The Other Dispute on the U.S.-Mexico Border
In 1848 the United States invaded and forced Mexico to cede almost half its territory. Now some Mexicans want their land back.
During his campaign for president, Donald Trump repeatedly called for rewriting the U.S.-Mexico relationship. He peppered Mexicans with nasty stereotypes (“criminals,” “rapists,” and “bad hombres”), advocated ripping up the North American Free Trade Agreement, and promised to build a “big beautiful wall” on the border — on Mexico’s dime.
Now some prominent Mexicans are raising their own quibbles about the border. They are making the case that Mexico should return to its 1848 boundaries, before the United States snatched large chunks of their territory, including most of California, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona, during the Mexican-American war.
Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, a respected left-wing politician and former presidential candidate, is leading the charge. He has been calling for the Mexican government to bring a lawsuit against the United States in the International Court of Justice, for reparations and indemnification.
“We are going to make a strong and tough case, because we are right. They were in Mexican territory in a military invasion,” Guillermo Hamdan Castro, a lawyer working with Cárdenas on the case, told reporters in March.
The gambit hinges on a line in the first sentence of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the document that sealed the U.S. victory over Mexico on Feb. 2, 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American war. The sentence includes an admission the U.S. army invaded Mexico, and Hamdan argues that signing an agreement under such duress renders it null, and therefore Mexican immigrants can’t be expelled from border territories.
Such a suit from the Mexican government would need to be approved by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, by no means a certainty. Then, it would likely face slim odds of succeeding in the courts. Legal claims using modern conceptions of law are on shaky ground applied to a treaty more than 150 years old. And the United States does not recognize the International Court of Justice’s jurisdiction to enforce its decisions in contentious cases.
But there are worries the suit could exacerbate already resurgent Mexican nationalism, endangering two decades of relative stability between the two nations. “I have concerns that this type of a case could really stoke a nationalistic defensive response from both sides of the border,” Christopher Wilson, a Mexico expert at the Wilson Center, warned.
The very act of pointing out American hypocrisy on the border may become a rallying cry that could shake up politics in Mexico, a country that has recently been feeling denigrated and excluded by its powerful neighbor and supposed ally. Hamdan has even started a website and campaign called “Demand What’s Ours.”
The proposal indicates just how much Trump’s new tone has “managed to alienate” Mexicans, Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said. She said pressure was building in Mexico to adopt a confrontational attitude to the U.S.
Anti-Americanism has always been a powerful undercurrent in Mexican society. Not only did the United States invade and seize nearly half its territory in the 1800s, but ever since then Mexico has chafed under American intrusions and perceived disrespect for Mexican sovereignty. Cárdenas’s own father, former President Lázaro Cárdenas, was an expert in exploiting distrust of U.S. meddling. In the 1930s he argued that Mexicans needed to protect their natural resources from foreign control and expropriated the oil industry, pushing out foreign investors.
In the past two decades, the relationship between the two countries has significantly strengthened, with new cooperation in security and trade helping to cement a stronger bond, analysts said. “One of the great advances of the U.S.-Mexico relationship has been finding ways to move past a dynamic of mutual recrimination,” Wilson said.
But Trump’s election and repeated targeting of Mexicans has gone a long way to sour that relationship. Even if members of Trump’s cabinet — his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly — seem to be sending more conciliatory signals to their Mexican counterparts, the cloud of uncertainty over U.S.-Mexico relations has encouraged agitators trying to translate popular outrage into political wins.
Trump has become a reliable punching bag for left-wing politicians vying for office in the 2018 elections. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who ran for President in 2006 and 2012 and whose populist style is sometimes compared to a Mexican “Trump of the left”, has been consistently blasting the U.S. President for his harsh measures against Mexican immigrants and his talk of building a wall.
Peña Nieto has also learned the upside of confronting Trump: he received a sudden bounce in the polls when he abruptly ditched a Jan. 31 visit to the White House in protest of Trump’s insistence that Mexico would pay for a border wall.
Photo credit: MARIO VAZQUEZ/AFP/Getty Images