Revised View of The Texas Rangers: Secret Police

It’s not exactly Bush World

George W. Bush, like most Texans, loves the legend of the Texas Rangers. He once owned the baseball team of that name, and he calls his club of $100,000-plus contributors the Rangers. I myself grew up with the legend as a Colorado kid, hearing “Tales of the Texas Rangers” and episodes of “The Lone Ranger” on the radio.

But, as a new book from the University of New Mexico Press chronicles, the legend has a dark side. I had not been in New Mexico more than two months when I first encountered this Ranger shadow. I was sent as a wire service reporter to Rio Arriba County to cover the takeover of a U.S. Forest Service campground by Reies Lopez Tijerina and his following of land-grant heirs.

By the time I arrived at Echo Ampitheater, with its dozen simple campsites sheltered by a 500-foot-high sandstone overhang, Tijerina and his group owned the place. Armed heirs stood at the cattle guard. Somewhere a chainsaw was at work on a pinon tree. The group had taken two forest rangers prisoner, staged a mock trial, then released them.

I drove to the nearest phone, at a Forest Service wildlife zoo a mile down the road. A man in a dark suit was on the phone talking long distance to a superior somewhere about storming the campground. He was saying they needed about 30 U.S. Forest Service rangers. When he hung up he said, “If I get within five feet of that son of a bitch, every time he thinks of me the rest of his life he’ll get a headache.”

I don’t know who he was, and I never saw him again. I phoned in to the UPI desk in Albuquerque. I said the situation could get out of hand. Then I drove back to the campground and talked my way past the armed guards so I could interview their leader.

I found Tijerina at a picnic table in the center of the campground and introduced myself. I told him that some people were talking about storming the campground with “thirty rangers.” I should have been more precise. My question was what he intended to do. He evaded the question and cut the interview short, then stood on the picnic table and began an emotive speech, which I did not understand. I got out of there.

I waited with the other media just outside the gate the rest of the afternoon, and nothing happened. Cooler heads than the man in the suit apparently prevailed. The Forest Service stood down, the heirs cooled down, and by evening everybody went home in time for the evening news. It was my first direct contact with Tijerina and the land-grant movement.

About six months later I was caught in the June 5, 1967, Tierra Amarilla court house raid, and in the ensuing weeks Tijerina tried to discredit me as an eye witness, saying in at least one news interview that I had threatened him at Echo Amphitheater, boasting . He said I had boasted that I was going to bring in “thirty Texas Rangers.” I was puzzled. Either he had honestly misunderstood or he was distorting that November interview for his own purposes.

Either way, he was coming from a world that was entirely foreign to me. In the ensuing years, from time to time, I came across disturbing glimpses of that world in which Texas Rangers were enemies, not heroes. Now comes “The Texas Rangers and the Mexican Revolution” by Charles H. Harris and Louis R. Sadler, just released by UNM. It’s an action-packed history with the subtitle “The Bloodiest Decade, 1910-1920.”

Sadler and Harris are gnarly old New Mexico State University history professors with a 30-year list of publications on U.S.-Mexico border history. They are scholarly and objective. They are not going for any political correctness awards. They tell a whole, balanced story. They define the Rangers as “the Governor’s personal police.” One politician of the time went further: “secret police.” The Rangers didn’t wear uniforms and carried no badges or official identification, but everybody knew who they were. Seldom did the armed force number more than 20 men. The roster was 39 at the height of the violence, in 1915.

A basic understanding of the situation ought to start with the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which confirmed the U.S. conquest of the Southwest. By designating the Rio Grande as the new international boundary, the treaty divided the Lower Valley into two nations. The people who had lived there for generations could no longer cross the river freely to visit friends and family or to do ordinary business.

The railroad arrived in 1904, causing land prices to skyrocket as Anglo settlers began buying up irrigable farm land. Then came the Mexican Revolution, dating from 1911 when the aging dictator Porforio Diaz went into exile in France. By 1915, Venustiano Carranza had installed himself as president of Mexico, but two formidable opponents, Francisco “Pancho” Villa and Eiliano Zapata, were allied against him.

They were credited with driving another contender, Victoriano Huerta, into exile in Texas. Huerta had received clandestine support from Texas Gov. Oscar Colquitt, who restrained the Rangers for personal motives (they enforced Texas prohibition, and his friends sold booze). He was succeeded in 1915 by the corrupt Gov. James Ferguson (he was impeached), who increased their force and is supposed to have assured them that no matter what they did he had the power of the pardon.
The Rangers had been around since 1820 in various roles, but by 1915 they worked primarily along the border in South Texas. Early that year the press got hold of a strange document called the Plan of San Diego, named for the tiny south Texas town where it purportedly was signed on Jan. 6, 1915. A copy surfaced a few weeks later in the possession of a man arrested after he approached Villa supporters about joining a bold conspiracy against the U.S.

The plan, or manifesto, proclaimed the independence of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and California and called upon U.S. Hispanics and blacks to rise up against the U.S. government. It said, “Every North American over 16 years of age shall be put to death,” and so forth. In May a Texas grand jury indicted the signers, charging conspiracy “to steal certain property of the United States of America, contrary to the authority thereof, to wit, the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and California.”

Harris and Sadler quote this in good humor. But the tragedy of such manifestos is that there always will be people who believe them and risk their lives for them. The shooting started in July, and some of incidents have become legend on both sides of the famous “one ranger, one riot” equation. Harris and Sadler in their scholarship have taken the Plan of San Diego quite seriously. It was not, as some one-sided historians have speculated, a fake planted by the Texas Rangers. Neither was it the spontaneous expression of an oppressed people.

The two NMSU historians concede that it “provided a convenient umbrella for both Anglos and Hispanics to settle scores and seize opportunities.” But there was more to it than that. Harris and Sadler nearly 30 years ago published the startling thesis that the principle sponsor of the Plan was the Carranza government.

More specifically, Carranza’s commander in the north, Emiliano Nafarrate, secretly organized a series of armed raids into Texas by guerrilla soldiers masquerading as bandits. They robbed stores, cut telegraph wires and burned railroad trestles. Then they started shooting people. Why?

Carranza wanted diplomatic recognition from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who was trying to stay out of the revolution. According to Harris and Sadler, the Plan was Carranza’s ingenuous bargaining chip in the diplomatic game with the U.S. He was posing as the one leader who could stop the border raids that he secretly was sponsoring.

Texas responded with the Texas Rangers. They were few but powerful. They had authority to organize and they had immunity. They did some cold-blooded killing, but none were ever convicted. Even if they had been, their boss the Governor had, as one apparently reassured them, the power of the pardon.

The Rangers also had a self-promoted ability to terrorize. For example, Harris and Sadler tell how in early August 1915 a force of about 60 guerrillas armed with Mauser rifles rode 70 miles into Texas to attack the Norias headquarters of the huge King Ranch. A group of 16 cowboys and soldiers engaged them in a gun battle, killing several.

Next day some Texas Rangers showed up and posed for a famous photo in which they are on horseback with their lassos taught around three Mexican corpses like calves at branding time. “No doubt the Rangers could have used some sensitivity training, but then so could the guerrillas,” say Sadler and Harris. The Mexican forces, for example, once captured and killed a U.S. soldier and paraded his head on a pole for his company across the river to see.

The border raids and the Ranger terrorism lasted into the fall of 1915 and ended abruptly when President Wilson recognized Carranza as the legitimate president of Mexico. “Once Carranza withdrew his support, the insurrection in Texas collapsed like a punctured balloon,” say Harris and Sadler. They estimate the death toll of the Bandito War at 6 Texas civilians, 11 U.S. soldiers and 300 Mexicans or Texas Hispanics.

The border violence flared up again the following March, when Pancho Villa attacked the New Mexico town of Columbus, resulting in a punitive invasion of Mexico by the U.S. Army. But that’s another story. The Bandito War itself, say Harris and Sadler, left “a legacy of racial tension in south Texas that has endured to the present.” And that was Tijerina’s world, in 1967