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.

Embassy of Mexico in the Philippines

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

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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…

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.

See also:

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.

See also:

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!

Related articles in this mini-series:

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!

Related articles in this mini-series: