| Written by Michal Wozniakowski-Zehenter

Mexican mines have been a key part of the country’s economy for a very long time, even before actual stories were written down. El Tricolor rich minerals have played a big role in its growth and history. From the ancient people who first used these minerals to the modern, large-scale mining companies of today, the progress of mining in Mexico shows us how technology and society have changed over many years. In further reading, we will explore times from the early days when native people used basic tools to mine turquoise and obsidian, through the Spanish colonial period when silver mining grew dramatically, to today's use of advanced technology to mine various minerals. By looking at how mining has changed over time, we can see how important it has been to Mexico's economy and culture.
History of Mexican Mines

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"Mexico's mining history is rich and complex, marked by ancient techniques and modern advancements. It has been a key part of our economic and cultural development. Looking forward, the future of mining in Mexico depends on adopting new technologies and sustainable practices. This approach will ensure that mining continues to contribute positively to our growth, respecting both the environment and our communities."- Yeudiel Valdivia Aguilera, Latin America’s mining expert, Vice President of Sales for Crew Companion

 

MEXICAN MINES: THE BEGINNINGS

Before Europeans arrived, the indigenous people of what is now Mexico were already mining, using simple but effective tools and methods for their time. It goes back to at least 1400 BC, starting with obsidian, which was not only used for tools and weapons but also for ceremonies and trade. Obsidian was mined in the states of Jalisco, Puebla, and Guanajuato using stone tools to gather large amounts of this volcanic glass. Other mined materials included turquoise, jade, and various metals, valued for their beauty and usefulness in items naming jewellery and decorations as well as trade goods.

The mining techniques were basic, usually involving open pits and using stone hammers and fire to break rocks. This profession was very important socially and culturally in pre-colonial societies. Minerals had ceremonial roles and were linked to religious practices. For example, turquoise was connected to water gods and used in rituals to call for rain. The mining activities were often managed by specific groups within the population; in some cultures, like the Aztecs, the elite controlled them to maintain power and wealth.

 

Mexican Mines: The Colonial Period

The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire between 1519 and 1521 was an important event in the history of the Americas, marked by the clash of the Aztec Triple Alliance and the Spanish Empire, ultimately reshaping the course of human history and significantly changing the scope and methods of mining due to Europe's immense demand for silver and gold. The Spanish colonization brought advanced mining techniques and greatly increased the extraction of precious metals, transforming the economy of the New World. In the mid-1500s, the discovery of extensive silver deposits in Zacatecas and Guanajuato led to a mining boom that persisted for centuries.

Utilizing advanced European techniques, including the patio process developed by Bartolomé de Medina in 1554, Spaniards converted these areas into some of the largest and most prosperous mining hubs globally. This method, which involved using salt, copper sulphate, and mercury with silver ore, revolutionized how silver was extracted.

The wealth generated from Mexican mines became foundational to the local colonial economy and the broader Spanish Empire. It prompted the creation of minting houses and the expansion of trading networks. However, the boom brought significant social challenges, as the mining sector depended heavily on forced labour through the Encomienda and later the Repartimiento systems, subjecting Indigenous people and African slaves to brutal and often deadly work conditions. Mining towns developed into important cultural centres with lasting architectural significance and became areas attracting all kinds of people seeking economic opportunities. Yet, the resulting wealth was disproportionately held by European elites, showing even more inequalities between them and the working classes, including Indigenous people and Mestizos. The Spanish colonial authorities and private businesses invested in critical infrastructure like aqueducts, roads, and hydraulic systems to sustain the mining industry. These developments were essential for supporting the large-scale resource extraction that defined the period.

 

MEXICAN MINES: 19TH CENTURY

The 19th century was a crucial time for mining in Mexico, beginning with the country's independence from Spain in 1821 and featuring major changes in political, technological, and economic aspects. This era brought about shifts in mine ownership and operations, significant foreign investments, and the development of new mining areas.

Following independence, Mexico faced political and economic challenges, which affected the industry through reduced production, neglected infrastructure, and many abandoned mines. However, the second half of the century saw a revival in mining, spurred by domestic reforms and foreign capital. Significant foreign investment, especially from the British and later American capital, introduced new technologies and methods that revitalized the mining industry. Innovations like steam-powered pumps and advanced metallurgical techniques allowed for deeper and more efficient excavations.

A key development was the improvement of the Real del Monte mines in Hidalgo by British investors, who implemented Cornish pumping technology to manage deep water accumulation. This increased silver production and introduced soccer to Mexico through the British miners (read more about modern mine technology).

Influential figures such as Alexander von Humboldt contributed to this era, with his studies and explorations providing insights into Mexico's geology and mineral wealth, attracting European interest. Manuel Robles Pezuela also played a significant role in the Mining Ordinance of 1854, which modernized mining laws, simplified regulations, and offered tax incentives, setting the stage for further modernization.

During this period, mining expanded into new regions and minerals, including copper and zinc. The initiation of the Boleo project in Baja California Sur in 1868 marked the start of large-scale copper mining, which would grow in importance in the following century. The big comeback of mining brought economic prosperity to some regions but also social challenges. The expansion of mining towns and the arrival of foreign workers fostered diverse, dynamic communities but also sparked conflicts and social disparities. The harsh conditions in mines and uneven distribution of mining wealth led to social tensions and periodic unrest.

 

Mexican Mines: 20th Century revolution and modernization

The 20th century was another milestone for Mexican mines, characterized by the Mexican Revolution, important regulatory changes, and major technological improvements which impacted the mining sector and had broader effects on the nation’s economic and social structure.

The Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) significantly harmed the industry, with many mines being destroyed or abandoned and foreign investors withdrawing, leading to a steep drop in production. Post-revolution, the government took a more active role, with the 1917 Constitution asserting national control over subsoil resources, which transformed the administration and regulation of mining rights.

During the mid-20th century, the government began nationalizing the mining sector to harness more national wealth, introducing laws and regulations to ensure that mining benefited the broader economy and population. The 1942 Mining Law was a key legislative change that simplified the concession process and promoted investment. Infrastructure projects in the 1940s and 1950s, like road and rail construction, also boosted the industry by linking mining regions more closely with the national economy.

Significant technological advancements later in the century, such as open-pit mining, enhanced efficiency and production. This revitalized old mining operations and opened up new areas for exploration. Companies like Grupo Mexico and Peñoles became major players, propelling Mexico to the forefront of the global production of silver, copper, and other minerals. Mexico remains a leading force in the global mining industry, especially as the top producer of silver. It also significantly produces gold, copper, lead, and zinc, with the mining of non-metallic minerals like fluorite and sulphur playing a key role.

Modern times have brought a heightened awareness of mining’s environmental and social impacts, such as water use, pollution, and community displacement, leading to more frequent disputes over land rights and environmental concerns. In response, the government and private companies have begun implementing sustainable practices and engaging more with affected communities. Legal changes continue into the 21st century with the 1992 Mining Law and its amendments focusing on balancing investment promotion with environmental and social issues, aiming for greater transparency and accountability, though enforcement remains a challenge. Economically, mining is still a vital contributor to Mexico's GDP (with almost 890 billion Mexican pesos in the first quarter of 2023) and plays a crucial role in employment, supporting millions of jobs nationwide (see also: Mining Mexico - the State of Industry)

 

FAQS

What Mexican mines are known for?

Mexican mines are renowned for their extensive production of several key minerals and metals, positioning Mexico as one of the top mining countries in the world. Mexico is the world's largest producer of silver, with historic mines in Zacatecas, Guanajuato, and Durango that have been operating for centuries and continue to yield large quantities of silver. The country also ranks highly in gold production, with notable mining areas in Sonora, Chihuahua, and Guerrero. Additionally, Mexico is a major producer of copper, evidenced by large-scale operations such as the Cananea mine and the La Caridad mine, both located in Sonora.

Mexico also produces significant amounts of zinc and lead, with major contributions from the Peñasquito mine in Zacatecas. The states of Colima, Michoacán, and Durango are well-known for their substantial iron ore mining. Beyond these metals, Mexican mines also extract considerable amounts of fluorite, sulphur, molybdenum, and manganese.

 

TAKEAWAY

The history of mining in Mexico highlights the country's natural resources and its resilience through varying economic, technological, and social shifts. Mining has consistently been a key part of Mexico’s economic growth from pre-colonial times to today and will remain vital in the future. Yet, the industry faces the challenge of balancing profitability with environmental care and social responsibility. As Mexico remains a leader in producing essential minerals and adopts new mining technologies and methods, the sector's adaptability will shape its role both domestically and globally. The future offers significant opportunities for those who can innovate and adjust, ensuring that mining continues to generate wealth and opportunities while meeting the broader expectations and needs of all involved parties.

 

 

Delve deeper into one of our core topics: Miner Safety

 




Michal-Wozniakowski-Zehenter

Author

Michal Wozniakowski-Zehenter, Marketing Manager

Michal Wozniakowski-Zehenter is an experienced marketing and project management professional. He spent most of his career on projects with a strong focus on digital marketing and event management. He is a very active voice representing offshore and mining industries through social media channels. Michal writes mainly about offshore oil and gas, renewable energy, mining and tunnelling. Compiling and sharing the knowledge within industries is one of his goals.