What history can teach us about the border crisis

Photo by Eric Gay

Human trafficking, rape and murder, illicit smuggling of arms and intoxicants, and a flood of children sent across the Rio Grande seeking safety in Texas — today’s headlines about the border look a lot like the ones Texans were reading 100 years ago.

After the beginning of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, lawlessness at the Texas-Mexico border drew national attention. Instead of the 1,000 National Guard soldiers Gov. Rick Perry has mobilized, President Woodrow Wilson deployed 110,000 National Guardsmen, sending Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing deep into Mexico in a failed bid to capture or kill General Pancho Villa.

Back then, various revolutionary factions, including followers of Villa, Venustiano Carranza, Victoriano Huerta, Álvaro Obregón, Francisco Madero and Emiliano Zapata, to name a few, were both enemies and allies at various times. Today, powerful drug cartels challenge the Mexican government’s authority and destabilize the border.

Then and now, there were calls for American military intervention. Then, as now, American military intervention could create as many problems as it fixes.

For example, in January 1918, in the pre-dawn darkness at the border town of El Porvenir, a tragedy occurred. In apparent retaliation for a bloody Christmas Day raid carried out by Villistas on a nearby Texas ranch, a contingent of Texas Rangers and U.S. Army soldiers surrounded El Porvenir, separated the men and marched them off to be executed by a firing squad. Those executed were dirt farmers, not bandits or revolutionaries. Only one old pistol had been found in the village, and it belonged to the sole Anglo living in El Porvenir.

So why is this history important? The answer is simple — we’ve been here before. There are useful lessons from the past that must be heeded.

The Texas National Guard on the border can be a positive short-term measure if only because of the unique confusion the potential refugees may have with their home countries’ guardias nacionales.

My optimism is not necessarily because I think American military forces will provide useful boots on the ground, eyes in the sky or administrative and logistical capabilities in defending our border. They may provide all those things, but that's not going to be the real impact.

The real impact will be the perception by travelers from south of the border, especially from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, that the Texas National Guard is the same as the National Guard from their home countries. A web search of “La Guardia Nacional de El Salvador” will quickly reveal what I mean.

The National Guard in some Latin American countries has in the past been the go-to entity for making enemies of the current regime disappear, and not just disappear from the ballot. It has also been a feared oppressor of those without power, whether they’re peons or political opponents. In the minds of at least some of those considering the dangerous trek to the Rio Grande, the Texas National Guard is likely no different than the National Guard of their home country. That’s not the reality, certainly, but deterrence will be the likely result.

We are fortunate to live in America, where the National Guard protects — not threatens — our liberties.

Militarization of the border is not a permanent solution, but however long the deployment, the lessons of El Porvenir must be remembered. The Texas Rangers and Texas Military Forces members of today are professionals who will execute this mission with no risk of repeating the mistakes of the past.

The temporary deployment of the Texas National Guard was the right decision. The next right decision will be to recognize when the message has been received, and to remove our personnel when the mission is accomplished.

Jerry Patterson

Former land commissioner of Texas