This commentary appeared in Homeland Security Today on February 13, 2009.
The lawlessness along the mexican
border has gone way beyond a
local crime wave: there has been
a dramatic increase in armed robberies,
not by lone gunmen but by
heavily armed gangs. Kidnappings
and homicides are way up—and
not just murders but beheadings.
Police are getting into shootouts
where they are frequently outgunned.
It is starting to look like
a terrorist campaign. Rail lines and
bridges are being sabotaged, and
now an entire train has been derailed and its
passengers assaulted and robbed.
Isolated ranches and small towns have turned into virtual garrisons.
Economic activity, especially in southern Texas, has seriously
declined. People are frightened, and they are mean.
Everyone seems to be carrying a weapon and shooting on suspicion.
Mexicans are the targets. There have been disturbing reports
of summary executions and lynchings by vigilante volunteers.
Central government authority no longer exists in the Mexican
states along the US border. Warlords, commanding their own
armies, are gunning down their rivals. Except for refugees heading
north and guns being smuggled south, commerce across the frontier
has ceased to exist. Some of the gangs are holed up in their
sanctuaries just across the border, but the government in Mexico
City cannot, or will not, bring the situation under control.
Although much of the violence along the border appears to be
purely criminal, evidence of a subversive political plan has been
uncovered. Mexican extremists have declared it their goal to
recover the “lost territories”—land taken from Mexico after the
Mexican-American War in 1848.
The plan calls for enlisting Mexicans residing in California, Arizona,
New Mexico and Texas in a campaign to terrorize and drive
out the Anglo population, thereby ending decades of what the
planners call Yankee discrimination and tyranny. The movement,
which apparently draws on support from some of the warlords in
Mexico, appears to have few adherents on the American side of
the border, but it could be the forerunner of a large-scale uprising
on US territory. As a consequence of the terrible economic situation
caused by the violence, there are many unemployed, restless
men who might be receptive to radicalization and recruitment.
And if the situation in Mexico is not brought under control, foreign
foes of the United States, determined to distract US leaders from
issues elsewhere in the world, will find opportunities to exploit.
With the new challenges the US administration faces overseas,
Washington has reason to fear unrest on its own territory.
The United States has already deployed more than half of the
mobile forces of the US Army on the border with Mexico. The
president’s federalization of the National Guard to reinforce the
regular forces has brought an additional 150,000 troops to the
frontier. Military commanders want a freer hand to go after armed
groups just across the border, but that could easily lead to war with
Mexico. The Mexican army is no match for US forces, but limited
US forays into Mexico might achieve little, while an invasion and
occupation could prove costly. The president is desperate to
eliminate the possibility of an incident that might compel US
military intervention in Mexico, which some prominent political
leaders argue is the only solution.
This grim assessment of the situation is not
some imaginative movie script extrapolated from
recent headlines or a hypothetical future scenario
to be gamed at the Pentagon. These events—the
crime wave, the armed attacks, the beheadings, the
lynchings, the scheme to recover the lost territories,
the deployment of much of the US Army and
almost the entire National Guard—actually
occurred in 1915 and 1916, when the Mexican
Revolution left northern Mexico in chaos.
The Mexican Revolution, from 1910 to 1920,
engulfed the entire border region. Revolutionaries
found sympathy and support on the US side,
raised money and recruited soldiers in the cities and towns of the
Southwest and bought guns. Whether and how officials in Washington
chose to apply the US neutrality laws, which prohibited the
arming of foreign armies from US soil, made the United States a
player in the conflict. Whatever they decided in Washington, smuggling
flourished on the border.
The railroads were of strategic importance. Built by US investors,
Mexico’s rail lines ran south from the border; the only east-west line
ran just north of the frontier. If the Mexican government or one of the
rebel armies wanted to rapidly redeploy or reinforce forces in northern
Mexico, it had to use the US line. By granting or withholding permission,
the United States could influence the outcome of battles in
Mexico and would draw the wrath of the losing side.
Battles for the border towns imperiled adjacent cities on the US
side. In some cases, the defenders deployed in a way that obliged the
attackers to shoot northward. Attackers would assault parallel to the
border to avoid casualties on the US side.
The political turmoil in Mexico precipitated a crime wave in the
United States. The distinction between combatant and bandit was situational.
Heavily armed, desperate men marauded towns on both
sides of the frontier, but in late 1914 and 1915, the violence escalated,
especially in southern Texas, where the attacks were beginning to take
on a political complexion. Seeking to exploit the intense nationalism
generated by the revolution, a small group of conspirators in Mexico
promulgated the “Plan of San Diego.” It called for the recovery of the
lost territories, the land that Mexico had been forced to cede to the
United States following the Mexican-American War. To accomplish
this, the conspirators exhorted Mexicans north of the border to overthrow
their oppressors and assert their rightful independence. Feb. 20,
1915, was the date set for the uprising. On that day, subscribers to the
plan were to rise up in arms, proclaiming the liberty of the Latin race
and its independence of Yankee tyranny, “which has held us in iniquitous
slavery since remote times,” as they put it. The rebels would proclaim
the independence of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado
and Upper California. Every white North American over sixteen years
of age was to be killed. African-Americans were invited to join the
movement, in return for which they would receive six states north of
those already mentioned. The Apaches would have their lands
returned to them.
Except in the lower Rio Grande Valley, where the Mexican population
was subject to the most discrimination, the Plan of San Diego was
largely ignored. Feb. 20 came and went without the predicted uprising,
but the crime wave escalated.
Ordered to investigate the growing lawlessness in the area, Gen.
Frederick Funston, commanding the American forces on the border,
concluded that it was criminal, not political. The army continued its
patrols along the border, but refused to assume any responsibility for
law enforcement within the states. As the violence increased, Funston
did contemplate declaring martial law, but he decided it was too
extreme. However, Army patrols were ordered to treat all armed
bands in the area as invaders.
The locals were terrified and increasingly took matters into their
own hands. As shootings and lynchings increased, a worried Funston
called for reinforcements. Their arrival confirmed Mexico’s suspicions
of imminent US military intervention. The commander of Mexico’s
garrison then called for reinforcements on his side, which
Funston, in turn, interpreted as an ominous move. Washington was
fearful that an imprudent move on either side could precipitate a war.
While US diplomats worked to resolve the chaotic situation in Mexico,
the violence along the border continued.
Various solutions were proposed. The jingoist press called for the
annexation of Mexico. Funston
suggested that the United States
negotiate an agreement with Mexico
that would give US troops the
right of pursuit into Mexico (as they
had had in the campaigns against
the Apaches). One US senator proposed
the construction of permanent
forts along the Rio Grande.
Another official suggested that US
forces occupy a strip of land 10
miles wide on the Mexican side of
the border. Yet another proposed
that a strip of land 1 mile wide
north of the border be cleared of all
brush so that troops could monitor
movements across the frontier.
Funston added to his pursuit proposal
the mobilization of Apache
Scouts and bloodhounds, and he
requested that he be allowed to order “no quarter” during the pursuit.
The secretary of war disagreed, but more troops were sent south.
In 1916, attention shifted to the western border, where Pancho
Villa, outraged by his defeat at Agua Prieta, across the border from
Douglas, Ariz., launched an attack on Columbus, NM. The Mexican
government garrison in Agua Prieta had been reinforced by rail
through American territory. Villa’s men were slaughtered in the
attack, and Villa was determined to get his revenge. Actually, his plan
was more strategic than merely vengeful. The raid on Columbus
would almost certainly provoke US military intervention, which
would set his two enemies, the governments of Mexico and the
United States, now allied against him, against each other. It nearly
worked. As Gen. John Pershing crossed the border to pursue Villa
deep into Mexico, tensions increased between Mexico and the
United States. Pershing’s expedition was withdrawn in 1917.
Throughout the years of the Mexican Revolution, there were fears that
a hostile foreign power would take advantage of the chaotic situation
in Mexico to establish military bases, perhaps to wage war on the
United States. Most of the concerns focused on the supposed ambitions
of Japan to obtain a naval base on the Pacific Coast of Mexico.
This fit well with the hysteria generated in the United States, especially
in California, by fear of the “Yellow Peril.” California’s sensationalist
press fanned these fears. So did German agents, whose objective
from 1914 on was to propel the United States into a war with Mexico,
which would keep it out of the war in Europe.
In 1915, German agents plotted with former Mexican President
Victoriano Huerta, who had been overthrown in 1914 by revolutionaries
with the help of the United States. The Germans offered to help
restore him to power, which would inevitably lead to US intervention.
American officials were onto the plot, however, and they arrested
Huerta as he stepped off the train in El Paso.
When Pancho Villa’s forces attacked Columbus in 1916, German
agents on the border became superhawks calling for immediate US
military intervention. The Germans then approached President
Venustiano Carranza, who deeply resented the continued presence
of Pershing’s forces in Mexico. They offered Carranza a deal: If the
United States appeared about to
enter the war in Europe, Mexico
could count on German support to
wage war on the United States and
recover the lost territories. The Germans
suggested that Japan be invited
to participate in the alliance. These
terms were laid out in a telegram
from German Foreign Minister Arthur
Zimmermann to the German ambassador
in Mexico. The infamous secret
Zimmermann telegram was sent on
Jan. 16, 1917, but was intercepted and
decoded by British intelligence,
which promptly turned it over to the
American ambassador in London.
Here it was, the sum of all fears, a
German-Japanese alliance with Mexico
to provoke an uprising in the
United States and take back the lost
territories. It is not clear what troops or other military assistance Germany
might have provided Mexico in 1917 or whether or not Japan
was interested in joining a war with the United States. When the
telegram was reported in the press, Zimmermann publicly admitted
that he had sent it. One suspects that, while Germany would have
liked to see the United States and Mexico in a war, the telegram might
have been intended primarily to keep the Americans worried about
their southern flank. But Carranza had little appetite for war with the
United States, and President Woodrow Wilson was determined to
avoid war with Mexico. Wilson and Carranza settled their differences,
Pershing’s column was withdrawn, and on April 6, 1917, the United
States declared war on Germany.
The point of this history lesson is that current concerns about the
growing lawlessness in northern Mexico and its consequences for US
national security are not without precedent—and not that farfetched.
A peaceful southern border is not a guarantee of national
With the end of the revolution, things settled down on the border,
but some of the same sorts of problems that emerged between 1910
and 1920 arose in later years. There were concerns about German
agents in Mexico during the 1930s and 1940s, and after World War II,
there were worries about Soviet agents and Communist subversion.
The Cold War also raised concerns about the clandestine delivery
of nuclear weapons. After Sept. 11, 2001, the major concern was
that terrorists might smuggle weapons of mass destruction across
The appearance of a tiny domestic terrorist movement in Mexico
in the 1970s, the Zapatista insurgency in southern Mexico in
the 1990s and the confrontations following the disputed election
of Felipe Calderon raised questions about Mexico’s ability to handle
internal dissent without provoking wider resistance through
Of great current concern to the United States is the apparent
inability of Mexico to suppress the drug
gangs that infest the northern half of the
country. They derive huge profits that
enable them to corrupt Mexico’s police
and judiciary and have diversified into
the smuggling of human beings across
The level of criminal violence and
corruption in Mexico has obliged Mexico’s president to increasingly
rely on the army to challenge the activities of the drug lords
and their private militias. That risks corrupting the army itself.
On the US side, the continuing flow of drugs and illegal immigrants
has resulted in a growing worry that the violence south of the
border will spread north. This is a domestic law enforcement problem,
but it has already prompted a significant buildup in physical
border security measures and deployments of the National Guard,
not to mention a motley militia of volunteers. Could the border with
Mexico again become a national security concern?
The nature of the threat
Nothing on the political horizon even vaguely indicates that Mexico
is heading for another revolution or that its political system is on the
brink of collapse (a very dubious CIA assertion in the 1980s).
Decades of one-party rule have been transformed into a tumultuous
two-party, sometimes three-party competition. A low-level
insurgency sputters on in the southern state of Chiapas, and occasional
small-scale bombings indicate an extremist fringe on the far
left, but none of this poses a serious security challenge.
The threat comes from the proliferation of criminal gangs profiting
from the trafficking of heroin and cocaine into the United States.
Organized gangs engage in kidnapping, and they are believed to
have taken over the business of smuggling people desperate for
work across the border. Feeble law enforcement efforts are hamstrung
by corruption that extends high into Mexico’s political apparatus.
President Calderon has tried to solve this problem by relying
on the army instead of the police to go after the gangs, and he has
had a measure of success in killing or capturing some of the most
notorious gang leaders. But Mexico’s gangs have not been reluctant
to fight back, taking on the state through assassination of high-ranking
officials and terror campaigns.
If the army continues to press them, the violence could easily
escalate. Mexico’s gangs could carry out large-scale terrorist bombings,
as the narco traffickers did in Colombia, as a warning to
authorities to back off. The gangs could also finance local terrorist
groups to distract authorities.
The deterioration of northern Mexico from crime-ridden to
crime-ruled would be gradual and insidious. Nominal state authority
would still exist, and local political leaders would continue to be
elected and make speeches. Police would continue to deal with
petty crime. Commerce would continue. Superficially, northern
Mexico might appear normal—a failed state does not necessarily
have to look like Somalia, the guerrilla-infested departments of
Colombia or the North West province of Pakistan. But no-go areas
and untouchable crime bosses protected by heavily armed private
armies would point to the real locus of power if the central government
decided that rooting out the criminals was not worth the
blood and treasure it would require. From Mexico’s perspective, illegal
immigration and drug consumption are US problems.
Although this situation would
hardly be good news for the US war on
drugs, the United States could live with
it. Concerns would increase only if
American expatriates living in Mexico
became regular victims of criminal
violence, or especially if the violence
were to spread across the border into
the United States. The expatriates could always decide to leave if
things got too dangerous. But it may be difficult to prevent the violence
from spreading across the border if Mexican drug traffickers
compete to take control of downstream distribution or decide to
engage in other criminal operations in the United States.
Those, too, would be regarded as law enforcement problems if
and until the violence reached intolerable levels, which would
make it increasingly, as during the Mexican Revolution, a matter of
There is also the much-feared (and much exaggerated) possibility
that the crime bosses might smuggle terrorists or weapons of terror
into the United States. There is no evidence of linkages between
Mexico’s gangs and foreign terrorist organizations, and it is to be
hoped that gang leaders are smart enough not to imperil their
highly profitable businesses by doing things that would unleash an
all-out US-led effort to destroy them. But there is always the possibility
that a gang might be tempted by a huge cash offer, or that a gang
under pressure might in desperation be willing to take the risk or
simply would consider itself invulnerable to US retaliation.
Except for the period during the Mexican Revolution, the United
States has no experience living next door to a failed state. Its options
for containing the violence produced by the revolution were not
very good then, and given the number of Americans living in Mexico
and the importance of trade with Mexico, they are even less
The United States could, of course, take two bold steps: It could
dramatically reduce the Mexican traffickers’ profits—and therefore
their power to corrupt—by treating drug consumption as a social
problem and investing more in domestic demand reduction and
treatment, as many policy-research studies have recommended.
Source-country control and interdiction are the costliest and least
effective components of the US war on drugs. As long as US demand
remains high, criminals will draw huge profits.
The United States could also move to legalize and fully integrate
the more than 12 million illegal immigrants in the country, the
majority of whom are from Mexico, and adopt a system of work
visas that reduces the need for running the border and takes the
profit out of human smuggling. Thus far, the United States has
addressed illegal immigration from a legal and economic perspec-tive, but there is a national security aspect to it, as well. It is simply
not in the national security interest of the United States to have a
floating underworld population of 12 million people who are vulnerable
to blackmail and other pressure. The security of the
nation would be better served by legalizing and fully integrating
them into society, however unpopular that may be with certain
sectors of the American electorate. In any case, neither of these
approaches seems likely to be implemented.
If violence emanating from Mexico reached intolerable levels
on the US side of the frontier, the United States could gradually
seal the border. The Great Wall approach already has popular
appeal and political traction. But it would have serious adverse
consequences on both sides of the frontier, increasing unemployment
in Mexico and disrupting manufacturing in the United
States. (Protectionists and wall proponents will argue that unemployment
in Mexico is not our problem and that sealing the border
would reduce outsourcing of jobs.)
As it was in 1916, military intervention is a measure of last resort.
Unless Mexico were to collapse into anarchy, it is hard to envision
Pershing’s columns again moving south. Yet it is not unimaginable
to foresee limited interventions to rescue Americans held hostage,
Special Forces captures of criminal warlords wanted in the United
States or covert strikes on criminal headquarters. Any such action
would stoke Mexican nationalism, which is driven mainly by anti-
American sentiments, especially among the country’s intelligentsia.
It would guarantee the hostility of the Mexican government.
The United States could offer more material and technical assistance
to Mexico’s underfunded law enforcement establishment.
The problem here is again corruption and human rights concerns.
The United States could also try to expand its cooperation with the
Mexican Army, which now has the lead in tackling organized crime
in northern Mexico. The Mexican army, however, is a conservative,
closed establishment, usually suspicious of and generally cool to
Finally, the United States could discreetly assist Mexican authorities
with intelligence that would enable them to operate more
effectively against the gangs, but the problem here is the disturbing
degree of penetration of Mexico’s criminal intelligence and law
enforcement by the criminals themselves. Indeed, some US agencies
refuse to share any intelligence with Mexican authorities.
Nonetheless, US authorities should take advantage of the likelihood
that the threat the gangs pose to the United States is not immediate.
There will be time to gradually develop intelligence sources, which
can take years, if it is made a priority now.
It is possible that Mexican authorities will gradually contain the
gangs and that the surge in violence seen in recent months is a
spike, not a trend. The probability of Mexico becoming a failed state
still seems extremely low. In such circumstances, precipitate US
action might only exacerbate the situation in Mexico. But simply
ignoring the danger is not an option. Nor will the security issues be
resolved by the current US obsession with building a wall.
Brian Michael Jenkins is recognized as a leading authority on terrorism and is senior advisor to the president of RAND Corporation. His most recent book is Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? published in 2008 by Prometheus Books, New York. He is currently working on a book on Mexico.
This op-ed orginally appeared in February's Homeland Security Today.
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