Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Geopolitics of Northern Mexico

The Geopolitics of Northern Mexico

The regional differences in Mexico’s drug war make little sense to Americans. Until October 24, when gunmen massacred 14 patients at a Tijuana drug rehab clinic, Baja California, a hotbed of violence in 2009, had started to stabilize during 2010. The Rio Grande, in contrast, has gone from mostly tranquil to normally uncontrolled. Consider the recent story of David and Tiffany Hartley, a married couple, who had moved to the border from Colorado three years earlier for a job in the oil industry. On September 30, 2010, the Hartleys ventured on jet skis into the Mexican waters of the Rio Grande, searching for an abandoned Catholic church they had previously toured for recreation. Mexican bandits allegedly ambushed them in speedboats, and the husband, David, was missing after the encounter. According to Tiffany, he was wounded and killed. Mexico’s law enforcement agencies have yet to find David’s body.

To understand what is happening in Mexico, we must first step back from what we think we know about our southern neighbor. When most Americans look at a map of Mexico, they usually describe the geography from one of two orientations: either looking south from the U.S.-Mexico border or north from Mexico City. But seeing northern Mexico as a desolate, bandit-filled wasteland obscures the influence and overall importance of northern Mexico’s economic engine and major population centers north of Mexico City. As the political center of the state, Mexico City’s cultural history often dominates the landscape and conversation. Americans hear stories of the Aztec’s god Quetzalcoatl and Tenochtitlan, Montezuma’s legendary temple, and think these myths and structures explain the whole of Mexico’s cultural landscape.

The actual fusion is far different. Although modern Mexico is certainly defined by its traditional native and Spanish heritage, Mexico’s six geopolitical regions-particularly the three distinct areas in the north-have also become characterized by their proximity to the United States.[1] Mexico’s Core and Outer Core form the traditional geopolitical center of Mexico, while the Yucatan Peninsula is Mexico’s eastern (and formerly Mayan) naval flank. Mexico’s Core, Outer Core, and the Yucatan each have distinct cultures and characteristics, and each has their own challenges. But anarchy in these areas does not have the same impact on the United States as violence does in Mexico’s north. For this reason, we will focus on northern Mexico.

Figure 1: Mexico’s Geopolitical Sub-Regions, modified from template

Mexico's Geopolitical Sub-Regions, modified from template

Mexico’s six northern states bordering the United States, as well as portions of other states deeper in Mexico’s heartland, are essentially understood as parts of geopolitical sub-regions: Baja California, the Sierra Madres, and the Rio Grande Basin. Baja California is the rugged peninsula south of the U.S. state of California. The Sierra Madres include the deserts, mountains, steppes and coasts of Sonora and Chihuahua. The Rio Grande Basin covers the eastern mountains, plains and tropics of Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas, as well as portions of Chihuahua and Durango. Along with their geographic differences, each of these three regions has distinct economic, political, and security interests. These drive the creation of coalitions with local U.S. counterparts that share similar regional goals.

This illustration of geopolitical sub-regions is not intended to diminish the significance of Washington, D.C.’s relationship with Mexico City. State and local relationships are hardly managed without direction from federal authorities. But North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has given these areas an outsized significance to the U.S. economy. Out of every 100 units made in a Mexican maquiladora and shipped into the United States, 87 are manufactured in Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, or Tamaulipas. Nearly 20 percent of Mexico’s 106 million citizens live in the six states bordering the U.S. southwest. Over 85 percent of all trade between the United States and Mexico passes through a Mexican border state. And more than half of all of Mexico’s drug-related killings have occurred in these six states. Although this part of Mexico is of greatest relevance to Americans, it is rarely examined as a distinct entity. For these reasons, and the obvious geographic proximity of northern Mexico to the United States, Mexico’s “frontera del norte” merits closer scrutiny.


Shaped like a miniature of mainland Mexico, Baja California is to Mexico as Alaska is to the United States. Like Alaska, Baja California is isolated from the rest of Mexico; the barren isthmus of the Altar Desert connects the Baja peninsula to “Continental Mexico.” Like Alaska, Baja California is useful as a strategic buffer against potential land or sea threats. And, like Alaska, Baja California has the distinction of being the final addition to the Mexican Republic, advancing from territory to state status in 1952.

But in Alaska, Russia has no habit of demonstrating overt ambition or territorial claim, nor does the Alaskan business community show a pattern of subversive political maneuvering to become part of another country. Both dynamics have been at play for over a century between Baja California and the United States. Tensions date back to the Mexican War, when, as part of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States relinquished all claims to the Baja peninsula. This did not sit well with American sailors, soldiers and marines occupying the Baja coast, most of whom had established U.S. forts, seized land, and taken Mexican wives. In March 1848, prior to the Treaty’s passage, Senator Sam Houston, President Andrew Jackson’s close friend and hero of the Texas War of Independence, wanted to incorporate Baja California and much of what is now northern Mexico into U.S. territory.[2] After passing the treaty without Senator Houston’s resolution, the United States deployed secondary brigades of troops to the new American territories. Responsibilities included quelling uprisings from formerly Mexican citizens in the new U.S. territory of California, as well as forcibly evicting American settlers who refused to relinquish land claims in Mexico. Until 1850, the U.S. Army occupied a restive San Diego under martial law.[3]

Although the fear of U.S. aggression creates concerns throughout northern Mexico, nowhere is that greater for Mexico City than the Baja peninsula. As noted in a recent report, Mexico gains a nautical defense in depth with control of the Baja peninsula, insulating the sea lanes into valuable Pacific Ocean ports from attack.[4] Baja California is much easier for an antagonist-either the United States or an Asian power-to invade and conquer than northern Mexico.

When it pursued the Baja peninsula, the United States government did not act independently of local sentiment. Baja California Norte’s population is concentrated along the U.S.-Mexico border.[5] Nine out of every ten Baja residents live within 25 miles of the United States. In every other border state, less than half of the population lives on the line. Unlike Mexico’s other border states, Mexicali, Baja California’s state capital, sits directly adjacent to the United States.

As a result, Baja California’s population has a disproportionate tie to their northern neighbor. In the early 1900s, private U.S. companies funded and developed Baja’s local infrastructure. Mexicali, the capital, was built in 1903 by the U.S.-owned Colorado River Land Company, which also developed Baja California’s northern border while building the All-American Canal. With trade and irrigation located on the border, Baja California is anchored permanently to California’s economy.

These anchors extend into local politics, with implications that are often troubling for Mexico City. During the Mexican Revolution, the Baja California business community actively backed a movement for the United States to annex the Baja peninsula. Both Prohibition and Pancho Villa quieted the discussion; one by halting unfettered U.S.-Mexico trade, the other through the political instability following his 1916 incursion into Columbus, New Mexico.

Because of its overall strategic importance to Mexico, Baja California’s close ties with the United States breeds concern in Mexico City. In early 1942, the United States proposed a joint defense with Mexico against a Japanese invasion, perceived as a real threat by both nations. The plan called for the United States jointly to station troops alongside Mexican soldiers along Baja California’s western coast. Although Mexico City’s diplomats approved the plan with Washington, the government appointed former Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas-an iconic Mexican leader whose political stature mirrored Franklin D. Roosevelt’s-as the general of Baja California’s military zone. Cardenas, a fervent nationalist, issued orders after assuming command to defend Baja California at all costs-both against the Japanese and the norteamericanos. While the joint defensive concept was never put to the test, the plan approved in Washington did not seem possible to implement on the ground despite Mexico City’s stated consent.

The fence marking the U.S.-Mexico border between San Diego and Tijuana is often seen as a sign of cultural oppression. For Mexico City, however, the hard wall north of Baja California indicates a certain relief. Historically speaking, when the demarcation line becomes porous and investment flows into the south, Mexico City’s concern increases, worrying that their northern neighbor may again be coveting their prized peninsula. Although state and local partnerships will always exist, joint policies leading to robust, overt U.S.-Mexico security cooperation are unlikely to evolve or endure in this zone of northern Mexico. For both sides-and unlike other U.S.-Mexico border regions-the jagged metal dividing Alta and Baja California will probably be as good as it gets.


Mexico’s most important geographic features are its three mountain ranges, all named with a variation of Sierra Madre, a Spanish phrase whose literal translation means Mother Highlands. Mexico is so mountainous that if the country were flattened, it would be the size of Asia. Because popular images of the U.S.-Mexico border include deserts, urban fences, or the Rio Grande, it is easy to forget how mountainous Mexico is. Jagged terrain defines Mexico. The Sierra Madre Occidental-known simply as the Sierra Madres because it is three times the size of Mexico’s other mountain ranges-is northern Mexico’s key terrain feature. It has historically been the least stable region in northern Mexico, which has also generally offered the greatest political opportunity for security cooperation between Mexico City and Washington, D.C.

The Sierra Madres region is an expansive stretch of tropical coastline, desert, savannah and steppe bisected by the forested Sierra Madre mountain range. Properly called the Sierra Madre Occidental, the Sierra Madres of Sonora and Chihuahua carve the Pacific Coast and Sonora Desert from the Mexican Plateau. Plunging into Sinaloa and Durango, this mountain range funnels south, where it joins Mexico’s two other “Sierra Madres,” Oriental and del Sur, near Mexico City’s valley. Geologically, these mountains are the southern extension of the Rocky Mountains in the western United States.

This rugged frontier was nearly impossible for the Spanish to tame, and it remains difficult for Mexico City. From the sixteenth century until Mexico’s independence, Sonora y Sinaloa was the largest province in New Spain. The two western states were partitioned in the 1830s, although Sonora remained enormous until the Mexican War. No Mexican state lost more territory to the United States in 1848 than Sonora.

Arizona’s illegal immigration law notwithstanding, Sonorans in certain respects bear a lesser historical grudge against the norteamericanos than towards Mexico City, whom they hold responsible for the northern frontier’s nineteenth century vulnerability and conquest. During Mexico’s War of Independence (1810-21), Spanish troops cut off supply lines to the north, effectively starving Sonora’s ranchers and miners. Rather than mount an offensive, Mexico City’s insurgent leaders campaigned against the Spaniards throughout central Mexico, leaving the northern frontier destitute. An estimated 50,000 Sonorans abandoned homesteads during the war, depopulating the region and returning control of the mountains to their natives. A display at the Sonora State Museum in Hermosillo suggests-perhaps more with machismo than logic-that if Mexico City had invested additional resources towards the north, the Sonorans could have defended their territory from the eventual American Intervention.

Chihuahua, the eastern state in the Sierra Madres region, also has a history of dissension with Mexico City. Significant events in both of Mexico’s major political cataclysms-the 1810 war for independence from Spain and the 1910 Mexican Revolution-occurred in Chihuahua. After Miguel Hidalgo began his 1810 uprising against Spanish rule, he was arrested and deported to Chihuahua City, where he was executed by firing squad in July 1811. An eternal flame burning in the Chihuahua governor’s building marks the spot where Hidalgo died. A century later, political rebel Francisco Madero sparked the Mexican Revolution in Chihuahua and Pancho Villa, who remains revered in the state, fanned the flames as governor and generallisimo.

Notwithstanding a serious disagreement with Pancho Villa prior to World War I, the U.S. and Mexican governments have a history of security partnership in the Sierra Madres. From 1881 to 1910-just one generation removed from the Mexican-American war-Mexico’s president, Porfirio Diaz, joined with a series of American presidents to patrol much of this geopolitical region together. In west Texas, along the eastern edges of the Sierra Madres, Mexican rurales rode with Texas Rangers who were pursuing Comanches. In Arizona Territory, Mexican and American soldiers mounted joint campaigns against Apache warriors and Chinese immigrants. Cooperation ended during the Mexican Revolution, and rum-runners violating Prohibition led Congress in 1924 to create the U.S. Border Patrol.

On the eastern reaches of the Sierra Madres is one of the most important, and overlooked, terrain features in North America. The headwaters of the Río Conchos, the primary source of the Rio Grande, lie in western Chihuahua. The river flows down the mountains to the east, picking up runoff from tributaries to the north and south, meeting the Rio Grande at Presidio, Texas and Ojinaga, Chihuahua. In hydrological terms, this is the same pattern as South America’s Amazon River. Most of the water flowing out of the Rio Grande and into the Gulf of Mexico has journeyed from west to east, instead of north to south.

Most official literature defines the Río Conchos as a tributary of the Rio Grande, which implies that the Rio Grande is a river whose full source originates comfortably in the United States. That’s not entirely correct. If cartographers and geographers were to describe precisely the water’s source-absent any discussion of national boundaries-they would say that the body of water north of Presidio is actually a tributary of the river running east from the Sierra Madres in northwestern Mexico. If the political line between the United States and Mexico did not exist, the thick blue line marking the river would run east through Mexico into Texas, not south through Colorado.

Figure 2: The Rio Grande and Rio Conchos, highlighted to reflect water flow

The Rio Grande and Rio Conchos, highlighted to reflect water flow

Conchos is the main source of the Rio Grande, the river that separates Texas and Mexico north from Presidio is not grand at all. In most places, it is barely a creek. This body of water north of Presidio might also be the origin of the name of the Mexican river to the west-Río Conchos means Crude River in English. As this geopolitical discussion moves east, the Northern Rio Grande will refer to the river that runs south from Colorado to Presidio, Texas. It is important to distinguish between these two parts of the river because they both have different characteristics, which become relevant when examining the importance of the Rio Grande Basin.


The Rio Grande Basin refers to the plains, hills, and tropics east of the Río Conchos and the Rio Grande delta, which is divided between the U.S. and Mexico and flows into the Gulf of Mexico. In economic and cultural terms, this region is more interconnected than any other along the U.S.-Mexico border. According to United Nations human development statistics, the states within the Rio Grande Basin-Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Coahuila, and parts of Chihuahua and Durango-have the highest per capita standard of living in Mexico. Put together, these states average a GDP that is 2.3 times greater than the rest of Mexico combined.[6]

The most important city in the Rio Grande Basin is Monterrey. Both the state capital of Nuevo León and the regional capital of the Rio Grande Basin, Monterrey, is the third-largest metro area in Mexico, just below Mexico City and Guadalajara. It is also the financial capital of Mexico; a city intimately connected with American banking, manufacturing, and energy industries, especially those across the border in Texas. Despite an oligarchy of families that have held local power for four centuries, this region has the largest and wealthiest middle class in Mexico.

One important characteristic of Monterrey is its difference in origin from Mexico City. Unlike Mexico City, which was a thriving Aztec city prior to Spanish conquest, Monterrey did not exist before 1596, when European immigrants named the first settlement Santa Lucia. Consequently, Monterrey’s cultural history has evolved differently from Mexico City, where a mixture of pride and shame about the consequences of pillaging a native culture engenders a constant awareness that continues to this day. Monterrey takes little pride in the accomplishments and failures of the Aztec civilization; other than small bands of nomadic hunters whose tribal status remains unknown, no indigenous culture shares any history or cultural affinity with Nuevo Le�n.

To a much larger degree than Mexico’s other geopolitical regions, the Rio Grande Basin has charted its economic rise with that of the United States. The fortunes of the Texas economy have played a particularly significant role in Monterrey’s development. When Texas became independent in 1836, Monterrey was a sizable but relatively unimportant city; one of many stopovers on trading routes leading through San Antonio and the western reaches of the United States.

This changed during the Civil War, when the Union Navy’s blockade of the Confederacy made Texas an important route for exports to Europe. As an international waterway, the Union could not block traffic down the Rio Grande without risking the ire of Mexico, which was governed by Maximilian I of the Hapsburg dynasty and backed by the French military. Although the Union was loyal to Mexico’s rebel General Benito Juarez, they lacked the naval resources and political interest to prevent Mexico from trading with the Confederates. With the Rio Grande filled with cotton bound for Europe, Monterrey became an important mercantile exchange, leading to the city’s eventual development as the financial capital of Mexico.

Monterrey’s energy and manufacturing industries grew alongside those of Texas during the twentieth century and no area has benefited more from the North American Free Trade Agreement. As a result, the Rio Grande Basin is the only geopolitical region with the capacity, wealth, and infrastructure to form a political bloc that could, theoretically, disrupt the internal structure of Mexico. Although such a scenario is extremely unlikely, it is relevant to acknowledge this area’s political significance, particularly given the current challenges Mexico City faces to its writ of authority. We will take a closer look at this next month, when we will analyze Mexico’s capacity to continue confronting the ongoing terror of drug violence.


  1. [Text] Identifying Mexico by six geopolitical sub-regions is a modification of “The Geopolitics of Mexico,” a 2009 report available at The Stratfor article divided Mexico into four geopolitical sub-regions as Core, Outer Core, Sea Approaches, and Northern Frontier. The Stratfor report has been widely read and distributed, and is a useful starting point for discussing Mexico’s geopolitics.
  2. [Text] Robert Merry, A Country of Vast Designs, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009), p. 433
  3. [Text] Richard Griswold, “The U.S.-Mexican War in San Diego,” Journal of San Diego History, Volume 49, Number 1, 2003
  4. [Text] Stratfor, ibid.
  5. [Text] The Baja California peninsula is divided into two states: Baja California Norte and Baja California Sur. Population statistics refer to Baja California Norte. Most of Baja California Sur’s population resides in or near the capital of La Paz or the tourist resorts of Cabo San Lucas.
  6. [Text] Mexican-American Free Trade Alliance, San Antonio, Texas; October 17, 2007.