Memoirs, novels and movies have depicted the Mexican border “bandit wars” of the early 20th century in such a romantic light that many innocent casualties of the conflict have been forgotten. For decades, the predominant American stereotype of the Mexican was a bandoleered bandito with a long mustache and en evil grin. Conversely, the white-hatted Texas Ranger has ridden high through the literature of the West, his gleaming twin six-shooters always at the ready.
The mythology of border outlaws and lawmen hides thousands of unknown victims behind these cartoon images. When the famous 19th century Texas gunman King Fisher was asked how many notches he sported on his gun, he answered, “Thirty-seven – not counting Mexicans.”
On Christmas day 1917, bandits from Mexico raided L.C. Brite’s ranch in Presidio County, Texas, killing two Mexican laborers and a white stage driver, stealing horses and robbing the ranch store. U.S. soldiers stationed nearby followed the bandits back into Mexico.
Exactly a month later, on the night of January 25, 1918, an armed and mounted posse of Whites consisting of Texas Rangers and ranch owners converged on the Mexican settlement of El Porvenir in Presidio County. Soldiers who showed them the way were told that the men had come to arrest suspects in the Brite ranch raid. The Rangers – some wearing masks – ordered all residents out of their homes. They took three men into the nearby mountains and held them for two days under a threat of death before letting them go.
On the third night, at around 2 a.m. January 28, the posse returned to El Porvenir and conducted another roundup. This time, they selected 15 men and boys, marched them at gunpoint several hundred yards away from the houses, and, without a word, shot each one in the head. Searchers found no items belonging to the Brite ranch in any of the El Porvenir homes.
The surviving members of the community moved as quickly as they could to Mexico, taking with them the 15 corpses but leaving behind their cows and goats, their well-stocked grain bins and their fields newly sown with wheat. No one was ever punished for the murders.
For more than a century in the back country and scattered towns of the Rio Grande Valley, the Texas Rangers were a law unto themselves. The Ranger force originated in 1821 as a band of “Indian fighters” hired by Stephen Austin to protect the first white settlers entering the Mexican territory of Texas. “Protection” often meant helping the settlers seize Native American land.
As Native American resistance subsided, the Rangers turned to harassing the Tejanos, or Texas Mexicans, whose farms and rangeland the Whites also coveted. Organized officially in 1835, the Rangers served as a paramilitary police force in the short-lived Texas Republic (1836-45) and conducted raids across the border during the Mexican War (1846-48).
Mexicans living north of the Rio Grande became U.S. citizens when Texas attained statehood in 1845, yet the Rangers systematically denied them justice. Tejanos suspected of crimes were hanged or shot without trial. A Mexican’s word was considered worthless in most courts of law. By the early 20th century, the Rangers’ reputation for ethnic violence and intimidation brought comparisons with the Ku Klux Klan, although at least one famous Ranger, Jesus Sandoval, was himself Mexican.
Ranger terrorism increased sharply after 1910, as the Mexican Revolution (1910-20) spawned confusion all along the border. Followers of guerrilla leader Pancho Villo crossed back and forth, attacking Americans to create havoc for the Mexican president. Mexican ranchers, afraid that civil war would wreck the national economy, herded their cattle north across the Rio Grande to take advantage of America’s wartime demand for beef. The abandoned Mexican rangeland sprouted a thick coat of grass, and enterprising outlaws soon recognized its potential: They ventured north and rounded up American-owned livestock to drive south and fatten up for sale in Mexico.
The losses to the Texas economy were enormous, and the Mexican outlaws made little distinction between white and Tejano victims. In keeping with their history, however, the Rangers openly favored white interests. Even law-abiding Tejanos became the objects of suspicion and abuse. In some counties, Rangers confiscated the firearms of Tejano citizens, including officers of the law. Without guns for protection, many Mexican Americans lost all their farm animals to thieves and coyotes.
The onset of World War I in 1914 made the border situation even more explosive. As American troops shipped off to Europe to fight the Germans, Texas authorities feared that Mexican Americans eligible for the draft were evading military service by heading south. Furthermore, rumors alleged that Germany was arming Mexicans and using Mexican agents to distribute propaganda in Texas in order to undermine the U.S. war effort.
In June 1916, President Woodrow Wilson responded to the mounting crisis by mobilizing some 100,000 National Guardsmen from Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to patrol the border. By the following year, 35,000 U.S. Army troops were stationed there as well. For many Whites in South Texas, the triple threat of banditry, draft evasion and espionage justified an “open season” on Mexicans. Up and down the valley, whole villages were raided and their inhabitants driven across the river or killed. The El Porvenir roundup was a typical example.
A “black list” kept by the Rangers during this period contained the names of Mexicans targeted for elimination. Any Tejano who appeared on the list had two choices: He could cross the Rio Grande and take refuge in Mexico, or he could wait for someone to discover his corpse on the U.S. side. It didn’t take much to qualify for black-listing. A Mexican’s name could be added by any man of standing – “or even halfway standing,” as one white lawyer explained.
As the anti-Mexican climate intensified, the Rangers revived an old frontier policy – “shoot first, ask questions later” – that resulted in a high toll of innocent lives. Historians estimate that more than 500 Tejanos were summarily executed by the Rangers during the “bandit wars” of the 1910s and ‘20s. Many of these victims were described by their families and communities as having “evaporated” without a trace.
As it had for decades, violence against Mexican Americans by Rangers during this era generally went unchecked by local government or law enforcement agencies. The most avid Mexican-haters on the force flouted all regard for arrest warrants, trial by jury and other legal rights.
On September 3, 1918, Jesus Villareal of Copita, Texas, agreed to take two teenage sons of a friend along with him on a trip to Rio Grande City, on the north bank of the river. The two boys intended to buy some goats from a man near there. Outside of Rio Grande City, just after midnight, a Texas Ranger stepped onto the road in front of Jesus’ car.
The Ranger asked Jesus to take him a mile or so to where he had left his own car when the radiator ran dry. Jesus complied, and when he reached the parked vehicle he saw three more Rangers. Two of them took the boys out of Jesus’ car and led them away. The other two Rangers told Jesus he was under arrest.
Out of the glare of the headlights, and out of earshot from Jesus, the Rangers asked the boys where they were going. Eulalio Benavides, age 18, told them about the goats. One of the Rangers said that Eulalio was lying, that he and his brother were planning to cross the river to avoid the draft. The Ranger slapped Eulalio and struck him in the head with a pistol.
“Say that you are going across,” the Ranger demanded, taking hold of Eulalio’s throat and pressing the pistol to his chest. “If you don’t say you are going to the other side, I’ll kill you.”
Eulalio nodded his head. The Rangers took the boys back to where Jesus was being held.
They told Jesus that the boys had accused him of contracting to deliver them into Mexican territory. When he protested, explaining about the goats, two of the Rangers escorted Jesus into the darkness. They told him to lie down on his back. One of them sat on Jesus’ stomach and ordered him to admit his real intentions. “If you don’t,” they said, “we‘ll kill you.”
“You can do what you please, “ said Jesus. “I’ve told you the truth.”
Both Rangers clutched Jesus – one by the throat, the other over the nose and mouth. They choked him until he almost passed out. After they finally let go and told him to speak, Jesus couldn’t catch his breath.
“The boys are lying,” Jesus said at last.
They repeated the threat. Jesus was insistent. One of the Rangers then jammed the barrel of his pistol into Jesus’ mouth. “What do you say?” The Ranger taunted. “Is it so, what the boys say, or not?”
The Ranger removed the pistol, and Jesus again said, “No.” Again he felt the cold gun barrel grinding against his teeth.
The other Ranger pulled out a knife, but his partner told him to wait until Jesus was dead. Then they could put the knife in his hand and claim that he had jumped them.
But they changed their minds. After the interrogation, the Rangers drove Jesus and his companions to a nearby U.S. Army camp and put them in the guardhouse to await trial in Federal Court at Brownsville, where the three were found innocent of charges and released. By Ranger standards, Jesus Villareal had gotten off easy.
Reports of Ranger abuses prompted Texas state legislator J.T. Canales, a Tejano from Brownsville, to sponsor a legislative investigation in 1919. The hearings produced testimony from both white and Mexican witnesses of verbal abuse, torture and murder of Mexican Americans by Texas Rangers.
As a result of the Canales investigation, the legislature voted to reduce the Ranger force and to make it easier for citizens to lodge complaints against individual rangers. These institutional reforms acknowledged a legacy of injustice in Texas law enforcement, but they did not bring an end to anti-Tejano violence. The old hatreds along the border still burned, and Whites who killed Tejanos continued to go free.
Among the forgotten victims was Bernadino Campos. Campos worked for J. Adams on the Keystone ranch near Pearsall, in Frio County. On the morning of May 24, 1920, Adams complained that Campos wasn’t doing his job. Campos suggested that if Adams was not satisfied, then Campos would terminate his contract and look for work somewhere else. Adams agreed and went to his house to get the money to pay off Campos.
When Adams returned on horseback, he approached Campos and, in the presence of two witnesses, shot at him with a pistol. Campos wasn’t hit. He managed to grab the horse’s bridle and pick up a stone. But as Campos tried to defend himself, Adams fired twice more and killed him.
Despite the eyewitnesses and recommendations of the Public Minister that he be imprisoned, Adams’ political and financial connections helped him win acquittal. The court’s message was clear: Though a Tejano spent his life under the watchful eyes of Whites, he was beneath all notice in death.