Mexico has the second-largest economy in Latin America and is a major oil producer and exporter. Though production has fallen in the last few years, about one-third of government revenue still comes from the industry. Much of the crude is bought by the US.
But prosperity remains a dream for many Mexicans, and the socio-economic gap remains wide. Rural areas are often neglected and huge shanty towns ring the cities.
In recent decades many poor Mexicans have sought to cross the 3,000-km border with the US in search of a job. At one point more than a million were being arrested every year, but since 2007 there appears to have been a dramatic fall in numbers, mainly attributed to changing demographics in Mexico itself.
Mexico was home to numerous ancient American civilisations
The Mexican economy is heavily dependent on the money sent home by the millions of migrant workers in the US, and was hit hard by the downturn in its neighbour's economy in the wake of the credit crunch of 2008.
On a more positive note, Mexico has recently been emerging from its deepest economic slump since the 1930s, with foreign companies pouring billions of dollars of fresh investment into the country. Foreign direct investment climbed nearly 30 per cent in the first six months of 2010 from a year earlier.
Violent crime though remains a major concern; Mexico has one of the highest rates of kidnappings in the world, and over 35,000 people have died in drug-related violence since December 2006.
Powerful cartels control the trafficking of drugs from South America to the US, a business that is worth an estimated $13bn (£9bn) a year.
Mexico's northern border towns are experiencing the worst of the violence. Ciudad Juarez (just across from El Paso in Texas) is the city suffering the most. There are also high levels of violence in Michoacan and Guerrero states.
However, Mexico is a large country, and there are still many areas which do not experience high levels of serious crime. The overall murder rate is lower than several other countries in the region, including El Salvador and Honduras.
Another persistent issue has been the pressure for greater rights for Mexico's indigenous people. A law passed in 2001 fell short of giving Mexico's Indians autonomy.
However, demands for indigenous rights have been largely peaceful since 1994, when at least 150 people died during an uprising in the southern state of Chiapas, led by the Zapatista rebel movement.
Writers such as Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes, the mural-painter Diego Rivera, and popular ranchero and mariachi music mean that Mexican culture is known throughout the Spanish-speaking world and beyond.
Felipe Calderon, from the governing, conservative National Action Party, was declared winner of the bitterly-fought July 2006 presidential election with a lead of less than a percentage point over his left-wing rival, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
Mr Calderon's term has been marked by a rise in drug-related violence
His win was confirmed after weeks of legal wrangling and street protests.
One of the defining features of his presidency has been his war on drugs.
More than 35,000 people have died in drug violence since he began his campaign in December 2006, which involved launching an army assault on drug gangs.
He insists his fight against drug cartels is working.
Mr Calderon also pledged to tackle tax evasion, corruption and poverty. He promised to create jobs, in an effort to stem outward migration, and to pursue major infrastructure projects, including roads, airports, bridges and dams.
However, Mexico's economy was hard hit by the 2008 downturn in global demand, pushing down the president's approval ratings.
In the 2009 mid-term elections, voters punished Mr Calderon and his National Action Party by making the formerly all-powerful Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) the biggest force in the Chamber of Deputies. It had come third in the 2006 presidential election.
Born in 1962, in Morelia in Michoacan state, he is married and has three children. A lawyer and an economist by profession, he resigned as energy minister in 2004 to pursue his presidential ambitions.
Mexican presidents cannot serve two consecutive terms, so Mr Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, was unable to run again in 2006.
President-elect: Enrique Pena Nieto
Mr Pena Nieto will have to face the escalating violence of the drugs war
The rejuvenated Institutional Revolutionary Party returned to power in 2012 with a clear win in presidential elections by Enrique Pena Nieto. He beat vetern leftwinger Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and drove Josefina Vazquez Mota of the rightwing National Action Party (PAN) into a distant third place. This ended 12 years of PAN rule.
Born in 1966, Mr Pena Nieto began his political career in his twenties, working for the PRI and in the local government system in Mexico State, the country's most populous state, rising to win the gubernatorial election in 2005.
He won praise for his expansion of the transport and healthcare system and careful financial management during his six years as governor of Mexico State, which helped win him the PRI presidential nomination and the election itself.
When he becomes president in December, Mr Pena Nieto will have to face the escalating violence of the drugs war in the northern states.
He has pledged no return to the PRI's pre-2000 policy of tolerating drug cartels in return for civil peace, and has announced plans to establish a special paramilitary police force to fight the drug barons alongside a stronger army presence.
Mexico's media were traditionally dominated by the Televisa group, which had firm links with the PRI. But the loosening of the PRI's hold led to greater editorial independence and the emergence of competitors.
Televisa once had a virtual monopoly in Mexican TV and it is still a major global supplier of programmes in Spanish. New players - such as the Azteca group and foreign satellite and cable operators - have mounted an assault on Televisa's dominance.
The radio market is very large, with around 1,400 local and regional stations and several major station-owning groups. Some high-powered stations on Mexico's northern border beam into lucrative US markets.
Mexican newspapers reflect different political views; sensationalism characterises the biggest-selling dailies.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in 2011 described Mexico as "one of the hemisphere's most dangerous countries" for the media. Since 2000, scores of journalists have been murdered. "Drug cartels and corrupt officials are implicated in most of the crimes of violence against journalists, which almost always go unpunished," RSF added.
Mexico is one of Latin America's biggest internet markets. There were nearly 35 million internet users by the end of 2010 - a 30% penetration rate (Internetworldstats). Facebook is the most popular social network.
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