Protest by communities affected by mining operations of Alamos Gold / El Universal
Protest by communities affected by mining operations of Alamos Gold / El Universal

NOTE: This article is the ninth in a series by the CIP TransBorder Project that examines the water crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Water’s precious. Sometimes may be more precious than gold.” – Howard, vagabond U.S. prospector in B. Traven’s (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927))

The treasure of the Sierra Madre still beckons. But the miners are no longer coming to these rugged mountain ranges of northern Mexico with picks and shovels. Nor are searching for veins of precious metals on mules and horses, animated only by their dreams, delusions, and desperation.

“I think I’ll go to sleep and dream about piles of gold getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” remarked Fred C. Dobbs (played by Humphrey Bogart in the film version of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) Dreams of making it rich by mining the treasures of Mexico are coming true, as never before.

The Mexican government is making modern mining dreams come true. Nonexistent or unenforced regulations –whether regarding occupational safety, environmental degradation, water extraction, and control of hazardous wastes – make Mexico one of the world’s most profitable countries for the mining industry. Government agencies – both federal and state – that have authority over the mining industry serve as mining boosters rather than as regulators.

Like the control of Mexico’s water resources (both surface and groundwater), the federal government has primary authority over the country’s mineral resources. State governments, notably Chihuahua, Durango, and Sonora, have their own initiatives to promote and facilitate mining in their territories.

Today’s mining ventures differ substantially in scope than the prospecting ventures depicted by B. Traven in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Most are multimillion-dollar operations, and some like the Cananea and Nacozari de García copper mines of Grupo México are multi-billion dollar ventures.

But many similarities remain. Then as now, most mines – from the smallest artisanal ventures to the monstrously large open-pit mines that consume entire landscapes – are found in remote mountainous regions far from major population centers and transportation routes.

The new rash of gold, silver, zinc, and copper mines are tearing up canyons, mountain slopes, and forests out of sight of most Mexicans. Even though Sonora and Chihuahua lead Mexico in the number of new mining operations, few Chihuahuenses or Sonorenses have ever been close to a mine.

Most mines are hidden behind mountain ranges, tucked into the folds of remote bajadas, or occupy gravel terraces by the sides of rivers flowing through sparsely inhabited canyons and valleys. And those communities whose land and water that the mining industry consumes in its search for treasure are generally poor, often indigenous, and utterly lacking political power or influence.

Yet as Joaquin Rojo de la Vega, president of the Sonora Mining Association (AMSAC) observed in a speech to mining executives and government officials: “I can assure those that haven’t seen it that for Sonora mining is the principal industry.”[i]

Mexico’s Mining Boom

A frenetic search for gold, silver, and copper, among other minerals, is occurring across the U.S.-Mexico border in the country’s arid northwest. It’s an explosion of mineral extraction and mineral exploration with no modern precedent – but eerily echoes the march of Spanish expeditions into northern and northwestern Mexico in their search of precious metals.

Foreign mining firms, mostly Canadian, are leading the charge to exploit Mexico’s mineral wealth. Most of the new mineral exploration and extraction operations are occurring in northern Mexico, but the mining boom has spread across the country.

Transnational mining companies (both Mexico-based and foreign-based) are scouring the Sierra Madres (Occidental and Oriental) for the gold and silver that lured the Spanish to northern Mexico in 16th and 17th centuries. But today Mexico is also a major producer of copper, zinc, molybdenum, among other minerals and metals.

These companies – including major foreign firms such as Alamos Gold, GoldCorp, MagSilver, Agnico Eagle, and Newmont Mining — along with Mexico-owned giants such as Grupo México, Industrías Peñoles, and Grupo Frisco – have exploration permits for more than 15% of Mexico’s territory. The government’s ministry of economy is luring new investment with an array of subsidies, financing, training, and technical assistance – and by reminding mining companies that 70% of the country remains unexplored for its mineral treasures.

Mining and mineral exploration are booming throughout Mexico – more than doubling between 2007 and 2012. Nowhere is Mexico’s mining boom so evident and deeply felt as in northwestern Mexico. In 2001-2012, production by mineral and metallurgy industries increased 773%.[ii]

Recent downturns in commodity prices, however, have slowed the new investment and production.

In the arid northern states cut through north to south by the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Sierra Madre Oriental, as much as 30% of the territory in northern border states such as Sonora and Chihuahua is under mining exploration or extraction contracts. Mexico’s leading mining states are Sonora, Zacatecas, Chihuahua, Durango, and San Luis Potosí. In 2012 these five states in Mexico’s mountainous north accounted for 71% of total minerals production.[iii]

The mining boom is spreading down from the border to Mexico’s south. The largely indigenous states of Guerrero and Chiapas have experienced the most rapid expansion of mining operations, and rank, respectively, as Mexico’s seventh and tenth most important mining states.

Statue of mineworker in Cananea / Tom Barry
Statue of mineworker in Cananea / Tom Barry

During the Porfiriato (1876-1910), the Mexican government opened the country to foreign mining, agricultural, and commercial investors, giving these U.S. investors a free hand in exploiting Mexico’s human and natural resources. The repression by Arizona Rangers and Mexican Rurales of a 1906 mineworkers’ attempt to organize helped sparked militant opposition to the Porfírio Díaz regime, prefiguring the 1910-1917 Mexican Revolution. Today, the famous “Cárcel de Cananea” (Jail of Cananea), where strikers were imprisoned, is a national historic monument and “Museum of the Workers’ Struggles.”

The rush of foreign mining companies into Mexico and the government’s open-door policy for all mining investment recalls the greed of the pre-revolutionary regime. Yet the largest mining firms in Mexico are Mexico-based companies owned by the country’s leading plutocrats. Whether foreign-owned or Mexico-based, the mining industries share a disregard for the country’s scarce water resources and for the environment. Communities in mining regions are regarded as obstacles to making mining dreams come trues, and its leaders and activists are among the nation’s many victims of human rights abuses.

Mexico’s Mining Boom

  • Mexico is currently the world’s 14th largest minerals exporting nation, and the 4th largest in Latin America.
  • Mexico is among the world’s top ten producers of 16 minerals.
  • World’s leading silver producer; second largest for bismuth and fluorite; third for celestite and wollastonite; fifth for cadmium, lead diatomite; and molybdenum; seventh for gold, zinc, and gypsum; eighth for barite and graffite; ninth for salt, and tenth for copper.
  • Between 2010 and 2012, non-oil extraction increased at an annual rate of 11.8% — one of the most dynamic sectors in the national economy.
  • Mexico’s Mining Development Trust (FIFOMI) in its bid to attract more mining operations notes that 30% of the country has been explored for mineral, leaving 70% available for exploration and mineral extraction.
  • Mining sector (including processing minerals) constituted 4.9% of domestic gross product (PIB) in 2012.
  • $30.8 billion was invested in Mexico’s mining sector in 2001-2012, with a record-breaking $8 billion in 2012 alone.
  • Secretary of Economy projects that $35 billion will be invested in mining sector during the sexenio of President Peña Nieto.
  • Mining is Mexico’s fourth largest sources of foreign exchange, reaching $22.7 billion in 2012. Ranking above mining as a source of dollars are the automobile industry, electronics and electricity industries, and oil industry.
  • Employment in mining increased at an average annual rate of 1.3% in 2001-2012, higher than the national average for total employment growth by nearly 1% below the industry’s increase in production.
  • Mineral and metallurgical exports increased more than 800% from 2001 to 2012.
  • The federal government issued 28,807 minerals exploration and mining permits in 2001-2012 — covering 61.8 million hectares. The ministry of economy issued 198 permits each for 50,000 or more hectares to the transnational mining companies, most of which received multiple permits.
Sources: “Acuerdo por el que se aprueba el Programa de Desarrollo Minero 2013-2018,” Diario Oficial, May 9, 2014; “Mining Industry in Mexico: A Golden Opportunity,” Negocios ProMéxico, February 2014; Anuario Estadístico de la Minería Mexicana, Edición 2013, Coordinación General de Minería, Secretaria de Economía, at:

News from Mexico about organized crime, widespread violence, and police and military impunity has overshadowed other trends that are roiling the stability of the northern states.

Among the most disturbing trends that are shaking the social and political stability in Mexico’s north are the following four:

1) Escalating crisis over access to scarce water supplies,

2) Increasing concentration of rural land among a relatively few landholders, mirroring pre-revolutionary land tenure patterns,

3) Rush by the transnational mining industry to extract Mexico’s mineral reserves without regard to adverse impacts on the environment and rural communities and without facing the counterweight of an organized workforce, and

4) Disproportional impact on indigenous communities from the mountains and barrancas of the Sierra Madre Occidental to the rainforests of southern Mexico.

Sonora’s Mining Boom

Nowhere has Mexico’s mining boom been so deeply felt as in northern Mexico, particularly in the border states of Sonora and Chihuahua – states divided from on another by the mighty Sierra Madre Occidental.

The mining boom is also rumbling through other northern states whose most dominant geographic feature are the two Sierra Madres –Occidental in the west and Oriental in the east – that range north-south through north-central Mexico. These include the border state of Coahuila and the north-central arid states of Zacatecas, Durango, and San Luis Potosí.

Mining production in Mexico has increased eight times since 2001. By the last official count (2012), 50.2% of this mining occurs in the states along the U.S.-Mexico border.[i]

Sonora leads Mexico in the number of mining permits and production. With respect to the value of production in the mining sector (including metallurgical processing), Sonora accounted for 29.2% of the national total, followed closely by Zacatecas, and then Chihuahua, Durango, Coahuila, and San Luis Potosí – states cut through by the Sierra Madres.[ii]

Reflecting the national trend, Canadian firms dominate the foreign mining sector in Sonora, while the Mexico-based transnational Grupo México dominates mining and metallurgical operations in the state – mainly because of its copper and molybdenum mines and processing plants in the northern municipios of Cananea and Nacozari.[iii]

From the beginning of post-Columbian history, mining has vied with agriculture has Sonora’s top wealth-producing industry. The political and economic elite of Sonora made their homes in the southeastern town of Álamos, the northernmost of the Spanish empire’s silver towns in Latin America.

The ostentatious wealth and political power of Álamos would, however, not been possible without the bounty of the indigenous agricultural communities of the Sonora, Mayo, and Yaqui River basins that hugged the Sierra Madre Occidental to the north and those of the Yaqui and Mayo deltas to the northwest and west.

Unlike the Spanish conquistadores, colonizers, and mining ventures, the Jesuit missionaries sought out the indigenous communities of Sonora because of their farming traditions and their belief that the Jesuits could improve their living conditions through improved farming techniques. The mining centers of Nueva Vizcaya (northern territory that encompassed Sonora) and the Jesuit missions (and the associated indigenous communities) experienced a complementary yet conflictive relationship.

Complementary because silver and gold mining depended on forced indigenous labor and on the food produced by the native communities. Conflictive because of Jesuit and indigenous resistance to the demands, taxes, and repression of the mining-based power centered in Álamos. On both sides of the Sierra Madre Occidental, indigenous communities rose up in rebellion as the Spanish and then Mexican miners expropriated indigenous land for their mining operations and conscripted native labor.

As the political and economic power of the Jesuit missions grew – based largely on the agricultural wealth of their missions among indigenous communities – tensions mounted, leading to expulsion of the order in 1767. With the Jesuits gone, the more politically and economically compliant Franciscans assumed control of the indigenous missions. The mining boom of the 1600s and 1700s came to a halt as Apaches stepped up their raids on new settlements and mining enterprises throughout the region.

In 1993, before the current mining boom took hold of Sonora, historian and geographer Robert C. West observed: “In eastern Sonora the ephemerality of the colonial mining centers in the mountains contrasts strongly with the permanence of the mission villages in the adjacent river valleys.[iv]

Over the past two decades, however, the mining industry has again become the dominant force in the mountains, canyons, and valleys of eastern Sonora. The mining boom is largely out of sight in western Sonora. In contrast, the industry’s massive opencast mines, mountains of tailings, water consumption and contamination, and guarded enclaves have become the most striking and alarming feature in the landscape of Old Sonora – the mountainous region to the east of the Sonoran Desert and the source of virtually all of Sonora’s surface water.

According the state’s Dirección General de Minas, the number of mining concessions in Sonora nearly doubled in the 2007-2012 period. In 2007 there wee 3,844 mining concessions in Sonora, covering 16% of Sonora’s land. By early 2013, there were 5, 390 mining concessions that covered 30.2% of Sonora. [v]

Foreign mining companies – more than 90% of which are Canadian – have led the surge in mining exploration in Mexico. In Sonora, too, Canadian firms dominate mining exploration in the state. Throughout Sonora and Chihuahua, there is rising indignation over the aggressiveness of the Canadian mining firms. But the major mines in Sonora are Mexico-based, Mexican-owned transnational corporations.

Mining Boom in Sonora

  • Sonora leads the nation in the number of active mining firms (129), followed by Chihuahua (73), Durango (87), Coahuila (49), and Zacatecas (47).
  • There are more permits for mining operations in Sonora – 4,213 – than for any other state.
  • Production in Sonora predominates national production in these minerals: Copper (66%), Gold (29%), Molybdenum (100%), Wollastonite (100%), Graffite (100%), Selenium (100%) Anthracite carbon (100%).
  • Area of state covered by mining concessions doubled from 2007 to 2012, rising from 2.8 million hectares to 5.7 million hectares – representing an increase from 16.0% of the state’s land area to 30.2%.
  • Mining concession rose in 2007-2012 from 3,844 to 5,390.
  • Value of mineral production in Sonora increased from 30 billion pesos to 72.4 billion in 2012 (current values).

Copper mining occurs primarily near the U.S.-Mexico border in the municipios of Nacozari de García, Santa Cruz, and Cananea – presenting issues of transboundary contamination of the Santa Cruz and San Pedro rivers and of transboundary aquifers.


[i] “Acuerdo por el que se aprueba el Programa de Desarrollo Minero 2013-2018,” Diario Oficial, May 9, 2014.

[ii] Anuario Estadístico de la Minería Mexicana, Edición 2013, Coordinación General de Minería, Secretaria de Economía, p. 14, at:

[iii] Servicio Geologico Mexicano, Anuario Estadístico de la Minería Mexicana; Servicio Geológico Mexicano, Panorama Minero del Estado de Sonora, 2013.

[iv] Robert C. West, Sonora: Its Geographical Personality (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993), pp. 53-55.

[v] Servicio Geológico Mexicano, Panorama Minero del Estado de Sonora, 2013.

[i] AMSAC, at:

[ii] Border states – mainly Sonora, Chihuahua, and Coahuila — account for 50% of Mexico’s mineral and metallurgical production, dominating Mexico’s mining sector. However, mineral production and extraction is increasing at a still faster rate in the center-north and southern regions of Mexico. The states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Veracruz – which have large indigenous populations – experienced a 1,413% increase in mining sector production in 201-2012. Data from “Acuerdo por el que se aprueba el Programa de Desarrollo Minero 2013-2018,” Diario Oficial, May 9, 2014.

[iii] Anuario Estadístico de la Minería Mexicana, Edición 2013, Coordinación General de Minería, Secretaria de Economía, p. 7, at:

All articles in this 13-part series:

1. The Yaqui Water War

2. Sonora and Arizona’s Uncertain Water Futures

3. The Illusions of the New Sonora

4. Sonora Launches Controversial Megaprojects in Response to Water Crisis

5. Origins and Disappearance of the Yaqui River

6. The Old and New Sonoras: The Context for Sonora’s Water Wars

7. Making the Desert Bloom: The Rise of Sonora’s Hydraulic Society

8. The Damming of the New Sonora

9. Mining Boom in the Sierra Madre

10. Mexico’s Three Mining Giants

11. Mining Water in Sonora: Grupo México’s “Irregular” Water Permits in the Sonora, Yaqui, and San Pedro River Basins

12. Making Mining Dreams Come True in Mexico

13. Mining, Megaprojects, and Metrosexuals in Sonora