A Mexican army convoy rolled into the United States on Thursday with food and medicine for Hurricane Katrina victims, its first military operation on U.S. soil since the mid-19th century.
A 44-vehicle convoy of 200 unarmed troops flew Mexico’s red, white and green national flag from every cab as it moved into San Antonio, where Mexican forces killed 189 rebels in the famous Battle of the Alamo in 1836 during the Texas revolution against Mexican rule.
It was the first time a regular Mexican army brigade was on U.S. soil since 1846 when, during a full-blown war, the United States took what are now its southwestern states from Mexico.
The last time a Mexican military force of any type was in the United States was when revolutionary Gen. Francisco “Pancho” Villa staged a small raid into New Mexico in 1916. His forces killed several people, prompting Washington to send a larger force south of the border in retaliation.
Mexicans have a love-hate relationship with their powerful neighbor to the north, and are both surprised and proud to help after Katrina hit Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Mexico has often received foreign aid after earthquakes or other disasters.
“I never thought I’d see this,” mused U. S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Adrian Lujan, who watched the convoy roll in. The Mexican unit’s commander was greeted by San Antonio’s acting mayor in Spanish.
Mexicans cheered, waved, honked horns and rang bells in villages as the convoy snaked up to the border this week.
While millions of Mexicans have trekked north in pursuit of the American dream, many are still sore at having lost half their territory to the United States in the 19th century.
Mexico is one of dozens of nations, including some as poor as Cuba and Bangladesh, to offer aid to the United States as it grapples with one of the worst natural disasters in its history.
“It’s a good thing because they’re taking aid to victims,” said Beatriz Gonzalez, 26, who gave the troops free soft drinks as they stopped for gasoline on the Mexican side of the border.
The Mexican army trucks, filled with of thousands of ready-to-eat meals, drinking water and medical equipment, were searched at the border like regular vehicles and took two hours to cross into Laredo, Texas.
Officials say the unit will remain in San Antonio for 20 days. A Mexican Navy ship is also steaming toward the Louisiana coast, where it too will support the Katrina relief effort.
Vaccinations for north of the border
Troops inside the trucks were given malaria tablets and vaccinations against diseases like hepatitis, cholera and tetanus — ironically the same shots wary American tourists might get before visiting parts of Mexico.
Mexican officials said the 200 soldiers will set up a mobile kitchen to serve 21,000 hot meals daily to hurricane victims in San Antonio.
The friendship between Mexico and the United States has been seriously strained in recent months by disputes over a violent war between Mexico’s drug gangs along the U.S. border and by Washington’s failure to push through promised immigration reform.
“I think this is a wonderful opportunity to strengthen the relationship between our two governments,” said Marta Lara, Mexico’s consul general said in San Antonio.