The Legacy of the Texas Rangers: A Look at the Long History of Violence at the Border
“It all started with the border, and that’s still where it is today. Someone killed Ramon Casiano, and the killer got away,” sings Mike Cooley from the Drive-By Truckers on the opening track of its 2016 release, “American Band.” Long known as a band renowned for telling difficult truths in the vernacular of 1970s tinged southern rock, in “Ramon Casiano,” the group makes no mistake in identifying the troubled history that envelops the U.S- Mexico border. “Down by the Sister Cities River, two boys with way more pride than sense. One would fall and one would prosper, never forced to make amends.”
The song tackles both the tragic fate of Ramon Casiano, a 15-year old boy shot to death in 1931 Laredo, Texas, and the problematic rise by his assailant Harlan Bronson Carter. Though convicted to a three-year term for his role in the shooting, Carter was released after serving two when a higher court ruled the trial judge had failed to adequately explain and define self-defense to the jury. In 1936, three years after his release, Carter joined the Border Patrol and by 1950 had risen to the peak of the organization’s heights as its first head.
From his position atop the agency and utilizing the language of combat, he waged a war on migrants, telling the Los Angeles Times he intended to deploy an “army of Border Patrol officers complete with jeeps, trucks, and seven aircraft” in the battle against illegal immigration; an “all out war to hurl … Mexican wetbacks into Mexico.” To put it simply, “his reign was brutal,” noted Laura Smith in a Timeline article. He later stood at the helm of the National Rifle Association for nearly a decade, reorienting the organization into a single issue, conservative juggernaut hell-bent on protecting the second amendment.
Regarding the border’s history of conflict and violence, Casiano’s death appears to be much more a feature than a bug. Before and after the 1931 killing, bloodshed and tragedy often persisted under the auspices of state-sanctioned violence. During the early 20th century, the Texas Rangers often served as a means for Anglo-American property owners to “win favorable settlements of land and labor disputes with Texas Mexicans,” notes historian and 2019 McArthur Fellow, Kelly Lytle Hernandez. “Raw physical violence” operated as the lynchpin of their authority, which later informed the tactics and politics of the Border Patrol upon its creation in May 1924. The Rangers established accepted policy and norms in the region, but also would funnel numerous members of their agency into the Border Patrol in later years, according to Lyttle-Hernandez’s “Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol.”
Using the 1918 Porvenir Massacre as a historical fulcrum further demonstrates the means by which state governments and their federal counterparts, have wittingly and unwittingly facilitated conflict in the liminal space that connects Mexico and the United States. It also represents the culmination of turbulent forces that subsumed the region at the turn of the 20th century and then radiated outward across the border over both space and time.
From the Texas Revolution of 1835-1836 through the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 and afterward, the region known as the Big Bend along the Texas Mexico border and in which Porvenir is located served as an area of contestation. While perpetrators of the violence that plagued the region came from many walks of life, ethnic Mexicans were targeted more frequently than most others living in the area. Between 1848 and 1928, 232 ethnic Mexicans suffered lynching at the hands of vigilante groups numbering three or more people, according to historian Monica Muñoz Martinez in her book “The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas.” Many more died in skirmishes with law enforcement and bandits. Though Mexican families in the region might have a deeper claim to the region than many others, historian Benjamin H. Johnson points out in the documentary, “Porvenir, Texas,” the transition from Mexican rule to American statehood greatly benefitted white settlers while penalizing their Spanish-speaking counterparts.
The legal apparatus put into place under American rule in the second half of the 19th century worked to both deprive Mexican property owners of land and also perpetuated state-sanctioned oppression of ethnic Mexicans. As one 19th century rebellion leader acidly put it in Muñoz Martinez's book: Anglo settlers amounted to “vampire guises of men”; little better than thieves who stole property and hunted Mexicans “like wild beasts.”
Due to the confluence of Mexican resistance, economic self-interest, and racial animus, white newcomers and others further imposed a variation of racial law and hierarchy similar to that of the American South Jim Crow strictures, sometimes referred to as Juan Crow in the context of the Southwest. The legal systems that arose under this infrastructure deprived Mexicans of rights and juridical recourse while simultaneously granting their white counterparts state-approved impunity.
When legal prejudice couldn’t settle matters, extralegal violence entered the fray. “Lynch mobs commonly took prisoners from jail even though courts would likely have sanctioned [prisoners] for execution,” notes Muñoz Martinez. “These vigilante actions, however, were tacitly sanctioned by the judicial system whenever local grand juries failed to indict or prosecute assailants who participated in mob violence.”
The outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, spurred a wave of migration north from Mexico into Texas, New Mexico, and California; its attendant chaos spilled into Texas as a number of other countervailing processes unfolded. Land appropriation by Anglos accelerated. Dubbed the “farm revolution” by historian David Montejano, it proved “one of the most phenomenal land movements in the history of the United States,” consisting largely of southern Anglos relocating from the Mississippi Valley and elsewhere in the American South to southern Texas.
Banditry, which ranged from standard cattle theft to violent raids on vulnerable ranches, was not uncommon and undoubtedly present. The Christmas Day raid of the Brite Ranch in 1917, which some historians attribute to Pancho Villa and others to fellow revolutionary Chico Cano, resulted in the murder of four people and helped fuel Ranger desires for reprisal. After all, as Martinez told the documentary’s filmmakers, “the spectacle of killing” as much as actual justice itself functioned to keep Mexican residents in line. Even Walter Prescott Webb, who wrote a sympathetic history of the Rangers, acknowledged the practice of “revenge by proxy,” a strategy embraced by the agency, which justified the indiscriminate killing of Mexicans as a means to “avenge the transgressions of others,” Hernandez points out.
Still, what thievery did exist when combined with examples such as the Brite Raid and manifesto’s like the Plan De San Diego (1915), which promised violent retribution for Anglo discrimination and displacement of Mexicans in the region, enabled Anglo landowners to demand more law enforcement. As a result, the Texas Rangers grew rapidly from 1915-1917 until the organization expanded to more than 1,300 officers. Many of these new hires, Martinez notes, never received training, but rather consisted of locals with special knowledge of the terrain, a persistent practice that would be adopted by the Border Patrol (BP) in the 1920s and 1930s.
At the same time, due to unrest in Mexico and raids by Pancho Villa into New Mexico and Texas, the U.S. government increasingly militarized the border; by late 1916, over 100,000 troops monitored the border. Despite their overwhelming numbers, the sheer expanse of the border made the military’s efforts at quelling Villa and others from raiding local towns or ranches fairly ineffective.
The rapid movement of white settlers into the region, the arrival of Mexicans fleeing revolution, the imposition of Juan Crow law enforcement and jurisprudence, the long-standing resentment regarding the transition from Mexican rule to American statehood, and the presence of banditry laid the groundwork for conflict. However, the impact of the collision of these forces was not distributed evenly. “The losers in these conflicts were usually the uninvolved civilian population, who bore the brunt of escalating and indiscriminate retaliation and counterretaliation,” writes Montejano.
The period between 1910 and 1920 would be especially harsh, “when ethnic Mexicans were criminalized and harshly policed by an intersecting regime of vigilantes, state police, local police, and army soldiers,” argues Martinez. The Rangers held an almost “religious belief in frontier justice,” Executive Director of the Briscoe Center for American History, Don Carleton, noted recently.
This approach visited a great deal of violence in the region. From August 4, 1915-June 17, 1916, Texas Rangers and local law enforcement killed over 100 Mexican residents. Some, such as Texas jurist James Wells, suggest that in Hildalgo and Cameron counties, Texas Rangers and vigilantes left 250 to 300 Mexican residents dead in less than one year during this period. None of these incidents received a proper investigation. Public discourse made such actions more tenable as political cartoons and media depicted Mexicans as dangerous revolutionaries or nefarious bandits.
The massacre in Porvenir unfolded as a culmination of these processes. In the early morning hours of January 28, 1918, Company B of the Texas Rangers, led by Captain James Fox, accompanied by four local ranchers and working with the Eighth U.S. Cavalry, slaughtered 15 unarmed men and boys. Though Porvenir’s residents consisted of Mexican laborers and farmers, the Rangers insisted that they had been harboring bandits, though even the army questioned that argument. Robert Keil, who served in Eighth Cavalry along the border from 1913-1918 and had been present the night of the massacre, doubted the Rangers’ claims even before the incident: “We knew the people living in Porvenir better than I know my next-door neighbor today, and we were sure they wouldn’t harbor outlaws.” Afterward, he blamed the Rangers and denounced their actions as “wholesale murder.”
Recent archeological discoveries in Porvenir suggest the army may have played a greater role in the killings than Keil indicates in his memoir since casings often attributed to U.S. cavalry units during that era have been discovered at the site. “There’s enough ballistic evidence to make a court case about it,” historian Glenn Justice told the El Paso Times in 2018.
A state investigation followed in 1919. Company B of the Rangers was disbanded, and its captain, James Fox, drummed out. Prosecutions for the massacre, however, never happened, and in the mid-1920s, Fox found new purchase in the Rangers as he was reinstated. The town of Porvenir vanished as survivors understandably abandoned it.
Five years later, the U.S. government established the Border Patrol in 1924. Born simultaneously amidst rapid agricultural expansion in the region and heightened nativist anxieties, as evidenced by restrictive immigration laws passed in 1917 and 1924, the agency reflected these dual impulses. On the one hand, it policed the mobility of labor, which by the mid-1920s was by some farmers estimation 98% Mexican, and on the other, citizenship. The category of illegal immigrants was added to the infrastructure of inequality built during earlier decades. “We tell immigration officers if our Mexicans try to get away into the interior, and they stop them and send them back to Mexico,” one farmer noted in a 1928 interview. “Then, in a few days, they are back here, and we have good workers for another year.”
Unsurprisingly, local legal and law enforcement tradition shaped Border Patrol policies. The case files of then-Chief Patrol Inspector Chester C. Courtney, argues Hernandez, reveal that “the deeper histories and broader social systems that marked Mexicanos as marginalized and temporary outsiders within the region’s dominant social, cultural, political and economic systems” dictated protocol. When the Border Patrol established a Border Patrol Training School in El Paso in 1934, instruction followed closely along the lines of these traditions and in some ways, expanded them across the border’s full expanse. The aforementioned Harlon B. Carter was among the first officers to receive training from the BPTS.
The direct connection of the Rangers to the Border Patrol persisted as well. During the late 1920s, Clifford Alan Perkins, who had become head of Border Patrol in 1924, transferred numerous former Texas Rangers into the Laredo sector as Border Patrol officers. The Laredo Border Patrol morphed into a refuge for “white violence within the Mexican dominated Laredo” writes Hernandez. Harlon B. Carter found a home within its walls.
If one extends Carter’s legacy to his stewardship of the NRA (1977-1985), the Texas Rangers’ influence on the border’s militarization stretches from its creation in the 19th century to the Minutemen movement that rose to prominence in the early 21st century and mobilized in 2018 over the alleged “caravan threat”; the latter fueled in part by the NRA’s enthusiastic promotion of the Second Amendment. Though Casiano’s death serves more as another tragic data point along the border’s historical trajectory rather than a point of origin, the Drive-By Truckers sum up the larger theme effectively: “The killing’s been the bullet’s [Carter] business since back in 1931. Someone killed Ramon Casiano and Ramon still ain’t dead enough.”
Smith, Laura. “The Man Responsible for the Modern NRA Killed a Hispanic Teenager, before Becoming a Border Agent.” Medium. Timeline, July 11, 2017, accessed
Hernandez, Kelly Lytle. Migra!: a History of the U.S. Border Patrol. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.
Martinez, Monica Muñoz. Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence In Texas. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018.
Keil, Robert, and Elizabeth McBride. Bosque Bonito: Violent Times along the Borderland during the Mexican Revolution. Alpine, TX: Center for Big Bend Studies, 2005.
Mekelburg, Madlin. “Porvenir Massacre on Texas Border Haunts Descendants 100 Years Later.” El Paso Times. El Paso Times, February 3, 2018.
Top image: Panoramic view, City of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. (1920) | Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (1920x643)