The U.S./Mexican Border

As U.S. law enforcement continues its struggle against Mexican smugglers and murderers, (popularly referred to as the drug cartels), it may be useful to note that this struggle has been going on since around the mid-1800s.  If practice makes perfect, then American lawmen should rank highly among the world’s premier interdiction forces. Who knows, perhaps in relation to other law enforcement agencies, they do … but I suspect this is not a reality.

Historically, U.S. Army units stationed along our southern border have not fared much better.  The American army has been deployed along the US/ Mexico border off-and-on since the 1850s tasked with a myriad of missions —from outright war to security patrols along the border, chasing bandits, and guarding American lives and property.  While each of these missions was gallantly undertaken, the results leave much desired.  In defense of their record, army historians will argue that their missions were performed under exceedingly difficult circumstances, not the least of which were insufficient forces, and detailing foot soldiers when cavalry or dragoons were better suited to their task.  These arguments do have merit, of course, but in too many cases, army patrol leaders weren’t always sure where the U.S./Mexico border was.  One cannot protect a border when one doesn’t know where it is.

As for the “enemy,” there was never any shortage of things for Mexicans to smuggle.  They smuggled textiles and stolen automobiles[1] from the United States into Mexico and illegal whiskey, drugs, people, and stolen merchandise into the United States.  The smuggling of narcotics, illegal whiskey and people has long been part of the bottom line of Mexican Crime International, LLC., and the only cost to Americans has been a few hundred or a thousand lost lives here and there.  Well, that is, besides the annual $70-billion in ancillary costs since 2001.

Palpable animosity between Mexicans and Texians began immediately after El Presidenté Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s surrender to Sam Houston after the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836 and it has only gotten worse since them.  Despite a signed instrument of surrender, the government of Mexico refused to accept it and thereafter implemented a series of punishing expeditions into Texas from Mexico.  Smuggling wasn’t an issue back then; only murderous raids by Mexican malcontents.  Transferring their hatred of Texians to Anglo-Americans was relatively an easy thing to do after the U.S. annexed Texas as its 28th state.  War with Mexico was the result of this annexation, ending in 1848.

Beginning with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848 (the end of the Mexican/American War), the Rio Grande became the official boundary between the two countries, as well as the location of most smuggling activities.  Part of understanding cross-border smuggling activities is realizing that the Treaty essentially divided Mexican families who were long resident within the border region.  Tio Juan went to bed in Mexico one night and awakened in Estado Unidos the next morning.  With family members living on both sides of the border, it was a simple matter for people to walk across the border at will, taking with them materials that were profitable on both sides of the Rio Grande.

Generally, Southwestern U.S./Northern Mexican communities accepted smuggling as a fact of life.  The state of Texas, for example, never sanctioned smuggling until after the American Civil War —because smuggling suited the Confederate cause.  Smuggling was also quite easy —for a couple of reasons.  First, U.S. regulations governing customs and immigration were so burdensome, confusing, and overwhelming that law enforcement officers were unable to enforce those laws; in time, many officers didn’t even try.  Second, except for recognized ports of entry, border checkpoints were nearly nonexistent.  Third, most of the area in between checkpoints is untamed, inaccessible, harsh wilderness.  Fourth, profit from smuggled items was tax-free.  The entire border protection mechanism was dishonest and corrupt.  The brains behind smuggling operations engaged in it because it yielded great profit; those who did the smuggling had two reasons for doing so —make some money and screw the gringo.  Some of the more prolific smugglers became heroes of Mexico in their own lifetimes.

In the 1880s, trafficking became very profitable for Mexicans because much of what went across the U.S. border was illegal and, therefore, in high demand.  Human trafficking is not a new event in Mexico; Mexican smugglers trafficked in illegal Chinese immigrants for years and those involved did not appear overly concerned about the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  The main benefit of this exclusion was that it increased revenues associated with moving Chinese immigrants through Mexico into the United States.  When American officials finally became aware of this activity and increased border area patrols, many of these transiting Chinese ultimately ended up settling in such places as Sinaloa, Sonora, and in Arizona (then a U.S. territory).  It was these Chinese that first introduced opium into regions of the American southwest.  Mexicans had made marijuana into a cash crop since around the 1870s, so incorporating cocaine posed no difficulties.

And then, of course, there was whiskey smuggling, which reminds one of that old Mexican saying, “No dejes ninguna piedra sin remover”—leave no stone unturned.  What made smuggling whiskey and tequila more profitable than ever —well worth the danger involved— was at first a state, and then later, federal prohibition.  It was left to lawmen in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California to enforce these laws, often with insufficient manpower or a lack of interest in doing so.

Modern historians criticize the Texas Rangers of the early 1900s for being particularly prone to violence against Mexicans along the border.  None of these people seem to appreciate the extremely dangerous environment in which Texas lawmen were stationed or considered who the Texas Rangers were working for at the time[2].  Few historians ever found themselves on the receiving end of lethal, well-directed Mexican rifle fire, ambushes, or overwhelming assaults by Mexican gangs.  They only point to the fact that Texas Rangers, for example, were “quick on the trigger.”  Indeed, they were, and they needed to be because if a lawman wasn’t quick on the trigger, he was very soon a dead lawman.

The Arizona legislature passed prohibition laws in 1915.  The main effect of state prohibition was an increase in demand for alcohol.  Higher demand meant higher prices; it was a perfect business environment for Mexican smugglers.  Cochise County, Arizona (in southeast Arizona) is bordered by Mexico and New Mexico.  At the time, both Mexico and New Mexico were “wet,” which made Cochise County a perfect conduit for alcohol smugglers.

Sheriff Harry Wheeler of Cochise County, Arizona was a former captain of the Arizona Rangers.  Having witnessed too many murders caused by excessive alcohol consumption, Wheeler favored and actively enforced Arizona’s prohibition laws.  Cochise County deputies arrested dozens of smugglers and knowing that his county was a pipeline for illegal whiskey, Wheeler and his deputies regularly patrolled the border area.

1915 Oldsmobile Touring Car, Model 42

During the night of 5 March 1917, Sheriff Wheeler and Deputy Lafe Gibson were returning to Gibson’s home in Gleeson, Arizona.  The two men were riding in an Oldsmobile Touring Car after a day of patrolling the Chiricahua Mountains looking for evidence of smuggling operations.  The early night was pitch black and they were traveling over old wagon trails with a limited vision of what lay ahead of the automobile.  This was dangerous in and of itself —driving off into an arroyo would not be a fun event— but added to this, Wheeler and Gibson were physically exhausted.  Sheriff Wheeler decided to stop for the night and make camp.  Their location was about two miles east of Gleeson in an area adjacent to Southern Pacific Railroad tracks.

Unknown to Wheeler or his deputy, Gibson had stopped the car within 200 yards of a Mexican outlaw/bandit group concealed behind several large boulders.  Soon after the two men unrolled their bedrolls, bandits began firing at them; the initial shots smashed into the front of the Oldsmobile.  Wheeler grabbed a box of ammunition and his rifle and began returning fire; Gibson had only his revolver and the ammo on his gun belt.  After some time, Wheeler and Gibson crawled to the top of the railroad berm for a better view.  The lawmen could hear the Mexicans shouting insults at them in Spanish.  Between the insults and flashes of rifle fire, Wheeler and Gibson estimated the location of the bandits.  Wheeler guessed that four attackers were confronting them.

Sheriff Wheeler and the Mexicans exchanged ineffective gunfire for over an hour before Wheeler realized he was wasting his ammunition unnecessarily.  When a bright moon illuminated the area, the lawmen lay prone atop the berm until the moon dipped below the horizon.  At some point, the bandits began advancing by fire and maneuver toward the Oldsmobile.  One of the bandit’s poorly aimed shots nearly hit Wheeler.  Sheriff Wheeler, an expert shot, decided he’d had enough.  He fired six rapid shots at the location of the bandit’s muzzle flash and heard the agonized groans of a wounded man.

Wheeler’s shot, having apparently hit one of the bandits, stopped the outlaw advance and sent them back into the rocks for cover.  Once the moon disappeared below the horizon, Wheeler and Gibson charged the Mexican position but found it already abandoned.  At that location, Wheeler found ten cases of whiskey loaded on four donkeys.  The following morning, Wheeler and Gibson discovered horse tracks that led toward the Chiricahua Mountains and a pool of blood and tracks indicating that a wounded man had tried to escape, but the absence of a body suggested that the wounded bandit was still alive.

The touring car was so damaged that Wheeler and Gibson decided not to pursue the outlaws right away.  More than a month passed before Wheeler and several deputies captured two of the suspected shooters.  The two suspects were transiting through Apache Pass toward Mexico at the time of their detention.  Sheriff Wheeler identified the leader as Santiago Garcia, who admitted to the shooting but claimed that it was a case of mistaken identity.  Garcia thought Wheeler and Gibson were members of a rival smuggling operation who had come to steal their whiskey.

The conclusion of the Wheeler event was somewhat underwhelming, but in fairness to the Sheriff’s Department, Wheeler was at the same time investigating two murders at two separate locations; Cochise County is a large area.  This event in the U.S. southwest illustrates the presence of constant danger to lawmen; Wheeler and Gibson could have been killed for ten cases of whiskey.  It also serves to demonstrate the inability of modern historians to form logical conclusions.  There was no intentional campaign among lawmen to cause violence and suffering among the Mexican poor living along the border.

Cartoon by Clifford Berryman, 1916

The U.S./Mexican border extends roughly 1,600 miles from Brownsville, Texas to San Diego, California.  This entire span was troubled by murder, mayhem, and turmoil; in the minds of American lawmen, the issue was one of survival in an area where Mexican smugglers had no objection to killing them.

To reiterate an earlier point, U.S./state law contributed to border violence.  The effect of such legislative actions as the 1909 Opium Exclusion Act and the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Law, ostensibly designed to disrupt the import of marijuana and opium, instead served to increase demand for and the export of drugs from Mexico[3] , and Mexican smugglers continued their regular assault upon American lawmen all along the border region.  Certainly, ethnocentrism was part of the ill-feeling between lawmen and border bandits, but this was certainly no one-way street.  Gunfights, murderous assaults, and the subsequent mutilation of the bodies of dead American lawmen failed to create any warm feelings along the southern border.

Mexican outlaws and U.S./state laws determined the activities of Texas Rangers and other lawmen on the Mexican border, along with the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), and the First World War.  Between 1911-1915, Mexico had nine presidents (one of whom served for only 28-minutes).  Most of these men sought to solidify their political position through anti-American rhetoric, which by every account worked to their advantage in several ways —not the least of which was that men assaulting American sovereignty and U.S. lawmen would not be able to challenge their presidencies.

During the war years, German agents were scattered throughout Mexico as spies, instigators, and military advisors to Mexican generals.  Anti-American sentiments were prevalent in Mexico, and outlawry was one way to “even the score” with the Norte Americanos.  The violence that occurred with regularity inside Mexico spilled over into U.S. border states and with unbridled rage, American lawmen responded in kind; hundreds of innocent Mexicans died at the hands of local sheriff’s posses, police officers, and rangers.  But considering Mexico’s cross-border raids that resulted in the wanton murder of innocent American citizens and the theft of personal property, U.S. lawmen found plenty of justification for their no-nonsense approach to problem-solving.  The icing on the rage cake among American police was the fact that Germany supplied Mexican outlaws with weapons and ammunition, Japanese civilians[4] taught the above-average Mexicans how to make bombs, and Germany helped Mexicans craft a plan to retake the American southwest by force.  Of these enemies and their cohorts, U.S. law officers gave no quarter—and asked for none.  Innocent civilians are harmed in every war —the border war with Mexico was no different.

On October 18, 1915, a band of Mexicans crossed the Rio Grande and proceeded to the railway tracks north of Brownsville.  They pulled up the rail spikes and removed fish-plates (rail joints); as a train approached traveling about 30 miles-per-hour, the bandits pulled up the track from the cross-ties with a chain thus causing the speeding train to derail.  When the train skidded to a full stop, bandits began firing indiscriminately into the train cars.  Witnesses testified hearing shouts of “Viva Carranza” as bullets whizzed through the cars.  Everyone took cover in between the wooden seats, but the bandits entered the listing train cars and began killing passengers not already dead or injured.

There was always smuggling along the U.S./Mexican border, but at no earlier time was this activity more profitable than it was during the Prohibition Years.  The costs associated with U.S./Mexico border troubles were high.  In terms of murder or violent death, 550 Americans and 367 Mexican civilians died; 123 soldiers on both sides of the bordered gave up their lives.  In terms of property damage, a congressional committee estimate places that figure at around $500-million.

If there has been any change in the past 100 years, the situation of Mexican smuggling and violence along the border has only gotten worse.


  1. Febre, M. Tequileros, and Moonshiners: Prohibition in Texas.  Unpublished paper.
  2. Greenfield, V. A., and Blas Nunez-Neto ( Human Smuggling and Associated Revenues. Homeland Security Analysis Center, 2019.
  3. Katz, F. The Secret War in Mexico, Europe, and the United States.  Chicago, 1981.
  4. Leffler, J. J. Germany, Mexico, and the United States, 1911-1917.  Portland: Portland State University, 1982.
  5. Matthews, M. M. The U.S. Army on the Mexican Border: A Historical Perspective.  Fort Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2007
  6. Spector, J. S. Extraditing Mexican Nationals in the Fight Against International Narcotics Crimes.  Lansing: University of Michigan Law School Press, 1998.
  7. Von der Goltz, H. My Adventures as a German Secret Service Agent.  London, 1918.


[1] There are no reliable statistics concerning the number of automobiles stolen from the United States (usually from within 500 miles of U.S. border towns), but there are estimates generated by the Uniform Crime Report.  Its estimate, based on the value of stolen vehicles, which is an astounding $1.96 billion, suggests 301,300 unrecovered vehicle thefts in 2009.  The estimate underscores only one of many unsolved problems with Mexico.

[2] James E. “Pa” Ferguson was a Democrat who served in office from 1915-1917.  He was indicted and impeached during his second term, forced to resign, and barred from holding further office in Texas.  Ferguson’s wife Miriam “Ma” was twice elected as governor in non-consecutive terms (1925-1927, 1933-1935).  “Ma” continued her husband’s corrupt practices.

[3] It wasn’t until 1927 that Mexico finally outlawed the export of marijuana and opium, which as we have seen, has had no effect on the smuggling of drugs into the United States.

[4] Such was the assertion of Walter Prescott Webb in 1935, which was, in subsequent years, widely discredited by revisionist historians.  Rumors of the day linking Mexico and Japan were not unfounded or simply the product of German propaganda.  The Japanese had demonstrated a keen interest in Mexico for some time; they knew, as well as the Americans, that the American southwest was the vulnerable underbelly of the United States.  Moreover, Japan deliberately cultivated its relationship with Mexico, and it would not have been beyond the pale to imagine that the Japanese would willingly participate, even if only peripherally, in the bandit assault of the United States.  In April 1911, Grand Admiral Yashiro made a speech in which he stressed Mexico and Japan’s common cause in opposing the “Yankees” while his Mexican audience shouted “Viva Japan—Abajo los gringos.”  Today, China has replaced Japan with an interest in America’s soft underbelly.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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5 Responses to The U.S./Mexican Border

  1. kidme37 says:

    If the American government wanted this stopped it would be.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Andy says:

    I think a visit along the U.S.-Mexican border would convince anyone of the difficult of completely protecting this border. Certainly, it could be done, but it would take massive amounts of manpower and millions of dollars worth of technology. The Wall that is being built between these two countries is enormously expensive. Thus far, only nine miles of new Wall has been erected. All other work has been to repair or replace existing barriers. Still, I emphasize that the border can be protected. Smuggling can be stopped. But we must recognize that the expense would be most overwhelming.

    (Mustang, please email me on a different topic.)

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Ma Ferguson was the one that disbanded the Rangers, right?

    Liked by 1 person

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