The Thin Wet Line
by Jonathan Penton and T S Ross
[ opinion - october 05 ]
This is a confusing time for Americans. In the past four years, we have occupied, and still occupy, two countries, one of which is hotly contested. We have lost one of our greatest national symbols, and found other symbols under attack. We are deeply divided politically and mocked by the press of almost every First World country, while our economy steadily declines. And we had barely finished congratulating ourselves on our generosity to Asian countries hit by meteorological disasters when one hit our own Gulf Coast; the most destructive storm in the history of the US.
Many of us are unsurprised by the federal government's crude treatment of citizens, its inability to plan for or handle disaster and the utter lack of empathy shown by the American President. But during the first half of September, as the known death toll climbed and banditry ran rampant, a lack of surprise was no defense against grief, humiliation, and despair. And as refugees from the disaster slowly found their way to other areas, our humiliation at our helplessness became acute. Then, on September 9th, two days before the anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center, the Mexican Army sent 200 soldiers to San Antonio, to support the 3,000 refugees there. They arrived with 20 days' worth of food and medicine, and a promise to stay longer, if need be. They were met with great celebration.
The Associated Press reported that this was the first movement of the Mexican military on US soil since 1846. We found that statement a bit puzzling, and would like to examine it. We assume they base the statement on the outcome of the Mexican-American War, which began in April 1846. At that time, the US suddenly disputed which of the area's rivers was the 'Rio Grande', and therefore the US-Mexican  border. General Zachary Taylor moved with his troops into the area between the previously acknowledged Rio Grande, now called the Nueces, and the river the US now chose to consider the Rio Grande, formerly called the Rio Bravo. They were attacked by Mexican troops, and the US then sold a war to the American public, claiming that Taylor was attacked on US soil.
The Texan part of the dispute was largely settled in the first half of 1946. Later that year, General Stephen Kearney occupied Santa Fe, in what is now New Mexico, to claim that area for the US. No significant military force opposed him, so he pressed on to California, where a stranger dispute was brewing.
In 1846, the US Army sent Captain John C Fremont to Santa Barbara, California. When he unexpectedly defeated the Mexican forces in his path, he and US settlers set up an independent Republic of California. When official forces arrived, they apparently ordered Fremont to dissolve the Republic, as an independent California would interfere with US plans to conquer the area. Fremont did so. Almost immediately after Fremont gave California back to the Mexicans, US Navy Commodore John Drake Sloat claimed it for the US. Fighting in California continued at least until February, 1847. If we consider Sloat’s claim legitimate, Mexican troops were therefore on US soil in 1847.
In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago established the new US-Mexico border. It placed the Texas-Mexican border at the [new] Rio Grande, and gave California to the US. A Mexican known as Joaquin Murietta chose to remain in California. Although the very existence of Murietta is controversial, some things are clear: he might have been born in California, or perhaps Sonora, Mexico or Quillota, Chile. He might or might not have been a former member of Mexico's California Forces. He might or might not have been one or all of the leaders of the band called “The Five Joaquins,” who might or might not have been responsible for the majority of cattle rustling, robberies, and murders that were committed in the Mother Lode area of the Sierra Nevadas. If the Five Joaquins were responsible for these crimes, they might have been doing them as a means of guerilla resistance on the behalf of the Mexican peasantry, who might have supported their efforts. Their last reported raid was in 1853.
Not all border incidents are embarrassing to Americans. From 1864 to 1867, Mexicans fought their Second War of Independence against Maximillian Hapsburg. In this instance, it is said that the US Army would leave supplies on the northern side of the Rio, for the Mexican Army of Benito Juarez to pick up at night.
In 1853 Mexico sold additional land to the US in the Gadsen Purchase. The land was inhabited by Apaches, who soon began raiding the expanding US settlements. Well into the 1880s, US troops often pursued Apache raiders, such as Geronimo, through the region and southward over the border. Although we lack official reports, it is difficult to believe no Mexican troops ever pursued a raider through the US sections of the territory. Indeed, it is difficult to believe no Mexican officer ever used an Apache raid as an opportunity to shoot at Americans. One can only imagine the reports to the authoritarian Presidente Diaz: “Crossed the US border in pursuit of Geronimo. Didn't catch him.”
From roughly 1910 to 1928, Mexico was divided by competing armies, any one of which could make some claim to being the “Mexican military.” In 1916, the leader of one of these armies, Pancho Villa, was accused by the US of robbing a bank in Columbus, New Mexico. Villa denied the charges, but the US nonetheless sent General Pershing to invade northern Mexico, an invasion which failed to kill or capture Villa, annex territory, or overthrow an anti-US movement. If Villa was guilty of the bank robbery, it would surely count as a Mexican military action. Perhaps the AP knows of his innocence.
From 1919 to 1933, the production and import of alcoholic beverages was illegal in the United States. Bootlegging was an industry in almost every town on both US. borders. Here in El Paso, local tradition has it that the operation was dominated by the Sheriff and Ku Klux Klan on this side and the City of Juarez police force on the other, but their biggest competition came from US Army Fort Bliss, in unofficial cooperation with counterparts in the Mexican Army.
Just east of here, there is a section of the Rio Grande that shifted between 1848 and the early 1960s. This shifting caused 630 acreswhich had formerly been Texas to become Mexico, and 193 acres which had formerly been Mexico to become Texas. We have had difficulty finding a US text that clarifies why this caused a dispute. The movement of the Rio was well charted, and Mexico did not claim its new land. As far as we can tell, there were at least some Texans claiming both the 630 acres Texas had in 1848 and the 193 acres it had “acquired” since then.
In 1960, Presidente Mateos wrote to President Kennedy, who agreed to resolve the dispute by giving the 630 acres to Mexico (and taking the 193 for the US). In 1963, Mateos, who, as Presidente, was also the Commander-in-Chief of the Mexican Army, entered the disputed territory and signed the Chamizal Treaty. When he did so, Mexico made a net gain of 437 acres, and the land under his feet became undisputed US soil. While it might be silly to consider the Mexican Presidente to be acting in a military capacity every time he crosses the border, the capture of fertile, populated land is a generally accepted military objective.
In southwestern Texas, a section of the Rio Grande runs through a lush forest. On the US side of this area, you'll find the Big Bend National Park, an area of great pride to Texans. By day, tourists can enjoy a unique mixture of flora, fauna, culture and architecture. By night, many Texans and tourists have been able to quietly sit inside their rooms and watch, through their windows, Mexican soldiers crossing the Rio with crates, and loading those crates into trucks.
Although our sources for this final example are current, we hope our readers will forgive us if they remain unnamed.
1 The language here is problematic, as this article involves disputes between two nations in North America named the United States of America and the United Mexican States. We chose to call these countries by names familiar to the residents of other English-speaking nations. [Back]
The Second Mexican War of Independence