River of Blood
Texas Rangers terrorize the border: "We got another Mexican, but he's dead."
In early 1915, at the height of the Mexican Revolution, a Mexican national named Basilio Ramos was arrested in McAllen. A onetime beer distributor in the Duval County town of San Diego, Ramos was a follower of deposed Mexican president Victoriano Huerta. Officers found in his possession the Plan de San Diego; simply put, it was a revolutionary manifesto calling for no less than the liberation of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Colorado. The territory had been, in Ramos’ high-blown rhetoric of the times, taken over in a “most perfidious manner by North American imperialists.”
Ramos also furnished the starting date of the invasion: February 20 at 2 a.m. There was a catch, though. Ramos’ Supreme Revolutionary Congress had yet to appoint a military commander or to raise an armed force. That aside, the plan also called for a race war; it stipulated the death of all Anglo males over sixteen as well as “traitors to the race,” meaning “disloyal” Texas Mexicans. But loyal Mexican Americans, blacks, Japanese, and Indians would be welcome to join the ranks.
Nothing much came of the plan. There was no invasion or revolt. Ramos was charged with conspiracy to levy war, and his bond set at $5000; in short order bail was reduced to $100, and he skipped to Matamoros, never to affect the course of history again.
The racial strife that followed in the lower Rio Grande Valley, however, was a far more serious and lasting matter. In the ensuing twelve months, three hundred “suspected Mexicans,” the majority of them American citizens, were “summarily executed by hanging or shooting on the Texas side of the river as a result of the feelings aroused by the Plan de San Diego,” according to a U.S. Army report. The San Antonio Express reported that “finding the bodies of dead Mexicans had become so commonplace that it created little or no interest.” At least that was the paper’s view; one can only imagine the interests and feelings of the survivors and other relatives.
Local lawmen and vigilante groups did some of the killing, but it was the Texas Rangers—56 were operating in the Valley by 1916—whom Texas Mexicans feared the most. Ranger captain J.M. Fox put it neatly enough: “We got another Mexican, but he’s dead.” Another Ranger report relates that a Constable Hinojosa transporting three prisoners to jail was stopped by three Rangers. He was given a receipt for the prisoners, who were found dead the next day. The Washington Post noted that any Mexican found armed “was under instant suspicion.” In one six-week period, nine Mexicans were killed “while trying to escape” from the San Benito jail. The South Texas word “rinche,” for Texas Ranger, came to mean all law enforcement officers, and neither the word nor the rancor has completely died yet.
Ramos’ scatterbrained plan had lit the fuse of racial trouble. Retaliatory border raids by Mexican gangs began in July 1915. They were organized by two Mexican Americans, one a rancher, the other a grocer, who were seething at the way Rangers treated all Mexicans, American or not, with equal contempt. Following the first raid, the leaders anonymously issued the first rhetorical blast, demanding a halt to the “criminal acts and insults of the miserable Rangers who guard the banks of the Rio Bravo.”
In 1916 new rumors circulated of a Mexican invasion on May 10. On May 15. On June 10. American troops pursued raiders across the Rio Grande into Matamoros. Upriver at San Ignacio more troops went into Mexico after bandits who had killed three soliders. On June 16 General Hugh Scott directed the War College to draw up a plan for the invasion of Mexico. But in the end economic reason prevailed. So many Texas Mexicans had fled to Northern Mexico that there was a severe labor shortage. Valley mayors and other influential people issued a statement calling for the protection of “good Mexicans” on the American side of the Rio Grande. By July 1916 the raids had come to a halt and the two presidents, Woodrow Wilson and Venustiano Carranza, had reached an agreement on importing Mexican labor into America and sending economic assistance to Mexico. Still, the half-baked ideas of a fool, Ramos, had caused hundreds to die. No pain lasts one hundred years, as we say in Spanish, but in South Texas it’s been seventy years now, and still counting.