U.S. Interventions in Mexico


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"Mexico's torment, so often the result of US meddling and force, is a stain on the American conscience."

Throughout history, tensions have lingered between the United States and Mexico, often stemming from controversial US interventions south of the border.

The complex relationship between these two neighboring nations continues to be defined by the legacy of American political, economic, and military meddling in Mexican affairs.

From the conquest of the Southwest in the Mexican-American War to more recent security operations targeting drug cartels, U.S. intervention in Mexico has repeatedly breached national sovereignty and engendered resentment.

This post provides an overview of some of the most impactful and contentious interventions, highlighting little-known intrigues as well as infamous operations that still evoke anger in Mexico today.

By shedding light on this fraught history, we gain insight into the roots of mistrust that have hindered cooperation across the US-Mexico border.

THE US-MEXICAN WAR (1846-1848)

A Battle in the US-Mexican War
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The US-Mexican War of 1846-1848 radically altered the geographical shape and power dynamics of North America through the forceful seizure of Mexican territory by the United States.

Triggered by the US annexation of Texas in 1845, the war ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which forced Mexico to surrender over 525,000 square miles of land.

This amounted to almost half of Mexico's territory, including the entire California coastline and most of what is now the American Southwest.

Mexico lost all of California, Utah, and Nevada as well as parts of the modern states of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

With this expansion, the United States gained abundant natural resources and positioned itself as the preeminent economic power on the North American continent.

For Mexico, the loss was emotionally devastating and permanently handicapped the nation.

The seizure of its northern territories engendered an enduring atmosphere of resentment towards American territorial ambition. To this day, the war remains a painful open wound in Mexican cultural memory, symbolizing the ruthless violation of national sovereignty at the hands of Mexicans’ aggressive northern neighbor.

The lopsided territorial settlement continues to define Mexican attitudes of grievance and defiance towards American political and economic influence in the region.

Ultimately, by highlighting the vast asymmetry of power and divergent interests between these two neighboring countries, the US-Mexican War and its aftermath set the tone for an often fractious US-Mexico relationship over the next century and a half.

The American Southwest was won through force of arms, not negotiation and compromise. This painful legacy still evokes complex emotions in present-day Mexico.


A battle in the Mexican Revolution
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The Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 resulted in a turbulent decade of civil war and social upheaval. During this time, the United States opportunistically intervened on multiple occasions, occupying Veracruz and sending troops deep into Mexican territory.

This military meddling inflamed anti-American nationalist sentiments across Mexico.

In April 1914, the US Navy occupied the port city of Veracruz for seven months after Mexican officials detained an American naval vessel.

The original dispute stemmed from the Tampico Affair, when Mexican soldiers arrested a small group of American sailors. The occupation of Veracruz was meant to force an apology and salute of the American flag.

Far from resolving tensions, the Veracruz occupation provoked outrage across Mexico as a violation of sovereignty and dignity.

It became a rallying cry against American imperialism, with thousands joining anti-US protests. The occupation helped push Mexico into alliance with Germany in World War I against the wishes of Washington.

Beyond Veracruz, the US sent thousands of troops led by General John Pershing deep into northern Mexico between 1916-1917 to capture the revolutionary Pancho Villa after his forces raided US border towns.

Though failing to catch Villa, Pershing's punitive expedition exacerbated resentment at further US infringements on Mexican territory.

The repeated invasions and occupations solidified the view of the colossus to the north as a neo-colonial power bent on controlling Mexico to serve its own political and economic interests.

Far from spreading democracy and stability, the US interventions antagonized Mexican nationalism and generated mistrust that poisoned relations for years to come.


A battle in the Punitive Expedition
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In 1916, the controversial US punitive expedition into Mexico reflected growing American exasperation towards the instabilities and border raids emanating from Mexico's ongoing civil war.

The ambitious military operation sought to capture the notorious revolutionary general Pancho Villa, but ultimately failed and contributed to deteriorating US-Mexican relations.

Earlier that year, Villa's rebel forces attacked the border town of Columbus, New Mexico, killing 17 Americans.

Outrage swept the United States, as newspapers portrayed Villa as a murderous bandit.

Demands grew for direct intervention into Mexico to eliminate the border threat.

Bowing to public pressure, President Woodrow Wilson dispatched General John J. Pershing with over 4,000 troops more than 400 miles into northern Mexico to find and defeat Villa.

However, Pershing's 10-month expedition proved fruitless.

Villa eluded capture by retreating into the remote Sierra Madre mountains with his guerilla fighters.

The expedition became a lesson in the difficulties of operating in Mexico’s vast interior against an opponent well-adapted to the punishing terrain.

Communication and supply lines stretched dangerously thin, American troops suffered from sickness, heat, and harassment by villagers angry at this violation of Mexican sovereignty.

Over 100 American soldiers died before the exhausted, demoralized Pershing withdrew back across the border.

The unsuccessful outcome was a blow to American military prestige.

Moreover, it fed a rising current of Mexican nationalism and resentment at American intrusions. Despite its intentions, the punitive Pershing expedition ended up widening the rift between the two neighboring countries.

The distrust on both sides would linger for decades.


An oil well in Mexico set up by a US company
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The period of the 1920s and 1930s saw extensive and controversial intervention by American oil companies in Mexico's domestic affairs, often facilitated by the policies of the United States government.

The American ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow, played a pivotal role in brokering lucrative oil deals that benefited U.S. business interests.

After the Mexican Revolution ended in 1920, U.S. oil companies moved aggressively to gain control of Mexico's vast oil reserves.

They negotiated contracts with Mexican officials that provided high profits while depriving Mexico of taxes and royalties on its own oil production.

With the eager encouragement of the Coolidge and Hoover administrations, companies like Standard Oil exploited Mexico's resources with little oversight.

The U.S. government was willing to protect Big Oil profits despite growing Mexican anger over this economic imperialism.

Ambassador Morrow, a former Wall Street banker, used his diplomatic influence to aggressively advocate for U.S. corporate oil interests in Mexico.

He collaborated closely with Mexican president Plutarco Elías Calles to craft deals that provided large concessions to American firms at Mexico's expense.

While the oil companies profited enormously, the one sided deals Morrow brokered deepened Mexican resentment and charges of American neocolonialism. The controversial American role in Mexico's oil industry would later become a catalyst for major nationalization efforts by the Mexican government.

By allowing U.S. corporations to dictate terms in Mexico, the United States prioritized narrow business interests over building trust and goodwill between the two nations during a critical period.


Mexican migrant workers on a US farm
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The Bracero Program, implemented in 1942 as a bilateral agreement between Mexico and the United States, allowed Mexican agricultural laborers to work temporarily north of the border to fill American labor shortages during World War II.

However, while the program provided jobs and relief to many poor Mexicans, it was marked by exploitative working conditions as well as discrimination and mistreatment of the braceros.

Under the program, over 4.5 million contracts were issued to Mexican braceros, with upwards of 200,000 laboring in the US annually until 1947.

By providing a legal avenue for migration, the Bracero Program hoped to ease tensions between the US and Mexico.

In reality, however, the braceros faced harsh working environments, dangerous pesticides, and crowded housing conditions on American farms and railways.

Most labored for long hours stooping over crops with few breaks. Deplorable wages were made worse by deductions from their paychecks.

The workers had little recourse against poor treatment due to their temporary legal status, language barriers, and lack of political representation.

The indifference of American authorities allowed flagrant discrimination and abuse to occur, exacerbated by the program's rapid expansion during the war.

By bringing hundreds of thousands of Mexicans north to keep the US economy growing, the Bracero Program made starkly visible the irony that America relied upon—and exploited—the labor of ethnic groups facing prejudice within its borders.


Mexican migrant workers being deported during Operation Wetback
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In 1954, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service launched Operation Wetback, a mass deportation campaign ostensibly aimed at removing undocumented Mexican migrants from American soil.

However, the controversial operation ensnared legal residents and even American citizens of Mexican ancestry and provoked allegations of widespread civil rights violations.

Under intense public pressure to crack down on illegal border crossings, the INS directed agents to sweep Mexican-American communities and workplaces in factory towns and major cities across the Southwest and Midwest.

They rounded up suspected undocumented immigrants en masse for processing and immediate deportation south of the border.

In their haste, agents failed to distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants.

Many long-time residents and American citizens were caught up in the sweeps due to their ethnic appearance, limited English skills, or lack of ready access to paperwork proving their legal status.

Within a year, over one million Mexicans were deported under Operation Wetback.

Witnesses alleged abuse of deportees including lack of food and water during transport, forced hard labor, and cooperating Mexican officials pocketing wages owed to the deportees.

Beyond the individuals directly impacted, the operation engendered resentment and distrust of American authority among broader Mexican-American communities.

Operation Wetback reflected endemic prejudice and negligent procedure more than a sober enforcement of immigration laws.

In the name of removing illegal labor, the US government stripped rights and dignity away from many lawful residents. The campaign remains remembered as an ugly chapter of race-based targeting.


A Mexican narco boss
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Since 2006, Mexico has endured a prolonged period of horrific cartel violence and lawlessness known as the Mexican Drug War.

In this ongoing conflict, the United States has faced intense criticism for its role in escalating the crisis through sustaining demand for illegal drugs and through providing military assistance to Mexico.

With Americans consuming billions of dollars worth of illegal drugs smuggled from Mexico annually, the US has been accused of fueling the violence by empowering and enriching the cartels.

Critics argue that curbing US demand is crucial to undermining cartel power and restoring order in Mexico.

Additionally, some experts contend that American military aid has enabled further corruption and bloodshed.

Since 2008, the US has provided hundreds of millions in security assistance through the Merida Initiative to help Mexican law enforcement battle the cartels. However, human rights groups suggest this aid has supported abusive forces and perpetuated the cycle of violence.

Military hardware from the US has allegedly fallen into cartel hands while US training has strengthened cartel-infiltrated units.

Some argue the Merida Initiative focuses too heavily on an armed crackdown when issues like unemployment, inequality and institutional corruption also enable the cartels to thrive.

American drug consumption and military intervention have arguably made the situation worse in Mexico.

As an instigator of instability in its southern neighbor, the US shares responsibility for the violence it has helped ignite and sustain.


A gun given to a Mexican during Fast and Furious
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A particularly controversial aspect of recent US involvement in Mexico's drug war has been allegations of covert operations by undercover American agents on Mexican soil.

Most notably, the failed "Fast and Furious" gun-tracking operation overseen by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) from 2009-2011 has faced severe criticism.

The program allowed thousands of firearms purchased in Arizona to be trafficked illegally over the border into Mexico.

The ostensible goal was to track the weapons and build cases against cartel leaders.

However, the ATF lost track of most of the guns, with many ending up at crime scenes on both sides of the border.

The botched operation enabled drug gangs to expand their arsenals with high-powered assault rifles while doing nothing to advance US law enforcement goals.

It inflamed anti-American sentiment in Mexico and damaged bilateral relations.

Critics condemned the reckless strategy of facilitating gun transfers to violent cartels, violating international agreements on gun exports.

Mexican officials were outraged they were never informed of an operation that deliberately armed criminals in their country.

The failure of Fast and Furious exemplifies broader concerns around inadequate US oversight of covert operations within Mexico.

Without proper transparency, accountability, and respect for Mexico's sovereignty, American tactics have arguably exacerbated the regional security crisis and drug-related violence they are meant to combat.

The ends failed to justify the morally and diplomatically hazardous means.