Seismic data strongly support recent theories of tectonics in which large plates of lithosphere move coherently with respect to one another as nearly rigid bodies, spreading apart at ocean ridges, sliding past one another at transform faults, and underthrusting at island arcs. Boundaries between adjacent plates of lithosphere are defined by belts of high seismic activity. Redetermination of more than 600 hypocenters in the Middle America region and previous studies in the Galapagos and Caribbean regions define the boundaries of two relatively small, nearly aseismic plates in the region of interest. The first, the Cocos plate, is bordered by the East Pacific rise, the Galapagos rift zone, the north-trending Panama fracture zone near 82° W., and the Middle America arc; the second, the Caribbean plate, underlies the Caribbean Sea and is bounded by the Middle America arc, the Cayman trough, the West Indies arc, and the seismic zone through northern South America.
Focal mechanisms of 70 earthquakes in these regions were determined to ascertain the relative motion of these two plates with respect to the surrounding regions or plates. The results show underthrusting of the Cocos plate beneath Mexico and Guatemala in a northeasterly direction and beneath the rest of Central America in a more north-northeasterly direction. The Cocos plate is spreading away from the rest of the Pacific floor at the East Pacific rise and at the Galapagos rift zone. Motion is right-lateral strike-slip along the Panama fracture zone, a transform fault connecting the Galapagos rift zone and the Middle America arc. At the same time, the Caribbean plate is moving easterly with respect to the Americas plate, which is here taken to include both North and South America and the western Atlantic. Left-lateral strike-slip motion along steeply dipping fault planes is observed on the Cayman trough. The Americas plate is underthrusting the Caribbean in a westerly direction at the Lesser Antilles and near Puerto Rico. Unlike the Lesser Antilles, however, motion at present is not perpendicular to the Puerto Rico trench but instead is almost parallel to the trench along nearly horizontal fault planes.
Computations of rates of motion indicate that underthrusting is at a higher rate in southeastern Mexico and Guatemala than in western Mexico and that the Caribbean is moving at a lower rate relative to North America than is the Cocos plate.