Tropical regions are affected by intense soil erosion associated with deforestation, overgrazing, and cropping intensification. This land degradation leads to important on-site (e.g., decrease in soil fertility) and off-site (e.g., reservoir siltation and water pollution) impacts. This study determined the mean soil particle and sediment residence times in soils and rivers of three subcatchments (3-12km2) with contrasted land uses (i.e., cropland, forests, and rangelands) draining to a reservoir located in highlands of the transvolcanic Mexican belt. Calculations were based on rainfall amount and river discharges as well as on fallout radionuclide measurements (Be-7, Cs-137, and Pb-210) conducted on rainfall precipitated samples, soil sampled in the catchments, and suspended sediment collected by automatic samplers in the river during most storms recorded throughout the 2009 rainy season. Calculations using a radionuclide two-box balance model showed that the mean residence time of particles in soils ranged between 5000±1500 and 23,300±7000years. In contrast, sediment residence time in rivers was much shorter, fluctuating between 50±30 and 200±70days. The shortest mean residence times were measured in a hilly catchment dominated by cropland and rangelands, whereas they were the longest in an undulating catchment dominated by forests and cropland. Calculation of the Be-7/excess-Pb-210 in both rainfall and sediment allowed gaining insight on sediment dynamics throughout the rainy season. The first heavy storms of the year exported the bulk of the sediment stock accumulated in the river channel during the previous year. Then, during the rainy season, the two steeper catchments dominated by cropland and rangelands reacted strongly to rainfall. Sediment was indeed eroded and exported from both catchments during single heavy storms on several occasions in 2009. In contrast, the agro-forested catchment with gentler slopes exported sediment at a constant and low rate throughout the rainy season. Overall, land cover and flood type clearly proved to exert more control on sediment export than slope steepness and rainfall erosivity. Our results show the priority of stabilising old gully systems to prevent their extension by regressive erosion to cropland and to concentrate the implementation of on-site erosion control measures in cropland and rangeland of the most reactive catchments. © 2010 Elsevier B.V.