supply for the rapidly-growing urban centers of Mexicali, Tijuana, Tecate and Rosarito has been compromised.

The map and description above come from Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

If you are interested in learning more about this river, a great place to start is the recently published book about the Colorado River called Running Dry: A Journey From Source to Sea Down the Colorado River (Jonathan Waterman; National Geographic Books, 2010). Waterman hiked and paddled the length of the river from the Rocky Mountain National Park to its delta in the state of Baja California, Mexico.

For excerpts from the book, see Running Dry on the Colorado and Mighty Colorado River dribbles through Mexico.

Peter McBride, a photographer, accompanied Waterman on his two year trek. His evocative photographs will appear in the book The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict (Westcliffe Publishers), due out in September. See Down the Colorado (slideshow) for some examples of his Colorado River photos.

Rivers, reservoirs and water-related issues are discussed in chapters 6 and 7 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Ask your library to buy a copy of this handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography today! Better yet, order your own copy…

Geo-Mexico is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Meandering river leads to border dispute

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Jul 222010

The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed after the Mexican-American War, ceded over half of Mexico’s territory to the USA. A few years later, under the 1853 Gadsden Purchase (Treaty of La Mesilla), northern portions of Sonora and Chihuahua were transferred to the USA. This established the current border between the two countries.

The end to a border dispute caused by a meandering river

The end to a border dispute caused by a meandering river

Minor disputes have occurred since due to the migrating meanders of the Río Bravo (Río Grande) which forms much of the border between Mexico and the USA. Flooding during the early 1860s moved the Río Bravo channel south, shifting an area of about 2.6 square kilometers (1 square mile) from Ciudad Juárez in Mexico to El Paso in the USA. Both countries claimed the area, giving rise to the El Chamizal dispute.

This dispute went to international arbitration in 1911 and was only finally resolved in 1963 with the ratification of the Chamizal Treaty. In 1963, President Adolfo López Mateos met his US counterpart John F. Kennedy on the border formalizing the end of the Chamizal dispute.

The USA and Mexico shared the costs of rechanelling the river in an effort to prevent further migrating of its meanders. The concrete channel is about 50 meters (170 feet) wide and almost 5 meters (15 feet) deep. As we saw in July 2010, with the flooding following Hurricane Alex, even this size of channel is sometimes unable to contain the full flow of the river.

A similar dispute, the Ojinaga Cut, was resolved in 1970.

In El Paso, the Chamizal National Memorial was established in 1966 as a permanent memorial to commemorate the two nations’ laudable  international cooperation, diplomacy and respect for cultural values in arriving at a mutually acceptable resolution to the conflict.

The changing political frontiers of Mexico are the subject of chapter 12 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. If you have enjoyed this post, please consider purchasing a copy of Geo-Mexico so that you have your own handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography.

Jun 112010

Compared to its very large and loud northern neighbor the USA, Mexico often seems like a rather minor country. But let’s take a closer look at Mexico’s major characteristics.

Mexico is among the world leaders in land size, population and economic production. These three criteria are a rational way of determining the world’s major countries. Mexico is the world’s 14th largest country in area, just behind the Congo and Saudi Arabia, but ahead of Indonesia and Libya. Mexico’s population in 2009 was about 109 million ranking it 11th in the world.  Russia (140 million) and Japan (127 million) were slightly ahead of Mexico. Trailing Mexico were the Philippines (92 million) and Vietnam (87 million).

The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Mexico in 2009 was about $1.5 trillion, behind Brazil ($2.0 trillion) and Italy ($1.7 trillion), but ahead of South Korea (S1.4 trillion), Spain ($1.4 trillion) and Canada ($1.3 trillion). These GDP figures are based on “Purchasing Power Parity” which illuminates distortions based on exchange rates. For example, if a hair cut of equal quality costs $20 in the USA, $5 in Mexico and $2 in China, the haircut is counted as a $20 contribution the GDP of each country.

Mexico is one of only six countries that are in the top 15 in all three categories. The other five countries in this select group are China, India, the USA, Brazil and Russia.

That Mexico is in this very select group makes a very strong case that it is indeed a major country on the world stage.

For more information about these and many other aspects of Mexico, consider buying Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico and adding it to your library.

Jun 092010

On January 1, 1846, the Criollo leaders in Merida declared independence as the Republic of the Yucatán for the third time. In 1847, the Caste War broke out when the Mayas rebelled against the Criollo upper class that controlled the Yucatán Republic. They drove most of the Criollos out of the Peninsula except for the those behind the walls surrounding Mérida and Campeche City.

With their back to the wall, the Yucatan Republic offered sovereignty over to Yucatán to either USA or Britain or Spain, whichever was first to effectively end the Maya revolt. In a desperate effort to put down the rebellion, the Yucatán Criollos agreed on 17 August 1848 to re-unite with Mexico if the Mexican army would put down the Maya rebellion. With fresh Mexican troops, they retook control over northwestern portion of the Peninsula. However, Mayas maintained control of the southeast for the rest of the 19th century and beyond. Skirmishes continued on and off for more than 70 years. Maya independent control of some parts of the southeastern Yucatán Peninsula did not end until after the Mexican Revolution.

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The Republic of the Yucatán

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Jun 042010

After independence in 1821, the Federated Republic of Yucatán joined the Mexican federation in May 1823.  The new republic comprised the whole Yucatan Peninsula including what is now the states of Campeche and Quintana Roo.  It maintained a degree of autonomy in the Mexican federation.

In the mid 1830s President Santa Anna imposed a centrally controlled dictatorship, which imposed significant control over Yucatán.  This lead to a rebellion in 1838 seeking Yucatán independence. Negotiations with Santa Anna to give Yucatán more autonomy within the Mexican Republic stumbled.

In 1840 the Yucatán declared full independence as the Republic of the Yucatán. At the time, Santa Anna was preoccupied with rebellions in northern Mexico, but he did blockade Yucatán ports. At the time, there were no land routes between the Yucatán and either Mexico or Central America. In 1843 Mexico sent troops to Yucatán to put down the rebellion. They failed, but the blockade was successful. The young Republic had no navy and no way to trade because its ports were successfully blockaded. It agreed in December 1843 to rejoin Mexico when given assurances of self-rule.

But the assurances of self-rule were not upheld and the Yucatán declared independence again on January 1, 1846. When the Mexican–American War broke out later that year, Yucatán declared neutrality. While Mexico had its hands full fighting the USA, the Yucatán had its own problems. In 1847 the Mayas initiated the Caste War by rebelling against the Hispanic (Criollo) (creole) upper class that controlled the Yucatán Republic.

With its back to the wall in early 1848, the Yucatán Republic offered sovereignty over Yucatán to either USA or Britain or Spain, whichever was first to effectively end the Maya revolt. The USA invoked the Monroe Doctrine to keep the other two out and seriously considered the proposal, but in the end did not accept it.

In a desperate effort to put down the rebellion, the Yucatán Criollos agreed on 17 August 1848 to re-unite with Mexico if the Mexican army would put down the Maya rebellion. Thus the on and off  life of the Republic of the Yucatán came to an end. The peninsula remained relatively separate from the rest of Mexico. The first railroad link was established in the 1950s (see earlier post about the first map on a Mexican postage stamp) and the first highway in the 1960s.

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Aguascalientes’ geopolitical romance and long road to Statehood

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May 312010

How did the State of Aguascalientes come to be so small, and sandwiched between much larger states?

Aguascalientes coat-of-arms

The area that is now the State of Aguascalientes was caught between the colonial jurisdictions of Jalisco and Zacatecas.  Prior to the Mexican Revolution it was considered part of Zacatecas, but after the War of Independence, in 1821 it gained status as its own political entity. This lasted only a few years. In 1824 it became part of the State of Zacatecas.

A decade later, in 1835, Zacatecas rebelled against the Federal Government.  General Santa Anna and his army squashed the rebellion, ransacked the City of Zacatecas and seized large quantities of the state’s silver. As payback for the rebellion, the Mexican Legislature separated the agriculturally-rich Aguascalientes Territory from the State of Zacatecas.

The more romantic version is that, “the independence of Aguascalientes was sealed with a kiss, as the locals are invariably quick to point out.”  (Tony Burton, Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury). While quelling the Zacatecan rebels, General Santa Anna met the beautiful Doña María Luisa Villa, the wife of the Aguascalientes’ mayor. Santa Anna was very attracted to her and promised her anything for a kiss. He got the kiss and fulfilled her promise by making Aguascalientes an independent territory under the governorship of her husband, Pedro García Rojas. Hence, the lips on the state’s coat-of-arms!

Detail from Aguascalientes coat-of-arms (Note the lips!)

But Aguascalientes’ independence did not last long. In 1847, the national legislature revoked its independence and put it back into the State of Zacatecas. However, a few years later in 1853, Aguascalientes regained independent status. Finally, under the new Mexican Constitution of 1857, Aguascalientes became Mexico’s 24th state, with the colonial city of Aguascalientes as its capital.

Aguascalientes is a rather small state. Among Mexican states it ranks in the lower 20% in both areal size and population (about 1.2 million).  Most of the population (over 900,000) lives in the industrial Aguascalientes Metropolitan Area.  Locals claim that the Aguascalientes Nissan plant is the largest outside of Japan.

The evolution of Mexico’s political boundaries is discussed in chapter 9 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

The short-lived Republic of the Río Grande

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May 272010

Leaders in the northern Mexican states of Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas met in Laredo on 17 January 1840 and declared independence as the Republic of the Río Grande.  They hoped to gain independence from the central Mexican government as Texas had done in 1836. Unfortunately for the infant republic, the state legislatures in the three states did not support their rebellion.

The new government of the Republic of the Río Grande moved often to avoid being captured by the Mexican federal troops. They started in Laredo, the republic’s initial capital, but in the first few weeks moved to Guerrero, Tamaulipas. Next they moved to Victoria in the new Republic of Texas, where it remained.

The insurgent forces, under General Canales were composed of state militias from the three states and volunteers from the Republic of Texas, which was sympathetic to the cause of the Republic of the Río Grande, but unwilling to jeopardize their new independence by officially recognizing and providing troops to the Republic of the Río Grande.

The insurgents and federal forces battled several times during the middle of 1840.  When the federal forces won the March 24–25 Battle of Morales (Coahuila), the surviving insurgents, under General Canales, retreated to San Antonio, Texas.  In June, a group of insurgents under Colonel Jordan captured Ciudad Victoria, the capital of Tamaulipas, and had ideas of marching on San Luis Potosí.  Instead they marched to Saltillo and in October attacked the federal forces there. From there they retreated back into Texas.

Republic of Río Grande Museum, Laredo

After that battle, it became clear that the insurgent forces could not sustain the rebellion. On November 6, 1840 the Republic of the Río Grande ended when General Canales agreed to end the rebellion in exchange for a brigadier general position in the federal army. The short-lived republic lasted a total 294 days.

Additional information is available at the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum in Laredo (photo).

The evolution of Mexico’s political boundaries is discussed in chapter 12 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

Mexico’s national interests in the fight against drugs

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May 062010

The following paragraphs come from a Stratfor Geopolitical Intelligence Report about Mexico’s fight against the drug cartels, Mexico and the Failed State Revisited, by George Friedman, published on 6 April 2010. The link above is to the full text of the report.

The Drug War and Mexican National Interests

From Mexico’s point of view, interrupting the flow of drugs to the United States is not clearly in the national interest or in that of the economic elite. Observers often dwell on the warfare between smuggling organizations in the northern borderland but rarely on the flow of American money into Mexico. Certainly, that money could corrupt the Mexican state, but it also behaves as money does. It is accumulated and invested, where it generates wealth and jobs.

For the Mexican government to become willing to shut off this flow of money, the violence would have to become far more geographically widespread. And given the difficulty of ending the traffic anyway — and that many in the state security and military apparatus benefit from it — an obvious conclusion can be drawn: Namely, it is difficult to foresee scenarios in which the Mexican government could or would stop the drug trade. Instead, Mexico will accept both the pain and the benefits of the drug trade.

Mexico’s policy is consistent: It makes every effort to appear to be stopping the drug trade so that it will not be accused of supporting it. The government does not object to disrupting one or more of the smuggling groups, so long as the aggregate inflow of cash does not materially decline. It demonstrates to the United States efforts (albeit inadequate) to tackle the trade, while pointing out very real problems with its military and security apparatus and with its officials in Mexico City. It simultaneously points to the United States as the cause of the problem, given Washington’s failure to control demand or to reduce prices by legalization. And if massive amounts of money pour into Mexico as a result of this U.S. failure, Mexico is not going to refuse it.

The problem with the Mexican military or police is not lack of training or equipment. It is not a lack of leadership. These may be problems, but they are only problems if they interfere with implementing Mexican national policy. The problem is that these forces are personally unmotivated to take the risks needed to be effective because they benefit more from being ineffective. This isn’t incompetence but a rational national policy.

Moreover, Mexico has deep historic grievances toward the United States dating back to the Mexican-American War. These have been exacerbated by U.S. immigration policy that the Mexicans see both as insulting and as a threat to their policy of exporting surplus labor north. There is thus no desire to solve the Americans’ problem. Certainly, there are individuals in the Mexican government who wish to stop the smuggling and the inflow of billions of dollars. They will try. But they will not succeed, as too much is at stake. One must ignore public statements and earnest private assurances and instead observe the facts on the ground to understand what’s really going on.

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR” © Copyright 2010 STRATFOR.

An overview of the geography of drug trafficking in Mexico forms part of chapter 20 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy today!

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The geography of drug trafficking in Mexico

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Apr 242010

This article dates back to 2010. For updates, see:

This map of drug cartel territories and drug trafficking and export routes comes from a Stratfor Global Security and Intelligence Report by Fred Burton and Ben West, When the Mexican Drug Trade Hits the Border, published 15 April 2009.

Map of Cartel Territories. Copyright Stratfor. Click map for enlarged version.

Click here to see map in its original context. Map © Copyright 2008 Strategic Forecasting Inc, STRATFOR This map is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

The map shows the major routes for Mexico’s imports, transport and exports of drugs.  The boundaries between cartel territories are in a constant state of flux as rival cartels fight to enlarge their territories.

Perhaps the single biggest shift in the geography of drug trafficking in Mexico in recent decades has been that involving drugs originating in Colombia. Prior to the 1980s, Colombian drugs reached the US and Canada either direct or via the Caribbean. During the 1980s, as US pressure mounted on these routes, Colombian cartels shifted their supply routes to Mexico, where they needed the help of Mexican gangs. These gangs rapidly became better organized and have become the powerful Mexican cartels operating today.

Mexico’s on-going “war” against drugs cartels has had most success so far against the Gulf cartel and the Zetas, who started life as the enforcing arm of the Gulf cartel. On the other hand, the influence of the Sinaloa cartel appears to be spreading. For an analysis of the Gulf cartel, including the effects of globalization on its operations, see Stephanie Brophy’s “Mexico Cartels, corruption and cocaine: A profile of the Gulf cartel” (Global Crime, vol. 9, #3, August 2008, pp 248-261)

This article dates back to 2010. For updates, see:

An overview of the geography of drug trafficking in Mexico forms part of chapter 20 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy today!

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The background to Mexico’s fight against the drug cartels

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Apr 202010

The following paragraphs come from a Stratfor Geopolitical Intelligence Report about Mexico’s fight against the drug cartels, Mexico and the Failed State Revisited, by George Friedman, published on 6 April 2010. The link above is to the full text of the report.

Mexico’s Core Problem

Let’s begin by understanding the core problem. The United States consumes vast amounts of narcotics, which, while illegal there, make their way in abundance. Narcotics derive from low-cost agricultural products that become consumable with minimal processing. With its long, shared border with the United States, Mexico has become a major grower, processor and exporter of narcotics. Because the drugs are illegal and thus outside normal market processes, their price is determined by their illegality rather than by the cost of production. This means extraordinary profits can be made by moving narcotics from the Mexican side of the border to markets on the other side.

Whoever controls the supply chain from the fields to the processing facilities and, above all, across the border, will make enormous amounts of money. Various Mexican organizations — labeled cartels, although they do not truly function as such, since real cartels involve at least a degree of cooperation among producers, not open warfare — vie for this business. These are competing businesses, each with its own competing supply chain.

Typically, competition among businesses involves lowering prices and increasing quality. This would produce small, incremental shifts in profits on the whole while dramatically reducing prices. An increased market share would compensate for lower prices. Similarly, lawsuits are the normal solution to unfair competition. But neither is the case with regard to illegal goods.

The surest way to increase smuggling profits is not through market mechanisms but by taking over competitors’ supply chains. Given the profit margins involved, persons wanting to control drug supply chains would be irrational to buy, since the lower-cost solution would be to take control of these supply chains by force. Thus, each smuggling organization has an attached paramilitary organization designed to protect its own supply chain and to seize its competitors’ supply chains.

The result is ongoing warfare between competing organizations. Given the amount of money being made in delivering their product to American cities, these paramilitary organizations are well-armed, well-led and well-motivated. Membership in such paramilitary groups offers impoverished young men extraordinary opportunities for making money, far greater than would be available to them in legitimate activities.

The raging war in Mexico derives logically from the existence of markets for narcotics in the United States; the low cost of the materials and processes required to produce these products; and the extraordinarily favorable economics of moving narcotics across the border. This warfare is concentrated on the Mexican side of the border. But from the Mexican point of view, this warfare does not fundamentally threaten Mexico’s interests.

(to be continued) “This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR” © Copyright 2010 STRATFOR.

An overview of the geography of drug trafficking in Mexico forms part of chapter 20 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy today!