Chihuahua, the largest state in Mexico, with an area of 95,400 square miles and a population of 3.31 million (2005). The state lost territory as a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) and increased in size slightly with the Chamizal Agreement of 1963. Bounded on the north by Texas and New Mexico and on the west, south, and east by Sonora, Sinaloa, Durango, and Coahuila, the region has long been a sparsely populated frontier zone characterized by mining and large landed estates dedicated to livestock raising. Chihuahua is divided into three basic geographical zones: the Sierra Madre Occidental, cut by deep canyons, in the west; the eastern slopes of the mountains with their basins, ranges, and valleys; and the huge desert depression in the east known as the Bolsón de Mapimí. These geographical features, an arid climate, the absence of water, isolation from the rest of Mexico, and a history of endemic violence have led historians to describe Chihuahua as a harsh and violent land.
The region has a long record of human habitation. Twenty-five to thirty thousand years ago, hunters entered the area. New arrivals from the north about 900 ce, linked to the Mogollon culture in southern Arizona and New Mexico and influenced by the Anasazi, built and inhabited the site of Casas Grandes (Paquimé) in northwestern Chihuahua between 1060 and 1340. This cultural and trading center also displayed probable Toltec influences, including L-shaped ball courts. By the sixteenth century, the region of Chihuahua was inhabited principally by Tarahumares, or Raramuri, estimated to number twenty thousand at the time of contact with the Spaniards, as well as Conchos, Tobosos, Sumas, Mansos, Jumanos, Warihios, and various Apache bands in the far north. Spanish settlement and demands for mine labor, combined with mission activity, led to rebellions and the eventual disappearance of Amerindian peoples, except the Raramuri and Apache. Endemic violence and the lack of a large, sedentary Indian population limited race mixture, weakened the hold of the Catholic Church, encouraged the development of labor forms characterized by mobility and wage relationships, and fostered the creation of Presidios and ranches for defensive purposes.
The Spaniards first settled the mining district of Santa Bárbara, founded in 1567. The discovery of silver ore at Parral in 1631 and nearby Nuevas Minas (now Villa Escobedo) in 1634 prompted governors to run the province of Nueva Vizcaya from Parral for the next hundred years. Later, a similar find converted Santa Eulalia (1708) and the newly founded San Felipe el Real de Chihuahua into mining, commercial, and administrative centers and the headquarters of the newly organized Commandancy General of the Internal Provinces after 1776.
Although political factionalism, war with the United States, Indian raids, drought, and epidemic laid waste to much of newly independent Chihuahua, with economic activity reaching a low point in the mid-nineteenth century, after 1880 foreign investment in railroads, mining, forestry, and land made for rapid economic expansion. After the defeat of the Apache in 1880 and the construction of the Mexican Central Railroad in 1884, U.S. companies took over the state's mining industry and foreigners controlled the largest commercial firms. At the same time, a local oligarchy, the Terrazas-Creel family, monopolized economic power, becoming one of the largest landowners in the country, and centralized political power. This pattern of economic development, resentment of the Terrazas-Creel oligarchy, and the loss of village lands prompted mountain communities, political "outs," the middle class, and displaced artisans to revolt in 1910, leading, subsequently, to the identification of Chihuahua as "the cradle of the Revolution."
Despite the changes ushered in by the Mexican Revolution, including the demise of the great estate, restriction in the power of the church, land reform, and labor legislation, subsequent developments in Chihuahua have continued previous patterns. Beginning with the creation of a free-trade zone in 1885 (eliminated in 1905) and Mexican migration to the United States in the late nineteenth century, the border, not regulated until 1929, has drawn people and investment. The Bracero Program (1942–1964) and an accompanying undocumented movement of an even larger magnitude, along with the Border Industrialization Program, established by the Mexican government in 1965, and the import of many commodities duty-free (artículos ganchos) since 1971 have contributed to phenomenal population growth in Ciudad Juárez (population of over 1,400,000 in 2005), as well as to the establishment of assembly plants known as Maquiladoras. Such plants, allowing the tariff-free importation of parts and equipment and return of finished goods to the United States with tariffs charged only on the value added, numbered more than 300 in 2002 and employed 250,000 workers, mostly young women. Despite the relocation of some plants to China in the 1990s, the maquiladoras have stimulated migration and consequent overcrowding and have increased the region's dependence on inputs from the United States.
Since the early 1990s, international attention has focused on Chihuahua, and especially Ciudad Juárez, because of the unsolved murders of more than 70 women, many of them young, poor maquiladora workers.
The economic and cultural influence of the United States combined with a long history of resistance to the centralizing Mexican state (the area was a bastion of federalism, liberalism, and anticlericalism in the nineteenth century) have made Chihuahua a center of organized political opposition and popular antipathy to the central government. An opposition party, National Action Party (PAN), made significant gains in municipal elections in 1983, gubernatorial elections in 1986, the watershed national election that made Vicente Fox Quesada (b. 1942) president in 2000, and the 2006 presidential election of Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa (b. 1962).
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