The jaguar (Panthera onca), the largest felid in the American Continent, is currently threatened by habitat loss, fragmentation and human persecution. We have investigated the genetic diversity, population structure and demographic history of jaguars across their geographical range by analysing 715 base pairs of the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) control region and 29 microsatellite loci in ≈40 individuals sampled from Mexico to southern Brazil. Jaguars display low to moderate levels of mtDNA diversity and medium to high levels of microsatellite size variation, and show evidence of a recent demographic expansion. We estimate that extant jaguar mtDNA lineages arose 280 000–510 000 years ago (95% CI 137 000–830 000 years ago), a younger date than suggested by available fossil data. No strong geographical structure was observed, in contrast to previously proposed subspecific partitions. However, major geographical barriers such as the Amazon river and the Darien straits between northern South America and Central America appear to have restricted historical gene flow in this species, producing measurable genetic differentiation. Jaguars could be divided into four incompletely isolated phylogeographic groups, and further sampling may reveal a finer pattern of subdivision or isolation by distance on a regional level. Operational conservation units for this species can be defined on a biome or ecosystem scale, but should take into account the historical barriers to dispersal identified here. Conservation strategies for jaguars should aim to maintain high levels of gene flow over broad geographical areas, possibly through active management of disconnected populations on a regional scale.