One-hundred and eight years ago next March, Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa crossed the border with the United States and entered the town of Columbus, New Mexico with 400 armed men. They attacked the town, but were driven out by the American garrison and fled back to Mexico.
President Woodrow Wilson, an anti-interventionist Democrat, ordered the U.S. Army to send a force into Mexico to go after Villa. Venustiano Carranza, then President of Mexico, was supported by the U.S. and a sworn enemy of Villa, but refused to aid the American expedition on the grounds that it violated Mexican sovereignty.
This diplomatic incident threatened American support for the Carranza regime, which was already struggling with suppressing multiple revolutionary factions. The American public became more and more supportive of war with Mexico, even as the United States prepared to be pulled into a war in Europe later that year.
Parallels to today
The parallels to today are frightening.
While Mexico is not in an official state of civil war, drug cartels have substantial control over large portions of the country. Officials in some areas answer to their local cartels more than their own government.
As crime and fentanyl breach the border with the US, outrage from the American public grows.
And now several major Republican presidential candidates are calling for military action in Mexico to deal with the threat. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian-Russian war rages half a world away with the US casting a wary eye.
Like Carranza before him, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (better known as AMLO) has derided proposals, in this case mostly from Republicans, to intervene in his country on the grounds that it would violate Mexican sovereignty.
Given the lack of a greenlight from Mexico, American intervention would be disastrous. Whether boots are put on the ground or American action is “limited” to drone strikes, there will be no way to win this conflict.
The cartels are not a single unified force, let alone a traditional military. Any cartel force squaring up with the U.S. military will immediately resort to guerilla warfare. Tracking down small bands of fighters who have the entire rest of their country to flee to will draw American forces in deeper and deeper. Any limited mission will inevitably turn into a de facto occupation of Mexico.
Even if AMLO did a full 180 turn and gave the full support of the Mexican government to U.S. intervention, it would be a humanitarian disaster. Not only would the violence of combat between cartel guerilla fighters and American forces inevitably spill over and cause collateral damage to civilians, but hardened criminals fighting for their lives will have no hesitation to use civilians as human shields. This tactic is a notorious favorite of terrorist organizations worldwide. As the cartels lose men, they will also be more inclined to force civilians to fight for them.
Incentives to cross the border
As Mexico becomes more and more dangerous and opportunity becomes slim, the incentives to leave Mexico for the U.S. will only grow. Sending troops south of the border may only put more pressure on the border.
While the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico has been tense recently, Mexico is still America’s most important trade partner. Any further deterioration of this relationship could harm the American economy. Widespread occupation of a territory leads to tension between occupiers and locals. If U.S. troops are in Mexico and are making anything less than miraculous progress in dismantling the cartels, just a few individual soldiers acting inappropriately could cause a public relations disaster. As resentment by the Mexican populace grows, the mission of the American forces will become more and more difficult.
Another forever war
An invasion of Mexico will become just one more forever war. American blood and American taxes wasted on an unwinnable conflict in a land where even the regular people do not want our help.
Beyond an immediate disaster on our own continent, an intervention in Mexico would be diplomatic malpractice. As Russia continues its illegal invasion of Ukraine, it will look for any excuse to turn countries tired of dealing with the situation to look the other way.
Any comparison Putin can make between Russia in Ukraine and the U.S. in Mexico, no matter how morally inequivalent, is one more tool he can use to support his own war effort. Likewise, attempting to paint the U.S. as not only one more great power imperializing its weaker neighbors, but a hypocritical one at that, would give China more political cover to move against Taiwan in the near future.
Over one-hundred years later, Pancho Villa may get his wish. The regime he so despised may be destabilized if the United States decides to chase criminals back into Mexico.
Who would have thought a liberal revolutionary turned bandit would have so much in common with the Republican hopefuls?
Marcus Bridgeman is the Opinion Editor at The Collegiate Commons. In his own columns, he focuses on issues of public policy and political philosophy. Bridgeman is a native Hoosier and a law student.