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Bordering on Insanity

Photo by el-toro | CC BY 2.0

In lieu of building his promised wall between the U.S. and Mexico, Donald Trump ordered National Guard troops to the border. General James Mattis authorized the deployment of up to 4,000 troops to beef up border security, though they will not be permitted to perform law enforcement missions. Where precisely they will be and for how long, is not yet clear.

Along with the 16,000 Border Patrol Agents, Texas Rangers, and previously mobilized Texas National Guard troops already on duty – not to mention ICE – it is not certain what the mission of these new forces will be. Trump’s motives are political, not tactical. Fortunately, no troops will be under his direct command. President George W. Bush spent $1.2 billion to send 6,000 Guardsmen to the border to assist with the “War on Drugs” in 2006-2008, while President Obama sent 1,200 in 2010 for the same reason, at a cost of $110 million.

Formed from the original separate state militias, the National Guard has evolved since the Civil War to serve a variety of national and corporate functions. The Guard has often been deployed to break up labor strikes and demonstrations at mines and factories.

On September 23, 1957, defying the desegregation order of the U.S. Supreme Court, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered the Guard to block the entry of black students into Little Rock High School. The following day President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard, who then escorted nine black students safely into the school. The Guard is a blunt instrument, as easily wielded for nefarious purposes as for good.

Various state Guards further demonstrated their versatility from the 1960s to the present, helping quell race riots or providing disaster relief after floods or hurricanes. Notoriously, on May 4, 1970, when the governor of Ohio summoned troops to help contain an anti-war protest at Kent State University, members of the Ohio Army National Guard opened fire on a crowd of students, killing four and injuring nine. Elements of the Texas National Guard helped the FBI incinerate seventy-six men, women and children in Waco, Texas in 1993, in one of the earliest and least necessary atrocities of the Clinton administration.

Will the National Guard bring stability to the U.S.-Mexico border area? Or add to the volatility of that inherently dangerous, deadly place? “Tragedy hangs over the border like a Mexican piñata,” in the words of Elena Poniatowska. In 1997 a U.S. Marine on patrol at the Texas-Mexico border shot and killed an American teenager herding goats, having mistaken him for a drug smuggler.

The last large-scale mobilizations of Army and National Guard troops along the border with Mexico occurred more than one hundred years ago, during the volatile era of the Mexican Revolution. In 1910, Mexican dictator Porfirío Díaz, who had ruled his country without mercy for 34 years, decided to allow a national election he was certain he would win. But he underestimated the extent of his unpopularity. Anti-Díaz forces – forbidden to assemble within their own country – mobilized along the Texas border.

Concerned about the threat to American lives and property, President William Howard Taft created a “Maneuver Division” of the U.S. Army in the spring of 2011, sending 20,000 men – about one-fourth of all U.S. Army troops – to the U.S. border. American investments in Mexico – in agriculture, mining, railroads and especially oil – were substantial and vulnerable.

When Woodrow Wilson became President of the United States in 1913, U.S. interference in Mexican affairs increased dramatically, taking on a moralistic tone. Unlike Trump’s impulsive, vindictive, ego-driven actions, Wilson’s motives were imbued with self-righteous missionary zeal. Deploring the violence of the Mexican Revolution, Wilson offered to intervene in Mexican affairs “for their own good” and openly advocated for the removal of Mexico’s president.

When Wilson found out a German ship loaded with armaments for the Mexican government was bound for Veracruz, he ordered the U.S. fleet to occupy that port to prevent the ship from docking. Mexican naval cadets and civilians resisted the American blockade. A twelve-hour battle left 125 Mexicans and 19 Americans dead. Wilson, the critic of violence, had launched his own deadly invasion. The U.S. occupation of Veracruz, which lasted seven months, caused anti-American demonstrations throughout Latin America and denunciations from the leader of the Mexican faction Wilson had tried to help.

Pancho Villa, a Mexican bandit turned revolutionary, courted the favor of the Wilson administration. But Wilson could not abide such an unsavory character, opting instead to back one of Villa’s rivals. Shocked and embittered by Wilson’s rebuff, Villa decided to take radical action against the Americans, whose support he had sought for years.

On January 10, 1916, Villa’s men stopped a train in northern Mexico and murdered sixteen American mining engineers. The massacre created a clamor for action in the U.S. Congress, but Wilson managed to avoid a Congressional call for intervention in Mexico. On March 9, about five hundred Villistas attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico, looting, burning buildings and killing nineteen Americans. Now the president had no choice. Against his own desire, he ordered a second attack on Mexico.

On March 15, about five thousand U.S. soldiers, commanded by General John J. Pershing, crossed into the Mexican state of Chihuahua on a punitive expedition in pursuit of Pancho Villa. By June Pershing’s forces numbered more than eleven thousand.

As one historian noted, for Pershing, “Going into Chihuahua to lay hands on Villa was like the Sheriff of Nottingham entering Sherwood Forest expecting the peasants to help him hang Robin Hood.” Many Mexicans despised Villa, but they loved the way he outfoxed the gringos. Violence escalated on both sides of the border.

On June 18, Woodrow Wilson federalized the National Guards of all the states, ordering all units – more than 100,000 men – to the Mexican border. They joined the 30,000 regular army troops already stationed there. A U.S. invasion of Mexico appeared imminent. But, despite ongoing violent incidents, Mexico and the United States held off from all-out war.

Pershing’s punitive expedition floundered around northern Mexico for nearly eleven months without finding Pancho Villa. Facing rising tension in Europe, Wilson ordered the U.S. troops withdrawn from Mexico in January 1917. But his punitive expedition and his massive border troop deployment had grave consequences for U.S.-Mexican relations. Under threat from the United States, Mexican President Venustiano Carranza contacted Germany, proposing closer economic and military cooperation between Germany and Mexico. In response, Germany sent Mexico the infamous Zimmerman telegram.

German Secretary of State Arthur Zimmerman wired the German ambassador in Mexico. British intelligence intercepted and decoded the telegram, then presented it to the Americans. Zimmerman proposed an alliance with Mexico to fight the United States, with the promise that “Mexico is to reconquer  the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.” Zimmerman asked Carranza to invite Japan to join the alliance. President Wilson read Zimmerman’s proposal on February 25 with great indignation.

Wilson had run for re-election to the presidency on his pledge to keep the United States out of the European conflict. But Zimmerman’s proposal was too brazen. The United States declared war on Germany April 2, 1917. After the World War ended in 1919, Wilson remained focused on Europe and his doomed plan for the League of Nations.

By 1920, after ten anguished years of revolution that cost more than a million lives, the agrarian structure of Mexico remained fundamentally unchanged. The large estates and the majority of their owners had survived better than the peasants. Also by 1920 American investments in Mexico were more important than ever, as the Europeans had been driven out. American interference in the Mexican Revolution had eliminated foreign competition and forestalled genuine reform.

“Poor Mexico,” in the words of Porfirío Díaz, “so far from God and so close to the United States.”

Trump’s aggressive rhetoric, his paranoid fictions about an immigrant invasion and his threats to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement – that he called “Mexico’s cash cow” – are posturing for his followers in lieu of a coherent foreign policy. The President of Mexico, the Mexican Senate and all the candidates in Mexico’s upcoming presidential election unanimously condemned Trump’s statements and his border troop deployment.

But for Trump, as he has shown repeatedly, all the world’s a shithole. Other people exist to be used or abused. He only cares about himself.

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James McEnteer’s most recent book is Acting Like It Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty DepartmentHe lives in Quito, Ecuador.

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