The Mexican Border and the Shifting Zone of Trouble

Charles M. Pepper

Evening Star (Washington D.C.)/April 2, 1916

WHAT is the Mexican border?

Many people are asking the question. Even the map fails to give them an answer sufficiently definite.

An army officer once defined the Mexican border as 2,000 miles of trouble, although he used a stronger word than “trouble.”

The actual boundary line may be traced with little difficulty, but the trouble zone rarely can be located definitely, because it is a shifting one.

Roughly speaking, the boundary runs from the mouth of the Rio Grande on the Gulf of Mexico, to some miles above the head of the Gulf of California, and then forms the dividing line between the state of California and the Mexican territory of Lower California.


The Rio Grande separates Texas from one section of Mexico as far as El Paso. Then the line runs to the west with some variation along lower New Mexico and Arizona, to near Yuma, and follows the Gila river. The river lines are easily determined, except that in the case of the Rio Grande the river bed shifts as does the Mississippi, and it is sometimes a question of what is American territory and what is Mexican territory, especially where the islands are formed.

The United States and Mexico usually have tried to arbitrate this question, but even arbitration is a difficult problem. The latest proceeding of this kind, which was known as the Chamizal arbitration, in which the arbitrator was a Canadian jurist, resulted unsatisfactorily to both countries.

When the river beds are left international boundary commissions have established boundary stones, but as they are rather far apart it is difficult to know sometimes whether one is in Arizona, New Mexico or old Mexico. In some places, as at Nogales, Ariz., there is no trouble, since the street running through the center of the town is the dividing line. In the southeastern corner of Arizona the mining towns of Bisbee and Douglass are close to the boundary. Naco is practically on the line. Cananea, about which so much is heard, on account of the big copper mines, is forty or fifty miles across the line in Sonora.

Columbus, N. M., which was raided by Villa, is two or three miles from the boundary. Along the Rio Grande there are many small towns in Texas which are just over the line, and there are also isolated settlements. In all these places the actual Mexican population is larger than the American population. Some of these Mexicans are good citizens, and some have more or less affiliations with bad Mexicans across the river in old Mexico.

People living comfortably a thousand or more miles from the Mexican border affect to make light of the fears which the people in these places from time to time give expression to in their demand for troops. The activities of the Texas rangers also are taken lightly. This comfortable frame of mind is entirely natural a thousand miles away, but while there are occasional unfounded scares, anybody who has been along the border knows that there is justification for the apprehension sometimes shown. If he did not know it, recent events would impress him with it.


The gateways leading into old Mexico from the United States are several. At times Brownsville, at the mouth of the Rio Grande, is most heard of. Across the river is the Mexican town of Matamoras. and from there the railway runs to Monterey.

Matamoras has had a leading part in Mexico’s red history. Many revolutionary expeditions have crossed the Rio Grande near there. When Porfirio Diaz, after numerous thrilling experiences as a prisoner, got away from Vera Cruz on an American vessel he went to Brownsville, and pretty soon thereafter Matamoras was the head of the military operations which ultimately made him dictator of Mexico.

Villa, after the Madero government allowed him to escape from Huerta, who had imprisoned him in the City of Mexico, also made his way to Brownsville, and with a handful of followers crossed the Rio Grande and started the movement which, with the support given him in the United States, for a time seemed likely to make him the dictator of Mexico.

Laredo is one of the best known rail way gateways, and it is from there that the short line runs through Torreon to Mexico City. The Mexican town across the river is known as Nuevo Laredo.

Eagle Pass, further west, is another gateway. The town across the river in old Mexico for a long time was known as Ciudad Porfirio Diaz. When the Madero revolution had its fleeting: triumph it was proposed to blot the name of Diaz, if not from the history of Mexico, at least from the map; so the name was changed to Piedras Negras, or Black Stones. That is the name which still appears in the dispatches.

El Paso, however, is the most important gateway into Mexico, especially for all the western part of the United States. The town of Juarez, across the river, is the head of the Mexican railway system of that section. There are several international bridges. The national railways of Mexico, or the part which used to be known as the Mexican Central system, start at Juarez. They furnish a short line to Chihuahua. The Mexican Northwestern also starts at Juarez and reaches Chihuahua by a roundabout route. This line skirts the Sierra Madres, and it is the scene of Villa’s most frequent raids.

West of the Sierra Madres the only line running south, except a few short spurs, is that from Nogales, which goes through the heart of Sonora to Guaymas and then proceeds south. This is the only Mexican railway which is distinctly part of an American system. It is an extension of the Southern Pacifi.


No railway has yet been pushed through the Sierra Madres, so as to afford a through east and west line on Mexican territory to the Pacific. The Diaz government gave a very liberal subsidy for this purpose, but the engineering difficulties were so great that Diaz went into exile without seeing this dream realized, although unquestionably some day there will be a line probably to Topolobampo, which is a splendid Pacific port.

The lack of a railway across the Sierra Madres makes it necessary for whatever de facto government may have the recognition of Washington to transport troops from Sonora to Chihuahua, or vice versa, across American territory. This permission has been asked by the Carranza government and has been given on several occasions.

The army officer’s definition of the border line as two thousand miles of trouble simply meant that there were numerous trouble spots. On a boundary of this length there would always be a certain amount of lawlessness and smuggling, but trouble of this kind can be handled.

Graver issues arose when the revolutionary factions were fighting along the border line. Before Torreon, Villa’s greatest military success was at Ojinaga, on the Rio Grande. It was there that the Huerta troops made their last stand and were defeated by the bandit leader. Then they retreated across the river and were interned by the United States, which also had to provide for several thousand refugees.

El Paso, as the largest city on the American side, also has been the prospective theater of trouble, although there never has been any serious outbreak. To persons a thousand miles away from El Paso the suggestion of border trouble there seems absurd. They do not realize that more than half the population is composed of native Mexicans, who find living much better in El Paso than in Juarez. They are excitable and easily influenced.

Fort Bliss is only a few miles out of El Paso, and with the troops stationed there the city would seem to be in no danger of a military invasion by hostile Mexicans, but two years ago. when Carranza was telling President Wilson that the American troops at Vera Cruz violated Mexican sovereignty and Villa had not made his attitude known, the possibility of a daring raid on his part was not overlooked.


At that time Villa was in the flush of success and had a large body of soldiers at Juarez. It would have been in keeping with his methods to attempt a raid of this sort. Guns were mounted on the hills of El Paso overnight, and in the morning it was found that there were also guns on the hills in old Mexico. Villa’s play, however, was to be friendly to Americans, and, in view of the encouragement he was getting from Washington, it was a very good play. He repudiated Carranza’s declaration and El Paso was satisfied that the danger of a foray was passed.

The New Mexican border has been the scene of frequent raids, possibly because it is so exposed. It happens also that in New Mexico there are a good many bad Mexicans, or, as they are better known, “New Mexico Mexicans”

Gen. Inigo Salazar, who cut a leading figure in the revolutionary movements, now on one side and now on another, and who was for a time a prisoner at Fort Bliss, was the type of these New Mexico Mexicans who make the border so dangerous, Salazar was acquitted on various charges of violating neutrality, but the juries which acquitted him were not to blame, since it was difficult to know which faction was unlawfully shipping arms, as their status changed so rapidly.

Historically the Mexican boundary line has been subject to few changes. There were early expansionists who thought that the United States made a mistake in accepting Spain’s contention that the Sabine river and not the Rio Grande was the border of the Louisiana purchase. When Texas separated from Mexico this vast extent of territory was a part of the Mexican state of Coahuila, but the Rio Grande furnished a natural border between them, and, therefore, became the boundary. The present boundaries were fixed by the Guadalupe Hidalgo treaty of 1848, and by the convention providing for the Gadsden purchase, which was negotiated five years later. The treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo confirmed the title of the United States to Texas. Under it Mexico ceded California and all the country between California and Texas, except the area which later was included in the Gadsden purchase, about thirty thousand square miles, and which comprises the southern sections of what are now New Mexico and Arizona.

Mexico’s total cession of territory to the United States included Texas, small parts of what are now Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, and a small part also of what is now Wyoming. Arizona, Nevada and Utah were part of the California cession.


The great mass of the Mexican population has little knowledge of geography, and could not define the territory which Mexico has lost, but it knows that there is a huge area that once was Mexico. This is the fundamental cause for the distrust of any American advance across the boundary line, and the bandit leaders are able to play upon the fears of the peons that the United States means to grab more land.

They do not say that their bandit warfare is to prevent the extension of the boundary line of the United States. All they have to say is that they are fighting to save Mexico to the Mexicans. This is the difficult situation which Americans along the border line have to meet, and they realize that it is a leading cause of the hatred which the Mexican peons feel for the gringoes.

There is also, it must be said, a class of border Americans who have shown little regard for Mexican susceptibilities in the matter of extending the boundary line. They are not as mercenary or as selfish as they are charged with being, but, after a certain way of thinking, they believe that it really is the destiny of the United States to move further south.

The acquisition of Lower California by purchase frequently has been urged as a measure of national self-defense. The Magdalena bay incident is still fresh enough in the public mind to emphasize this point of view.

There also have been negotiations for the purchase of territory in Sonora, which would have been an extension of the Gadsden purchase. Sonora itself, geographically speaking, is more easily accessible from the United States than from Mexico proper, since the Sierra Madres are an actual mountain wall between it and Central Mexico.

Projects also have been encouraged for the acquisition of parts of Chihuahua and the state of Coahuila. Villa, at a time when it did not seem that he could extend his military power beyond the northern part of Chihuahua and Coahuila, was credited with an ambition to create another Texas by setting up the independent state of Chihuahua and getting recognition from the United States. It is doubtful if Villa himself ever really entertained such an idea, and he certainly knew nothing of the history of Texas except in the vaguest manner. But some of the educated Mexicans who were part of his following knew all about the history of Texas. So did the American financial interests which were credited with backing Villa.

The border Americans, who advocate extending the line farther south, usually put it on the ground that this would end the trouble experienced on the present border. But there would still be a boundary, and the people who got down to that line would have the same trouble and would want the border farther extended.


Another solution of the perplexity has been the proposition for a sort of neutral zone which could be policed jointly by American and Mexican troops. Under the Diaz regime there was a free customs zone, one purpose of which was to prevent smuggling; but the scheme did not work satisfactorily to the Mexican government, and ultimately the free zone was abandoned.

The knowledge that a sentiment exists along the border for the United States pushing its boundary farther south should not be an excuse for ignoring the actual situation of the Americans there. The possibility of bandit raids across the line, such as those which formerly took place in Texas, and Villa’s raid at Columbus, may now be eliminated, although it must be recalled that it is no small task to provide a border patrol for a line of more than 2,000 miles in length.

The live question along the border, however, is the rights of the Americans who went into Mexico. Under the assurance of protection from the then existing government.

Citations of municipal law and the limited rights of foreigners in another country have not satisfied the people of the United States that the Americans who went into Mexico should be treated as trespassers, if not as actual criminals, by their own government. The mines and other industries they have developed, the ranches they have acquired, the tracts of land they have prepared for irrigation, the settlements, such as the Mormon colonies, are all legitimate enterprises.

In spite of the contumely heaped upon them, most of the Americans who have gone into Mexico are a very good class of people. They have no unfriendly intentions. If the policy of “Mexico for the Mexicans.” which is a legitimate national aspiration, ultimately shall be worked out in Mexico there will still be room for a good many Americans. In the meantime the border Americans may be counted on to show restraint and to co-operate with their own government But it must not be forgotten that the fact of living along the boundary entitles their views to some weight in dealing with the Mexican border question.

(Source: Library of Congress, Chronicling America,

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