Mexico, the planet's twelfth-largest economy, is home to the world's richest man and some of the western hemisphere's poorest people.

Its capital, Mexico City, is one of the world's largest urban areas, with some 22 million residents and a reasonably high standard of living. But in some rural areas, residents lack basic facilities, such as electricity and running water. Out of a total population of 115 million, about 40 per cent live in poverty with some 15 per cent facing extreme poverty, according to the World Bank.

Geographically, the country includes tropical forests, arid deserts in the north, sandy beaches and mountains. Its main exports include oil (which accounts for a significant portion of government revenue through the national energy company PEMEX), services, manufactured goods, silver, gold and timber. The US is Mexico's biggest trading partner.

Hernan Cortes conquered the area in the name of the Spanish crown during a series of battles with local indigenous people between 1519 and 1521.

Gaining independence from Spain on September 16, 1810, the country has faced a turbulent history, including: a number of political upheavals, a war with the US beginning in 1846, a bloody revolution against the dictator Porfirio Diaz in 1910 and more than 70 years of single-party rule.

Spanish is still the predominant language, along with various indigenous dialects, making Mexico the world's most populous Spanish-speaking nation. Almost 90 per cent of the population is Catholic. Ethnically, most citizens are mestizos - a mix of European and indigenous ancestry. Many indigenous groups continue to practice their culture and live independently.

After holding office for 70 years, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was voted out of power in 2000, after losing national elections to the conservative National Action Party (PAN). The peaceful transfer of power was seen as a major boost for Mexico. The country is part of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), including Canada and the US, and a member of the G20.

Since the transfer of power in 2000, however, the strength of democratic institutions has been eroded by violence from powerful drug cartels. More than 50,000 people have died in drug-related violence since 2006, when President Felipe Calderon deployed the army into cities in a bid to battle cartels.

Critics say police and political corruption, coupled with poverty and weak institutions, make the country an easy place for gangsters to operate. Mexico votes for a new president on July 1, 2012.

Source: Agencies, CIA fact book, UK foreign office