For three hundred years, Spain, France, and England asserted their claims over vast swaths of the North American continent. They did this by sending soldiers, settlers, trappers, and merchants to plant their flags, construct fortifications and trading posts. They signed treaties with one other and with the people who already inhabited the land and jealously guarded their claimed domains. By 1764, France was out of the running for a North American empire, and within another fifty years, Spain would suffer a series of rebellions that changed Spanish America.
The truth is that Spain may have claimed large territories in North America, but they never entirely controlled these lands. Most of the territories claimed by Spain remained unpopulated, which made their assertions weak and ineffective.
On the other hand, the British didn’t have that problem; they understood that to claim title to the land, it had to be occupied and administered by British officials. Almost from the beginning of British settlements, colonial settlers began to expand westward, and this, of course, brought them into conflict with both French settlers and native tribes. Still, few British settlers crossed over the Mississippi river for quite some time. For its part, the British government seemed consistently sensitive to the fact that loosely confederated Indian populations controlled the western territories, and it did not serve Britain’s interests to be always at war with native people. British subjects who did cross over the Mississippi River did so illegally.
Most of the land that became the United States remained unsettled until after the American Revolution. Between the end of the French and Indian War and 1870, Indians remained the undisputed owners of much of the land; they maintained their hold on it by instilling fear in those who encroached on their territories.
In 1801, there was no “western border” in the United States. It was a work in progress, and the “border” (such as it was) frequently changed. In the minds of the frontiersmen, the land was up for the taking. All they had to do was assume the risk of being massacred by Indians who simply would not go quietly into that good night. What opened up this land, at least in the minds of the frontiersmen, was the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Looking back in time, one may argue that no president did as much to enlarge the size of the United States as Thomas Jefferson.
It wasn’t until 1821, when Mexico gained its independence from Spain, that the United States even had a border with Mexico. Even then, it mainly existed in the minds of Mexicans and Americans who had inaccurate maps and imagined what it would take to control the vast unexplored territories that expanded westward to the Pacific coast. Mexican politicians learned from their American counterparts that they could not leave their territories unpopulated and claim to own them. As it had been with the Viceroyalty of Spain, the problem for Mexico was that few Spaniards/Mexicans had much interest in settling a dangerously hostile frontier.
The seeds of distrust between politicians in Mexico and the United States began when American filibusters began invading Mexican territories, sometimes accentuated by regional rebellions by Mexican landowners seeking to create petty empires. As best they could, Mexico addressed these problems directly by using their military to put down every challenge to Mexican sovereignty. More than a few American “pirates” met their fate while standing in front of a firing squad.
Still, none of Mexico’s efforts were sufficient. First, as previously noted, few Mexicans were interested in settling Mexico’s northern-most territories. Second, the territories themselves were simply too large for the Mexican government to control. But there was hope — a risk that by inviting Americans to become citizens, Mexico might be able to rule the province of Tejas one day. Mexican officials settled on the idea of letting Texian settlers deal with the Indian problem. The scheme did work for a while, but it was a short while.
The story began with a “hostile” problem that morphed into a much larger one involving immigration. In the beginning, Mexico lost Tejas. In the end, they also lost Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, and Oklahoma. Within fifty years, the US/Mexico border changed from its location at the western edge of the Louisiana territory to an area six hundred miles south. At the end of the Mexican/American War in 1848, the United States claimed the Rio Grande as its southernmost border. It was then, and in some circles, it remains now a disputed claim.
Both the United States and Mexico sent commissioners, surveyors, engineers, scientists, soldiers, and laborers to the border. It was known as the Joint US/Mexican Boundary Commission, and it was their job to determine the actual location of the official border. The process of completing this work wasn’t easy or cheap, and political infighting, corruption, and financial mismanagement plagued the commission from the beginning.
In October 1849, the United States appointed John B. Weller and Andrew Gray to the post of boundary commissioner, sent to mark a physical line that had only previously existed, vaguely, in the treaty of Hidalgo Guadalupe. Surveyor Gray departed San Diego, California, and proceeded to the Gila River to begin his work. En route, he came across a group of lost American pioneers, so he turned around and led these people to the California coast.
Soon after the two commissioners finally met, Gray and Waller argued. The event remains somewhat murky because accounts of what subsequently transpired are inconsistent. Some people claimed that following angry words, Weller struck Gray. Other witnesses testified that Weller attempted to strangle Gray, but almost everyone agreed that Gray shot Weller in the thigh and then continued his work while Weller recuperated.
The work was challenging — made more so by the high desert heat, dangerously frigid winters, poor nutrition, and water scarcity. Surveyors discovered that their maps were inaccurate. In one example, surveyors found themselves standing in a dry creek bed where mountains were supposed to exist. In another example, surveyors discovered misplaced canyons and arroyos. In desperation, the Joint Commission abandoned their work to find supplies in the northern Sonora village of Santa Cruz. The commission anticipated a short journey but was quickly beset by rising creeks, muddy landscapes, and hostile Indians. It took them several weeks to find their way to Santa Cruz, and they all arrived with debilitating illnesses. One of the Mexican surveyors died.
The war ended in 1848; by1851, the survey effort was such a shamble that survey work became secondary to staying alive. But the US Congress could not understand why the survey was taking so long or why it cost so much money. Fed up, some members of Congress argued for sending the Army to the border, to seize ports, claim Mexico for the United States, and settle the matter once and for all. What actually happened was the $10 million Gadsden Purchase but even with that, resolving the border issue took another ten years.
Meanwhile, the Apache did not seem to care about a line drawn in the sand, and so the border made yet another transition: from a disputed border to a bloody one. The Apaches noticed that American soldiers would not cross the line drawn in the sand and cross into Mexico to pursue them. Cross-border raiding soon became a favorite Apache pastime — and one shared with Mexican bandits who made frequent raids into the United States to raid small towns, rustle cattle, and murder anyone who got in the way.
In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes ordered the US Army to keep lawless bands from invading the United States, even if it had to cross into Mexico to punish cross-border outlawry. Mexican President Porfirio Diaz, who had only just assumed the presidency, protested Hayes’ authorization and sent Mexican troops to the border to safeguard Mexican sovereignty. Eventually, Diaz agreed to a joint US/Mexican border security arrangement, but the border region remained an extremely volatile place from Texas to California.
Another border issue was the fluid nature of the Rio Grande, which frequently changed its course — an issue not finally addressed until 1889.
When Mexico discovered oil in the early twentieth century, financial mismanagement led to a debt crisis. High debt became the genesis of the so-called maquiladoras that drew people from both sides closer to the border area, but Mexico’s debt problems only grew worse.
The free trade agreement in 1994 allowed US-owned/Mexican-operated Maquila plants to import tax-free materials and produce goods cheaper than was possible in US labor markets.
After 1960, the demand for illicit drugs in the United States fueled yet another industry, which brought massive profits to the people who ran it — the drug cartels. Between 1910-1980, Mexicans flooded across the border to live in the United States, many deciding to settle within 200 miles of the border, which from a practical standpoint, changed the US southern border yet again. In the 1970s, large-scale massacres began taking shape along the border, which beyond a few headlines, did nothing to encourage greater cooperation between the US and Mexico.
Today, with only a few exceptions, the US/Mexico border is a perilous place. It is overrun by destitute peasants, consumer prices are high, the food and water are bad, and the border region no longer provides a protective barrier against violent chaos. Whatever happens in the Mexican cities of Matamoros, Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, Cuidad Acuna, Juarez, Nogales, and Tijuana is felt in equal measure in Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo, Del Rio, El Paso, Tucson, and San Diego. People live in fear for their safety, and neither the US nor Mexican governments seem disposed to doing anything about these deplorable conditions.
Recently, despite an increase in Mexican military forces and federal police, Mexican drug cartels terrorize Juarez and El Paso citizens, along with landowners of both countries fifty miles north and south of the US/Mexican border. There is, by the way, almost no one you can talk to in El Paso who doesn’t have a relative living in Mexico — which, of course, means that the war on drugs no longer confines itself to Mexico; it is an international event.
It might help if Mexican and American politicians in border cities and states were not accepting substantial kickbacks from the drug cartels or if Mexican army officials and federal/local police were not on the take. Still, the jaw-dropping reality of the US/Mexico border region is that lawmen who refuse to accept payoffs wind up dead. Today, a criminal insurgency has taken over the lives of decent people on both sides of the border.
On 20 June 2021, says journalist Alfredo Peña, a massive gunfight broke out in the border city of Reynosa, Mexico, across the river from McAllen, Texas. Shooters, armed with automatic weapons and driving 14 motor vehicles, sped into Reynosa and shot everyone they could find. In all, fourteen people (including taxi drivers, shopkeepers, students, and law officers were shot and killed. It was not a fight between competing drug lords; it was intimidation, plain and simple.
In 2018, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador assured the people of Mexico that a solution to border violence was within his grasp. He promised “hugs, not bullets” to dismantle the drug cartels that operate with impunity in Mexico. Someone should ask El Presidenté how his solution is working out.
I have no personal knowledge of the complicity of Mexican officials, but according to Peña, a politician by the name of Garcia Cabeza de Vaca who proclaimed “no truce for violent persons” is himself under investigation for links to drug cartels. Peña also tells us that in Tamaulipas, Mexico, several past governors have ties to organized crime. One former governor was even extradited to Mexico from Italy to face corruption charges.
But it is no better north of the border. US President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder conspired to provide weapons and ammunition to the Mexican drug cartels, one weapon of which was used in the murder of Border Patrol officer Brian A. Terry. Neither Obama nor Holder have ever been required to account for their part in wholesale murder and mayhem in Mexico — and, of course, no one that high up in the political food chain is ever in danger of a thorough investigation.
Today, literally tens of thousands of Mexicans/Central Americans are flooding the US/Mexico border. They are doing this at the invitation of President Biden and Vice President Harris. In asserting our humanitarianism, the Biden administration encourages illegal migration and contributes to the human suffering of brown-skin people even before they reach the US border. The coyotes are getting richer, and the drug cartels, who are no longer the focus of US law enforcement personnel, are moving their products into the US with few challenges.
There has been no substantial improvement along the US’ southern border since 1842. Why? Because no one in Washington DC or Mexico City feels threatened by the border violence that now exists. In fact, it is making them wealthier.
- “South of the Border Was Once North,” L. Rohter, New York Times, 26 September 1987.
- “Cartel gun battle with armored trucks kills 8 in Camargo, Mexico,” A. Peña, Rio Grande Valley News/AP, 26 April 2021.
- “At least 15 die in multiple attacks near US-Mexico border,” A. Peña, Associated Press, 20 June 2021.
 Five such disputes arose between 1899 and 1977.
 In the 1960s and 1970s, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico borrowed huge sums of money from international creditors for industrialization, particularly to fund infrastructure improvement programs. At the time, these countries had strong economies, so the banks were happy to provide loans. Initially, developing countries relied on the World Bank for such loans, but after 1973, private banks had an influx of funds from oil-rich countries and sovereign debt was viewed as a safe investment. Mexico borrowed against future oil revenues with the debt valued in US dollars, so that when the price of oil collapsed, so too did the Mexican economy.