• 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.


Indigenous Peoples in Mexico

Mexico is home to 68 Indigenous Peoples, each speaking their own native language and together accounting for 364 variants. There are 16,933,283 indigenous persons in Mexico, representing 15.1% of the total population. Mexico adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, signed ILO Convention 169 in 1990 and became a pluricultural nation by amending Article VI of the Constitution in 1992. Yet, the country’s Indigenous population are still facing a number of challenges.

Mexico’s Indigenous Peoples 

The National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), the National Population Council (CONAPO), and the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) registered 16,933,283 indigenous people in the country, representing 15.1% of all Mexicans (112,236,538). There is a sustained population growth due to higher rates of indigenous fertility, offset only in part by the higher general mortality rate.

Mexico is the country in the Americas with largest indigenous population and the greatest number of native languages spoken in its territory, that is 68 languages and 364 counted dialect variations.  The 2020 Census, produced by INEGI, indicated that 6.1% of the national population aged three years and over was registered as speaking an Indigenous language, being some 7.36 million people. This proportion was 6.6% in the 2010 Census.

In addition, the 2020 Census noted that 11.8 million people live in Indigenous households in Mexico, 5.7 million of them men and 6.1 million women. In terms of native languages, Nahuatl continues to be the most widely spoken, with 22.5% of Indigenous language speakers, or 1.65 million people, followed by Mayan with 774,000 speakers (10.6%).1 Two percent (2.0%) of the national population also reported being of African descent, of whom 7.4% confirmed speaking an Indigenous language.

Main challenges for Mexico’s Indigenous Peoples

One of the main challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples in Mexico relates to a lack of recognition. In 2001, as a result of an Indigenous Peoples’ mobilization demanding legislation based on the "Acuerdos de San Andrés" — result of the negotiations between the Government and the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in 1996 —, Articles 1, 2, 4, 18, and 115 of the Mexican Constitution were amended.

As of 2003, the EZLN and the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) commenced implementation of the Accords throughout its territories, creating autonomous Indigenous governments in Chiapas, Michoacán, and Oaxaca. Although the states of Chihuahua, Nayarit, Oaxaca, Quintana Roo, and San Luís Potosí have provisions regarding Indigenous Peoples in their state constitutions, Indigenous legal systems are not yet fully recognized.

Another challenge relates to Mexico’s Indigenous People’s health. Indigenous Peoples are considered to be the most vulnerable sector of the population in regard to this matter, with the highest maternal and infantile mortality rates, acute and chronic malnutrition rates higher than the national average, lower life expectancy, and severe limitations for access to health services.

In relation to human rights, the Front Line Defenders report reveals that Mexico ranks fourth among the world’s most dangerous countries for defenders of rights. During 2017 there were 31 murders, the majority of which were of activists involved in Indigenous and environmental causes. 

Case: Visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples  

In November 2017, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Ms. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, made an official visit to Mexico. She met with federal and state authorities, as well as with representatives of Indigenous Peoples and organizations of civil society.

Some of the issues highlighted by her in her end-of-mission statement were the following. First, the fact that the Indigenous Peoples are not being adequately consulted in accordance with international standards on projects and other decisions that affect their rights, including the right to the life. An alarming 99% impunity rate in cases of human rights violations particularly affects Indigenous persons. Moreover, the violence faced by Indigenous groups who struggle for their rights, in particular in cases of implementation of extractive megaprojects.The Special Rapporteur emphasised the fact that the report’s objective is to make known the principal violations of the rights of Indigenous Persons and communities in Mexico.

Effects of Covid-19 

It is important to note that problems of under-reporting of the Indigenous population were exacerbated by the early suspension of census data collection due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to marginalisation, discrimination, violence, land dispossession and a lack of access to decent housing and public health services, among other factors, Mexico’s Indigenous population has become one of the most vulnerable sectors to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Indigenous communities decided to respond by designing and implementing their own methods and protocols to combat the pandemic, such as disseminating information through their community communication systems and in their native languages, restricting movements in and out of their territories, and ensuring a strengthened sense of solidarity and communality. The virus has, nonetheless, reached most of their regions.

The Indigenous World 2023: Mexico

According to data from the 2020 Population and Housing Census, produced by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), 23.2 million people aged three years or above self-identify as Indigenous in Mexico, equivalent to 19.4% of the country's total population. This breaks down into 51.4% (11.9 million) women and 48.6% (11.3 million) men. Of the 23.2 million people who self-identify as Indigenous, 7.1 million (30.8%) speak an Indigenous language and 16.1 million (69.2%) do not.

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Chiapas: Indigenous women weaving territories of life


The Zapatista journey has marked the lives of Indigenous peoples and peasant communities with its teachings of autonomy and dreams of other possible worlds. However, the southeast of Mexico continues to be plagued by extreme poverty and violence generated by criminal economies. In this context, the collective Fases de la Luna promotes educational processes of political training to eradicate violence against women and promote autonomy.

Cover photo: Copal Studio Mx

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The tourism industry and drug trafficking in Mexico: from the perspective of the Mayan Peoples


Before the advance of the presence of the State, the Maya Máasewáal nation lived in times of abundance. However, schools began teaching that the milpa was “poor man´s” work, whiles mass tourism turned the Mayas into a source of cheap labor. The arrival of tourists to cities such as Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum resulted in a market for drug trafficking and drug dealing in the region. In the same light, the mega-project of the (misnamed) Mayan Train is bound to have destructive consequences for nature. At the same time, the tourism industry will expand to rural regions that until now have lived from the production of the land and have not suffered from organized crime. Hope lies in community organization, resistance and struggles for the defense of the land.

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Mexico: training interpreters in Indigenous languages


The civil association Diálogo y Movimiento (DIMO) created the Diploma for the Training of Interpreters in Indigenous Languages to improve the tools of the profession and the quality of access to justice. The training and professionalization of translators is essential to avoid the daily problems that Indigenous people face, especially concerning conflicts with criminal law: from not understanding the charges and accusations held against them and not being able to communicate correctly before judges, to not obtaining a proper defense.

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Mexico's War on Drugs as a Policy of Social Reorganization


Despite its biodiversity, cultural richness and strategic geographic location, the "war on drugs" has stained Mexico's streets with violence. The normalization of violence is exacerbated by the penetration of drug cartels into State structures. The conflict particularly affects Indigenous communities who suffer criminalization by police and military, as well as from forced displacement due to encroachment on their territories.

Self-Defense group El Machete. Photo: José Santís / Cuartoscuro.com

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The Indigenous World 2022: Mexico

Mexico is home to 68 Indigenous Peoples, each speaking their own native language and together comprising 364 different variants. According to the 2020 Census, 6.1% of the population aged over three was recorded as speaking an Indigenous language, or some 7.36 million people. The equivalent figure in the 2010 Census was 6.6%. The 2020 Census furthermore indicated that 11.8 million people were living in Indigenous households, 5.7 million of them men and 6.1 million of them women.

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

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Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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