Extensive population structuring is known to occur in Anopheles darlingi, the primary malaria vector of the Neotropics. We analysed the phylogeographic structure of the species using the mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase I marker. Diversity is divided into six main population groups in South America: Colombia, central Amazonia, southern Brazil, south-eastern Brazil, and two groups in north-east Brazil. The ancestral distribution of the taxon is hypothesized to be central Amazonia, and there is evidence of expansion from this region during the late Pleistocene. The expansion was not a homogeneous front, however, with at least four subgroups being formed due to geographic barriers. As the species spread, populations became isolated from each other by the Amazon River and the coastal mountain ranges of south-eastern Brazil and the Andes. Analyses incorporating distances around these barriers suggest that the entire South American range of An. darlingi is at mutation–dispersal–drift equilibrium. Because the species is distributed throughout such a broad area, the limited dispersal across some landscape types promotes differentiation between otherwise proximate populations. Moreover, samples from the An. darlingi holotype location in Rio de Janeiro State are substantially derived from all other populations, implying that there may be additional genetic differences of epidemiological relevance. The results obtained contribute to our understanding of gene flow in this species and allow the formulation of human mosquito health protocols in light of the potential population differences in vector capacity or tolerance to control strategies. © 2009 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2009, 97, 854–866.