Alongside the “Great War” that gave the United States last week’s Veterans Day commemoration – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, when the guns of World War I fell silent – the simultaneous border war that gave us the modern National Guard is barely remembered.
But if World Wars I and II shaped and defined the 20th century, as they arguably did, the decade of skirmishes at America’s southern border with Mexico, from 1910 to 1920, seems more in line with the trends entrenching themselves in the 21st. That border war came about because of disruptive unrest in Mexico – unrest that spawned a revolution in 1910 against the regime of Porfirio Diaz – and ended up involving the United States because America was a lifeline to arms and cash for the warring factions that roamed Mexico with the demise of the dictator. The U.S. border and its access points fell into dispute time and time again because of their significance to the martial fortunes of those on the other side.
The 1910s were the decade of Francisco “Pancho” Villa, a guerrilla force commander and all-around thug-bandit in northern Mexico who began by supporting a would-be strongman, Francisco Madero, but continued operating on his own after Madero was assassinated in 1913. Villa wasn’t the only factional fighter operating in Mexico’s northern states (principally in Chihuahua and Sonora). But he was the one Americans were most aware of.
Villa made a big name for himself in American newspapers as a commander of the Madero forces that captured Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, in 1911. It was on the strength of this victory that Madero declared himself ruler of Mexico, until his death in 1913. Villa continued fighting rival forces along the U.S. border – including his former allies under Madero, the Carrancista faction – and attracted ever-greater attention and concern from Washington, D.C.
In 1915, during a Mexican factional battle involving Villa at the border city of Nogales (which straddles the border of Arizona and Sonora), an American soldier was killed by a stray round. And in March 1916, after the U.S. recognized the political faction in Mexico City with which the Carrancista force was aligned, Villa’s force assaulted American soil at Columbus, New Mexico. He attacked both the town and the Army encampment there, Camp Furlong, where a company-size force of Army infantry was deployed. (The number of troops was reportedly 240.)
Within days, President Woodrow Wilson dispatched an Army force of about 6,600 under the command of General John J. Pershing to the border, with the objective of hunting Villa down and apprehending him. The Pershing Force, operating mostly in Sonora, fought in more than half a dozen battles with Mexican guerrillas over the next two months, but never succeeded in catching Villa. Indeed, Pershing’s operations were hindered by attacks on his logistic lines by other factions, including the Carrancistas, who were determined to drive the U.S. troops out of Mexico (and steal as much as possible from them in the process).
The Pershing Force was built up to about 10,000 at its peak. But by May 1916, with pressure from the threat of Mexican fighting somewhat relieved at the U.S. border, the goal of snaring Villa became less urgent. Wilson began drawing down the border force under Pershing, with fewer continuing to operate in Mexico, until by January 1917 American forces were fully redeployed.
Mexico’s internal war continued, however, and border incidents persisted. A series of incidents in Nogales in late 1917 and 1918, with two resulting in Mexicans being shot and killed by American border guards, created an atmosphere of mistrust and volatility at the border, which ultimately produced the last significant skirmish of the conflict, the Battle of Ambos Nogales in August 1918. The battle lasted for two days, and with reinforcements from Fort Huachuca involved about 800 American soldiers.
Four Americans were killed and two wounded in the battle; Mexican casualties were assessed to be 29 soldiers killed, along with some 100 civilians (who basically started the battle, after a border incident involving a Mexican who failed to halt for a U.S. border guard. The Mexican himself was not reported to have been either shot or killed, but an exchange of gunfire between border guards on each side caused local civilians on the Mexican side to surge from their homes armed, and start a broader fight).
Notably, U.S. Army sources reported that two Germans were found among the Mexican casualties, apparently killed in action. Germany had been attempting since the second year of World War I to use Mexico as a means of operating covertly against the United States, in the hope of cutting off Britain and France from a major source of industrial strength and reinforcement.
Germany lacked the former colonies both Britain and France had in the Western hemisphere, and any project to undercut those assets for the European powers had to involve gaining a foothold in the Americas. With Mexico’s internal chaos and geographic advantages, our southern neighbor was an obvious choice. The notorious Zimmerman telegram intercepted in 1917, which went so far as to propose a Mexican attack on the United states, became a political pretext for U.S. entry into the war that year. It, along with related documentation, was presented as diplomatic evidence of this German strategic move.
The Ambos Nogales skirmish was settled with diplomacy between the U.S. and Mexico. A few more incidents occurred into 1920, but after Ambos Nogales, there were no more major ones. In Nogales, however, the outcome of the 1918 battle was the erection of a border wall between the Mexican city and its U.S. counterpart, the first such structure built on America’s southern border. The wall’s purpose to prevent border-administration disputes from taking place on the open street in the middle of Nogales, and becoming generalized in unforeseen flare-ups.
Nogales has had a wall through the center of town, at the international border, since 1919. In 2010, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) requested funding to replace the wall seen in the second photo above. The current wall, below, was completed in 2015.
Back to the future
The echoes of the 1910s have been growing in the 2010s, with Mexico increasingly fragmented internally, the wars between rival cartels expanding, the strength of the cartels relative to Mexican state resources on the rise, the encroachment of Hezbollah on the cartel power structure throughout the Americas, and the machinations of Hezbollah’s sponsor Iran in Venezuela and Nicaragua. The transnational threat of terrorist group like ISIS and Al-Qaeda are a modern twist on foreign threats exploiting our border.
Many of the same patterns, in other words, are present again. There is also a new pattern: of NGOs seeking to undermine borders and encouraging mass migrations around the globe, from Southern Asia and Africa to Europe and the Americas. This pattern amplifies the pressure on borders. In northern Mexico, in particular, it’s adding thousands of idle, often exploited migrants to the armed cartels already menacing local order and fighting for entrenched interests on both sides of the border.
It is encouraging that diplomatic agreements between the Trump administration and Mexico have begun to make a dent in this latter problem. The positive nature of that isn’t confined to the use of diplomacy; it’s also a sign that the Mexican government of President Lopez-Obrador is able to take effective action internally, in at least some matters. We can hope the problem of politically stimulated migration, weaponized by activists, will not tip over into a security threat that produces combustible results with the other patterns.
The other patterns are enough by themselves to cause grave concern. Lawlessness is rampant in too much of Mexico, with the murder rate rising (through 2019 as well) and spectacular massacres becoming commonplace. Few are immune to the threat; state and local public officials are gruesomely assassinated along with cartel family members, journalists, and ordinary civilians.
Recent events, in just the last few weeks, have demonstrated that in some areas, respect for the government authority is virtually nil. In Culiacan, Sinaloa a few weeks ago, an armed cartel force fought a Mexican military unit for control of a section of the city in broad daylight, and prevailed. In Bavispe, near the Arizona border in Sonora, nine Americans from the La Mora compound established by Mormons – three women and six children – were slaughtered on the open road on the way home from a local shopping expedition. Six more children were injured but survived the attack. The Americans have decided to abandon their village compound, which they have occupied for years.
In Guanajuato, the El Chapo cartel mounted a show of force – reportedly for the benefit of a rival gang – with a convoy of armored vehicles through the town. In some of them, decked out like infantry fighting vehicles, cartel thugs in protective gear stood with rifles poised atop the carriages.
Meanwhile, reports of mortal threats to the Border Patrol continue to mount. Stray (and/or intentional) gunfire and even mortar rounds are increasing threats on the border. Too much of the border is still under-patrolled, and cartel operatives become emboldened to push the boundaries of armed confrontation.
A national security threat
It has been, literally, 100 years since America faced on our southern border a national security threat that we recognized in a focused and specific way; i.e., as we recognize menaces farther afield, from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century to Iran and the Islamist terror threat.
During the Cold War, we did recognize security vulnerabilities on our southern flank: vulnerabilities that could be exploited by the USSR. They rarely had to do with Mexico (although we did mark it 30-odd years ago when light weapon systems of former-Soviet origin, like shoulder-fired anti-air missiles, began showing up there). Our greater, ongoing concern, especially after 1959, was Cuba, with a few other nations – Nicaragua, Grenada – seeing Soviet incursions in the 1970s and 1980s.
But by virtue of the Soviet problem itself, our national defense forces were already organized to monitor and plan against those threats. Threats in the Americas may have been shorted on defense resources, but we didn’t stand flat-footed before them, unorganized to see them for what they were.
To a significant extent, that is our problem today. We don’t have an organized, institutional recognition that the grave problems on our southern border are a national security threat.
This is foremost a political problem. The mindset of our political leadership and the dominant political culture is that securing the southern border is strictly a matter of exercising police power.
There are legitimate reasons for this mindset, chief among them being that in a border conflict, armed confrontations are likely to take place on our territory (and in some cases may even involve U.S. citizens “fighting” on behalf of the cartels). The important legal restraints on using our armed forces under national authority on U.S. territory have kept their border operations limited in scope and purpose – and that’s for a reason.
“National” armed forces have been involved in the drug war in a supporting role for 30 years. In the last few years, they have been deployed in relatively small numbers to support border security operations.
But we don’t have a publicly accepted concept today of what we would do to use armed military force for national defense on our southern border. That is one of the biggest factors in the increasingly incongruous spectacle of sending U.S. troops, armed and ready to fight, everywhere in the world except to our southern border – even as the level of shooting and dangerous, armed incursions rises, and the instability south of our border swings upward.
In 1916, with the National Defense Act of that year, Wilson and Congress responded to the threat from northern Mexico by creating the National Guard as we know it today. The Guard was to become a force with the organizational advantages of the national Army – roles and missions, regular exercises, standardized equipment and training, the continuity benefits of organized command and NCO manning, etc. – that could bridge the gap between the Army under national command and the more loosely confederated state militias. Activating the Guard in cooperation with state governors would ensure command and purpose involvement at the level of the individual state.
The key need was to have armed military force that could be used, on state-administered U.S. territory if necessary, without violating the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. The Posse Comitatus Act was passed, by the most basic definition, to “prohibit U.S. military personnel from direct participation in law enforcement activities” – a major issue in the former Confederate states during Reconstruction after the Civil War.
Since some of what would be done on the U.S. side of the border would overlap with police powers, in the case of an armed border flare-up with Mexico, it is an important constitutional concern who is armed and exercising those powers, and under what chain of command. As long as the Border Patrol is carrying the load, that concern can be left on the shelf awaiting an answer.
But the Border Patrol isn’t equipped or chartered to actually fight the U.S. border. Incident after incident on the Mexican side of the border in the last 5-10 years shows that if a cartel force attacked a U.S. border town, as Pancho Villa attacked Columbus, New Mexico in 1916, the Border Patrol would be no defense for the town. The same is true for a cross-border raid that might target groups of people on American soil, such as families like those from the La Mora compound returning in their cars from a shopping expedition.
Nor is any other force designated for such a role.
The U.S. Border Patrol is armed and has authority to use force, but it is wholly inadequate to fight off a military-style cartel incursion. The county sheriffs and state police would be authorized to defend themselves and local citizens, but to extend a firefight to actually neutralize the threat would be beyond their authority and ability. The National Guard may be present at the affected location, but the troops don’t have the organization, arms, OPLAN, or rules of engagement to respond effectively. Individual armed forces elements under national command, such as surveillance aircraft, may be stationed or operating in the area in a support role, but they too are inadequate for an armed response, and lack operational authority and ROE in any case.
The point here is not that America should change our military posture forthwith. The point is that we don’t have an integrated plan, complete with political understandings for the purpose and authority being invoked, for how to deal with a border situation that escalates beyond what the Border Patrol can handle.
Meanwhile, the cartels are now capable of “militarizing” a conflict by themselves, and Mexico isn’t necessarily capable of preventing that.
Moreover, we can’t dismiss the potential problem that one or more border states may object to planning for the National Guard to execute a specific, armed border defense concept on order from the president. California comes immediately to mind, in the person of Governor Gavin Newsom. Will we need a plan to use “federal” troops in California, even if the governor doesn’t want them there?
It’s an ugly question, but the rest of America is owed an answer to it.
In pondering this overall topic, the best perspective may be this one. Letting things slide into a crisis will encourage at least one political faction in the U.S. to want to exploit the crisis. (“You never let a serious crisis go to waste” – Rahm Emanuel.)
It won’t be the limited-government constitutionalists who have that urge. If we have to respond unprepared to a fast-breaking armed crisis on the border – and probably, at some point, without the advantage of a president who prioritizes Americans’ rights – concerns about our constitutional rights will take a back seat to expediency. The time to think about how we would mobilize to address such a contingency is before a crisis is upon us. The people who need to do the thinking are the ones who are limited-government constitutionalists.
President Trump and his voters have a key point right. America does have priority national interests overseas. We can’t neglect to address them. But job one for national security is defending our own border.
Yet a hundred years after Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution, among all the borders on the planet that we do plan for and commit to, our own border is one we don’t have a serious military plan to defend.