• Indigenous peoples in Mexico

    Indigenous peoples in Mexico

    There are 16,933,283 indigenous persons in Mexico, representing 15.1 per cent of the total Mexicans. Mexico has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and is a declared pluricultural nation since 1992. Yet, the country’s indigenous population are still facing a number of challenges.
  • Peoples

    16,933,283 indigenous persons live in Mexico
    15.1 per cent of all Mexicans are indigenous peoples
  • Diversity

    68 indigenous languages and 364 counted dialect variations are spoken in Mexico

Indigenous World 2019: Mexico

Mexico has the largest indigenous population in the Americas and the largest number of native languages spoken in its territory: 68 languages and 364 registered dialects. According to official statistics, principally from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), 6.5% of the national population speaks an indigenous language while 10.6% of the population indicated that they live in an indigenous household. 21.5% (27.5 million) of Mexico’s population describes themselves as indigenous people.

Poverty within indigenous communities remains a major issue, with 71.9% of the indigenous population in the country living in a situation of poverty, and 28% in extreme poverty.1 Indigenous peoples in Mexico experience sustained population growth due to higher rates of fertility (3.1) as compared to the national average (2.3), offset only in part by the higher general mortality rate (with significant, persistent, and troubling infant and maternal mortality rates that are almost triple the national average in some states).

Mexico signed ILO Convention 169 in 1990, and in 1992 Mexico was recognized as a pluricultural nation through the amending of Article VI of the Constitution. In 2001, as a result of the mobilisation of indigenous peoples demanding that the “San Andres Accord” –negotiated in 1996 between the Government and the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN)– be codified into law, Articles 1, 2, 4, 18, and 115 of the Mexican Constitution were reformed. Starting in 2003, the EZLN and the Indigenous National Congress started to put the Accords into practice throughout their territories, by creating autonomous indigenous governments in Chiapas, Michoacán, and Oaxaca. Mexico voted for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and is a signatory to ILO Convention 169.

General Elections

On 3 July, 2018, the candidate of the left, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) won the presidential elections with an unprecedented vote of 30 million people. The coming into office of this new political group has generated, at least in appearance, a restructuring of the federal body that develops public policy towards the indigenous peoples, since the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples was replaced by the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples (INPI) through a law enacted on 2 October, 2018. This new decentralized body of the federal public administration has a legal personality of its own and administrative and budgetary autonomy. It will be in charge of supporting processes of recognition, protection, defence and conservation of indigenous territories; guaranteeing and implementing processes of consultation and free, prior and informed consent (FPIC); drawing up and promoting Comprehensive Regional Indigenous Peoples’ Development Plans; integrating and operating a National Information System on Indigenous Peoples and Communities; and promoting the measures so that indigenous peoples may acquire, operate and administer their own communications media; among other measures.

There will also be a National Council of Indigenous Peoples, intended to function as an organ of participation, consultation and interaction with Indigenous and Afro-Mexican Peoples. Mexico has also designated the INPI to attend to the “Afro-Mexican people,” that is, the Mexican population of African descent. In said regard, the INPI has established three principal purposes: compliance with the Treaty of San Andrés; the inclusion of the United Nations recommendations on the autonomy of indigenous peoples; and engagement in public policy that allows the indigenous communities to exercise their sovereignty and free decision-making regarding their natural resources.2

Another aspect that should be highlighted is the presentation of the 2018 – 2024 National Program of Indigenous Peoples, in which Mexico:

Recognizes the Indigenous and Afro-Mexican Peoples as holders of public rights, with capacity to freely define their forms of political organization and their economic, social, and cultural development, as established in national legislation and international law, in order to overcome the conditions of poverty, margination, inequality, exclusion, and discrimination they have historically and structurally faced.

Among the program’s various actions are:

  • The creation of 133 Indigenous Peoples’ Coordinating Centres;

  • An expansion of the number of indigenous community concessions, and the creation of a program for financing community and indigenous communications media;

  • The drafting of the bill for a General Law on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;

  • The implementation of Indigenous Regulatory Systems within a framework of legal pluralism and strengthening of community institutions for self-governance;

  • The consolidation of the National Register of Translators and Interpreters in indigenous languages; the drafting of Comprehensive Regional Development Plans;

  • The updating of the protocol for implementation of the right to consultation and to FPIC;

  • The creation of an Indigenous and Afro-Mexicans Peoples’ Consultation and Participation System;

  • The generation of consultation typologies as a function of potential impacts and effects;

  • The development of concepts, in coordination with academic institutions, that comprise the right to consultation;

  • The creation and support of the work of the National Council of Indigenous Peoples.

Crimes against indigenous defenders of the environment

Mexico in 2018 ranked as one of the most dangerous and lethal countries for defenders of the environment. This was indicated by Global Witness, a British organization that reports murders of defenders of the ecology throughout the world, whose report “At what price?” ranked Mexico as the country in Latin America with the third largest number of murders of activist defenders of land and of the environment, only after Brazil and Colombia.3

The country saw an unprecedented acceleration in its murder rate; in 2016 three environmental activists were murdered; in 2017 15 activists were murdered, 13 of whom were indigenous activists.4 Between 2008 and 2018, 125 crimes were committed against defenders of the environment in Mexico; 82, or approximately two-thirds of the victims of these crimes, were indigenous. The 125 crimes committed against activists and defenders of the environment consisted of 108 murders and 17 forced disappearances; 76 of those cases occurred under in the administration of President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) and 49 under the Peña Nieto Administration (2012-2018). 45 of these crimes are recorded as having been committed against inhabitants belonging to Nahua communities, 19 against Purépecha peoples, 8 against Rarámuris, 4 against Triquis, 3 against Wixárikas, and one each against the Yaqui, Ayuuk, Tsotsil, and Mixteco communities.5

Of these disputes 75% involved opposition by communities in which extractivist projects were underway that pollute natural resources such as water, air, minerals and biodiversity. During the first five years of the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, from 2012 to 2017, 335 conflicts were recorded, stemming from community opposition to various megaprojects sought to be developed in their territories.6

Opposition to mining projects is especially high, since the laws for such projects are the most ambiguous and open pit mining is especially polluting. Mining concessions stand out on account of allowing low payments of between .25 cents and six U.S. dollars per hectare to exploit, extract and sell the minerals for 50 years, extendable for another similar time period.7


At present, there is a significant indigenous population working in the agricultural fields of California, the United States. Their presence in these labour markets corresponds to the process that Durand calls “indigenization of agricultural labor in the United States.”8 This population has been incorporated into the work that requires the most physical effort and receives the worst pay. It is thus considered to constitute a labour reserve: “The last group willing and able to work in agriculture under current conditions [...].”5

In the United States, indigenous Mexicans live in conditions of high vulnerability. Solís and Fortuny explain that this is associated with the position they occupy in the social structure, where “vulnerability is amplified due to their position of political, social, and cultural subordination, as well as economic exploitation in Mexico and in the United States.”9

Indigenous presence in agricultural labour markets contradicts the policies of migratory control, because a large number of undocumented persons are involved in agricultural activities. Research by the University of California at Berkeley reported data in said regard: “In five years (from 1992 to 1997) the proportion of agricultural workers in California who are not authorized to work legally in the U.S., increased from 9 to 43%.” This coincides with what was stated by Barrón10 with respect to the existence of a labour market that absorbs them.

In Mexico, indigenous Mexicans were “ethnized,” turned into ethnic minorities upon being physically and symbolically cast out of their original territories.11 With the formation of the state they were once again ethnized, given that the group in power did not include them as part of the nation, but rather sought a homogenization of Mexican society and the dissolution of indigenous cultures. Now, as international migrants, tied to the agricultural labour market, they form a part of the most disadvantaged ethnic minorities. Thus, they face a triple process of ethnization. Nonetheless, given the issues they face in their own country, paid agricultural labour continues to be a work option for them in the United States.

The EZLN, Maya Train and consultation

In 2017, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and the National Indigenous Congress ran María de Jesús Patricio Martínez (Marichuy, an indigenous nahua) as a hopeful presidential candidate. However, she was unable to register as an independent candidate, which would have allowed her to run for president. In a national process aimed at obtaining her registration, Marichuy faced an unequal battle, full of irregularities and without real possibilities of obtaining 1% of the federally enrolled electorate in order to run. In February 2018 the National Electoral Institute announced that Marichuy did not obtain the number of signatures necessary to run. Even so, it recognized that she was the pre-candidate who obtained the largest number of real signatures, since her counterparts overtly committed fraud to attain their nominations.

The winner of the elections, López Obrador, was not supported by the EZLN, which, through sub-commander Galeano (antes Marcos), expressed its profound rejection. The EZLN considered Obrador to be a “representative of the false left,” and indicated that several officials tied to his blueprint for the nation were responsible for massacres such as those of Acteal, Chiapas. In addition, the EZLN indicated that López Obrador does not represent a genuine change and can be better described as belonging to the moderate right. For his part, the new president criticized the EZLN, considering it to have divided the vote on the left on account of having nominated Marichuy.12

Another point underscoring the discontent in this context is the announcement that the new federal administration has presented the multi-billion-pesos Maya Train project in the Yucatán peninsula, “uniting” five states of the country and crossing several indigenous territories and environmental reserves. The EZLN has openly announced its opposition to this project and has stated that it will not allow the Maya Train to cross through its territory. This opposition comes at a time when the federal government has been promoting a public consultation for the Maya Train project and one more train that “will unite” the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca. The measure consolidated as guaranteeing the rights of indigenous communities, recognized in ILO 169, appears to have been taken up by the federal government with the goal of legitimizing projects placed up for consultation, distorting the objectives of a free, prior and informed consultation. As such, some critics have denounced what they consider as a process of banalization of the mechanism.

Notes and references

  1. CONEVAL, Medición de la pobreza 2014. Available at: http://bit.ly/2TeAYS6

  2. García, J. (July 7, 2018). “Sólo el zapatismo se resiste a ” In El País [online].

  3. Ibidem.

  4. Lira, I. (2018). “Corrupción de empresas y Estado hacen a México un país letal para defensores de la tierra: ” In SinEmbargo [online].

  5. Castellanos, (November 14, 2018). “Estos 108 mexicanos fueron asesinados por defender nuestros bosques y ríos.” In Mexico.com [online].

  6. López Bárcenas, (December 28, 2018). “El extractivismo y las luchas socioambientales.” In La Jornada [online].

  7. Ibidem.

  8. Durán, Jorge, 2009, Massey, Douglas, Karen Prem, “Nuevos escenarios de la migración México-Estados Unidos, las consecuencias de la guerra antimigrante,” in Papeles de Población, Vol. 15, No. 61, Mexico City, JulySeptember.

  9. Solís Lizama, Mirian and Patricia Fortuny Loret de Mola, 2010, “Otomíes hidalguenses y mayas yucatecos. Nuevas caras de la migración indígena y viejas formas de organización,” in Migraciones Internacionales, 5, No. 4, Mexico City, July-December, pp. 101-138.

  10. Barrón Pérez, María Antonieta, 2005, “Trabajadores agrícolas mexicanos en Ontario y California. El caso de los jornaleros en Salinas, Greenfield y Watsonville, California, USA y Simcoe, Ontario, Canadá,” in Revista Mexicana de Estudios Canadienses, Vol. 1, No. 9, Mexico City, June, pp. 49

  11. Oommen, K., 1997, Citizenship, Nationality and Ethnicity, Cambridge (USA), Polity Press, Blackwell Publishers.

  12. García, J. cit.

José de Val Director of the University Studies Program on Cultural Diversity and Interculturality of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (PUIC-UNAM);

Juan Mario Pérez Martínez Technical Secretary of PUIC-UNAM;

Carolina Sánchez García Academic Clerk of PUIC-UNAM.



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

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