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Latin American Studies Program

A blog managed by the current LASP Graduate Student Fellows

A Brief History of Militarization in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

By Nicholas Myers

On August 3rd of 2016, I took a bus with the company Limousines de México north from Ciudad Chihuahua and across the U.S.-Mexico border into El Paso, Texas. For a white guy with a credit card and American Passport, the crossing was fast, comfortable, and benign. It is, of course, no secret that the same journey, for the hundreds of thousands who make clandestine crossings, can literally be a matter of life or death. Despite declining numbers of such crossings in recent years, deaths per hundred thousand migrants, according to a study from the University of Arizona, is on the rise and has been for some time. The study describes several factors driving this humanitarian crisis, among them “border enforcement and securitization practices initially instituted in the mid-1990s that effectively pushed would-be migrants into the most remote, hot, and dry regions of the desert borderlands.”

The increasingly militarized Mexico-U.S. border has gotten some good coverage in U.S. and Latin American media outlets. A quick Google search will generate dozens of articles, but see here and here and here and here and here. Such analyses often connect the phenomenon to changes in U.S. Border Patrol policy in the 1970’s or 1990’s, as border policy became increasingly dictated by counter-narcotics concerns. Additionally, they often point to the increasingly cozy relationship shared by the U.S. domestic security apparatus and the Pentagon in the post-9/11 era. Still others link border militarization with the creation of the U.S. Border Patrol in 1924. Of course all of these phenomena contribute, in various degrees, to the current situation in which border enforcement is characterized by the use of military technology for surveillance and disruption of migrant mobility, often with lethal results.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Drone. Photo by CBP.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Drone. Photo by CBP.

The historical antecedents of border militarization are part and parcel with my own work as a budding historian of the Borderlands region. At the same time, one of the goals of my research is to de-emphasize the presence of the Mexico-U.S. border in the region’s history. Seen as a place where two Platonic national/cultural identities meet and co-mingle, borderlands are often denied the possibility of being places in their own right. No matter how dynamic and dialectic the relationship with the states that comprise the two (or more) sides of the border, the relationship of periphery (borderland) to centers (states) takes precedence in the very act of labeling a region as “borderland.” Bringing a different kind of lens to bear – thinking about portions of the borderlands as unique places, as centers rather than peripheries – requires that we think about militarization of the area broadly, independent of national boundaries.

The portion of the region I study – the arid and mountainous area roughly composed by the Mexican States of Sonora and Chihuahua and U.S. States of Arizona, New Mexico, and (far Western) Texas – has long existed outside of any meaningful state-level control. For the majority of the region’s history, it was no meeting place of states. It was, in fact, no state place at all. In the sixteenth century, Spanish colonial officials included the area in what they referred to as La Gran Chichimeca, a name derived from the Nahua term Chichimec used to describe the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples of the North beyond the control of the pre-contact Aztec (Mexica) Empire. Spanish conquerors quickly adopted the term and put it to their own use, discursively aggregating a vast array of ethnic groups into a single category characterized by an inability to become Christians and thus subject to “just war” and enslavement. Subsequent Spanish expansion into the north was thus not a single act of conquest but rather an on-going process of warfare, enslavement, and genocidal depopulation. In this context, war was not an exceptional state but a persistent one, protecting the rich mines of the north and securing the indigenous slave labor needed to operate them.

1810 Map of the Internal Provinces of New Spain by Zebulon Pike. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, as my own archival research has confirmed, the relentless raiding of equestrian indigenous peoples, most notably the Apache and Comanche but also the Navajo and Ute, had begun to unravel colonization efforts in the Internal Provinces of New Spain, a vast area of what is now much of northern Mexico and the western United States. Carlos III, newly crowned Bourbon monarch in Spain, sought to remedy the situation via a new set of military governors that would report directly to the crown. Drawing on a plan first proposed by the Marquis de Rubí and later carried out by Comandante General Teodoro de Croix, the colonial government worked to expand and rearrange a system of military forts known as Presidios in such a way as to form a line that would restrict the north-south mobility of indigenous raiders and protect the Spanish settlements and mines below. The presidial line, composed of military garrisons placed at a strategic distance from one another on an east-west axis, arguably formed the first border in the region. This border, however, existed entirely within the bounds of territory claimed by the Spanish Empire. The presidial line was a rampart, a military disruption of mobility within the region. Newly constructed and well-funded presidios quickly became centers of population (today’s twin cities of El Paso and Juarez were, for example, the site of a presidio). Not only were civilians enticed to move closer by security and economic opportunity, but the service of presidial soldiers was often rewarded with land grants in the area. Collections of eighteenth-century presidial records are awash with soldier’s and former soldier’s petitions for land as compensation for military service. Within the Provincias Internas, military and civilian government had become one and the same. Colonial military presence actively regulated mobility, and military service was often inscribed into property and thus into the very land itself!

Design of a Presidio from 1853. Courtesy of Mapoteca Orozco Y Berra

The presidial line and a concurrent policy of gift-giving to appease indigenous groups and, in some cases, entice them into sedentary living (again in the immediate vicinity of the presidios) had some of their desired effect. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries in the Provincias Internas were a time of relative peace and economic prosperity for the region. Shortly after Mexican Independence, however, things changed. Indigenous raiding by the Apache and Comanche increased dramatically in scope, scale, and violence. The various and complex reasons for this increase are the subject of historian Brian Delay’s recent work, War of a Thousand Deserts. It’s economic and military resources drained by persistent internal and external war, the nascent Mexican state was something of a specter in the far north. Archival documents in Chihuahua State show the governors of Chihuahua and Sonora petitioning for and being granted military command of state militias. They also show these same governors and other officials issuing Informes (public notices) soliciting funds from civilians to support punitive military campaigns primarily targeting the Apache. Perhaps most intriguing, two reports of such campaigns that I’ve encountered both describe meeting up with groups of civilians engaged in their own unofficial “punitive” expeditions. As such, the early independence period in the far north shows an almost complete dissolution of the line separating military and civilian. Political office and military leadership had become one and the same, and paramilitary forces were, it seems, quite common at the municipal level.

Early American occupation was similarly characterized by a military presence. An 1853 report by Colonel Joseph K. F. Mansfield on the newly established New Mexico Territory, not surprisingly shows the U.S. military as the primary state-level presence in the region. Mansfield’s concern, however, was less with the Mexican military than the “pacification” of indigenous groups and insurgency among the Mexican citizenry. Only once did he mention the possibility of repelling an unspecified “invasion.” As such, it is no stretch of the imagination to describe the American territorial period, at least in New Mexico, as an occupation. A military apparatus, concerned primarily with domestic control, effectively governed the territory.

In the course of my own air-conditioned and fully documented border crossing, I was struck by the extent, in both Mexico and the United States, of militarized federal power projected beyond the border itself. While military checkpoints are not uncommon on highways throughout Mexico, there is a particularly large and well-staffed checkpoint on Carretera Federal 45 about 60 kilometers from the border. On the day of my crossing, all passengers were made to get off the bus, their documents checked and luggage x-rayed by a combined force of the Mexican military and Policía Federal. Similarly, on the U.S. side of the border, ICE checkpoints are now sprinkled along most major roadways. I was stopped on Interstate 25 in New Mexico, a solid 50 miles from the border. As in Mexico, this checkpoint was staffed by direct representatives of the central state, dressed and equipped like soldiers. The geography of border enforcement demonstrates, as does the region’s history, not just a militarized line but a broad militarization of space.

Nicholas Myers is a PhD student in the Department of History at Cornell University. Email:



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