Mexico’s northern borderlands have become notorious for their lawlessness. At times it can seem that organized crime groups have as much control as the federal government. Last year was actually Mexico’s most murderous year on record. The drug trade is the easy and obvious explanation for this phenomenon, and it isn’t wrong – but it is incomplete.
Mexican governments have always had a difficult time ruling over the outer reaches of their domain. The Spanish Empire, which also had the capital of its Viceroyalty of New Spain in Mexico City, had similar issues. The Aztec Empire (also based in Mexico City, though it called it Tenochtitlan) would have encountered the same problem if it had gotten much larger. The common thread here isn’t narcotics; it’s geography. The region around Mexico City is the heartland of Mexico, but it’s also disconnected from the farthest reaches of the country by distance, mountain ranges and plateaus.
This Deep Dive will take a