Over its long history, Mexico was home to a number of advanced civilizations, all of which left behind rich archaeological records. Mexico was occupied more than 13,000 years ago, and its first major civilization was the Olmecs, best known for carving colossal heads from basalt rocks. Later civilizations included the Maya, the Teotihuacan, the Toltec and the Aztecs. All of them left behind monumental buildings in distinct architectural styles and elaborate art, ceramics, carvings and murals. The Spanish conquest of Mexico began in 1519 and lasted for nearly two centuries, leaving a network of colonial-era churches and monasteries with rich art and sculpture of their own.
Mexico has tens of thousands of registered archaeological sites, dozens of which are on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Sites run the gamut from prehistoric caves to the imposing pyramids of Teotihuacan and the Mayan city of Chichen-Itza. The sheer number of sites and Mexico’s limited budget to police and maintain them puts many smaller, more remote sites at high risk.
Distinctive Olmec art has been in high demand on the international market since the late 19th century, and was some of the first ancient art from the Americas to get widespread attention around the world. Colorful murals and jade and stone ornaments from other pre-Hispanic cultures are also in demand.
Looting remains a major problem. Between 1997 and 2010, more than 2 million objects were reported stolen by the INAH. Most of the theft is done at the local level, with rural farmers and others targeting little-known and unguarded sites then selling their finds to middlemen who pass them on to international art dealers. In their search for salable artifacts, looters often dig tunnels through pyramids and tombs, destroying not just the archaeological context but the architectural integrity of the structures.
A number of major Mexican sites are at risk from development, including Teotihuacan (located just 48 km, or 29 miles, from Mexico City) and El Tajin. At a number of sites, tourist-oriented entertainment, concerts and ceremonies pose a threat to the monuments themselves.
Modern Mexico was founded in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution. Beginning in 1929, the country was under the rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, for more than 70 years. Steady economic growth between 1930 and 1970 changed the face of Mexico, but the global economic crises of the 1970s hit Mexico hard and badly weakened the party’s authority. The creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 tied Mexico’s economy closely to the US. At the same time, Mexican democracy began to take root, with the PRI voted out of office for the first time in 2000.
Mexico’s main political crisis today is an ongoing war against large, well-armed drug gangs. Supplied with assault weapons purchased in the US and motivated by US demand for cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and methamphetamines, the gangs are in open conflict with each other and the government, and effectively control some parts of Mexico outright. At least 60,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in the last six years.
Tourist spending in Mexico has been on the decline since 2009, likely a result of the escalating violence associated with the drug wars. Foreign tourists still spend more than $12 billion each year in Mexico, and thus far the country’s popular beach resort and tourist towns have been spared the worst of the violence. (The money involved in the drug trade, even by conservative estimates, easily outstrips Mexico’s income from tourism.)
Mexico relies heavily on exports. Close ties with the US — more than a tenth of goods imported to the US come from Mexico — mean that when the US economy suffers (as it did after the 2008 economic crisis) Mexico’s growth rate slows as well.
Mexico’s INAH, or National Institute of Archaeology and History, is responsible for the preservation, protection, and promotion of the prehistoric, archaeological,historical, and paleontological heritage of Mexico. Its tasks are distributed among 38 state and regional offices throughout Mexico. The INAH manages 150 major archeological sites open to the public and over 100 museums.
According to Mexican law, the country’s antiquities belong to the Mexican government. Sale and exportation are illegal, as is excavating archaeological sites without the permission of the INAH, even if the sites are on private land. Mexico is a signatory to the 1970 UNESCO convention, and was one of the countries that helped formulate and push for the treaty. Last year, Mexico’s ambassador to France suggested strengthening the law.