Century of Conflict

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The shifting river forced Mexican and US officials to confront difficult questions. When the Rio Grande changed course, did the boundary move with it? Who controlled the land on either side? As they had in the 1840s, the two countries again made conflicting claims to disputed territory. Over the next century, tensions ebbed and flowed as leaders struggled to resolve the conflict.

 
Hand-drawn map with Spanish writing dated 1937 depicting probable river course in 1864. Disputed land in red, undisputed Mexican land in green, US in yellow.
Map from International Boundary and Water Commission, Mexican Section, shows the probable 1864 channel of the Rio Grande, referenced in the 1911 Arbitration. The area outlined in red is the disputed Chamizal land. Cordova Island, outlined in green, was an undisputed area of Mexican land situated on the north side of the river after 1899.

COMISIÓN INTERNACIONAL DE LÍMITES Y AGUAS

 

El Chamizal

In the 1850s, gradual erosion and severe flooding shifted the course of the Rio Grande. This created uncertainty about who owned territory along its banks. Eventually, the river flowed south of a piece of Mexican land known as El Chamizal. It became the heart of a boundary dispute for the next hundred years.

Chamizal Dispute Begins

1866-67

In 1864, flooding pushed the Rio Grande further south into Paso del Norte (renamed Ciudad Juárez in 1888), beginning a century of formal dispute. Across the river, US residents of El Paso, Texas moved into the land known as El Chamizal. Jurisdiction of this land remained in question. Mexico’s President Benito Juárez lived in exile in Paso del Norte between 1865 and 1866 because of the French occupation of Mexico City. During this time he became aware of the effects of the flood. In 1866 his representative addressed the US Secretary of State about sovereignty of El Chamizal.

Changing Channels

1884

In the Convention of 1884, Mexico and the United States reaffirmed the river’s deepest channel as the international boundary. For the first time, the new treaty also acknowledged the river’s changing course. If the river channel moved gradually over time, the boundary moved with it. If the river shifted suddenly, the boundary remained along the previous course.

Collaboration

1889

The United States and Mexico established the International Boundary Commission (IBC). It addressed issues caused by changes in river channels used to mark the boundary. The IBC became the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) in 1944.

Case No. 4

1895

The IBC heard the claim of Mexican landowner Pedro Ignacio García. It became known as Case No. 4. The IBC could not reach agreement about which country had jurisdiction over his land in El Chamizal. The conflict continued. Case No. 4 became the focus of the 1911 arbitration.

 
Black-and-white panoramic photo of a flooded downtown El Paso taken from the top of a tall building.
“This day will be remembered in El Paso as ‘Flood Friday’. Just after dinner an alarm sounded to warn the town that the canal banks had broken. . . . The lower part of town is at the mercy of the flood. Tonight there must be in the neighborhood of 3,000 people homeless.”
—Richard Fenner Burges, May 27, 1897

EL PASO PUBLIC LIBRARY

 
Black-and-white photo, obelisk monument in foreground followed by a line of concrete fence posts extending into background. All are connected by wire mesh fencing.
Historic photo of International Boundary of US and Mexico at Cordova Island, ca. 1930s.  Boundary monument connected to fence that was completed by Mexico in 1940.

EL PASO COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY


Cordova Island

1899

By the 1890s, the Rio Grande made a dramatic bend east of downtown El Paso, Texas. In 1899, engineers from both countries dug a channel across the bottom of the meander to reduce the impact of flooding. The international boundary remained along the former riverbed. This left an “island” of Mexican land jutting north into US territory. During American Prohibition in the 1920s-30s, the area attracted drinkers and cross-border smugglers. Mexico erected a fence along the perimeter in 1940. Look for the remaining concrete fence posts along the memorial’s northwest corner.


 

Caught In Between

1905

The Banco Convention settled ownership of bancos, lands left between old river channels and new ones created by flooding. This treaty enabled the two countries to exchange some land. It did not address the dispute over El Chamizal.

 

Arbitration

1911

The United States and Mexico argued the Chamizal case before the IBC. Commissioner Eugene Lafleur from Canada joined Anson Mills from the United States and Fernando Beltrán y Puga from Mexico. By majority vote, the Mexican and Canadian commissioners awarded Mexico the land that was south of the river before the 1864 flood. The United States objected on legal grounds despite previously agreeing to accept the final decision. The conflict persisted for another fifty years. From 1911 to 1963 every US President tried to reach a settlement.

 
Black-and-white photo of 15 men around a table in an ornate room with paper maps posted on walls. Three commissioners sit behind elevated courtroom bench at far end of room.
Photo of participants in the 1911 Arbitration of the Chamizal Issue, which commenced on May 15, 1911, in the federal courthouse in El Paso, Texas and concluded June 15, 1911.

NPS

 

Setting Precedence

1933

In the Rectification Convention, Mexico and the United States agreed to straighten and shorten a section of the Rio Grande in the El Paso-Juárez Valley by 67 miles. The Chamizal question remained a separate and unresolved issue. Again, numerous parcels of land were exchanged, and the precedent for a solution was set.

 
Hand-drawn map of the soon-to-be straightened course of the Rio Grande in the El Paso - Juarez Valley. Color coded parcels of land indicate areas to be transferred from one country to another.
International Boundary Commission map of the Rio Grande, El Paso -- Juarez Valley (July, 1930). Depicts the soon-to-be "rectified" course of the river through the valley to be created according to the Rectification Convention of 1933.

UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT EL PASO LIBRARY

 

Alliance For Progress

1962

Against the backdrop of the Cold War, US President John F. Kennedy met Mexican President Adolfo López Mateos in Mexico City in June 1962. Seeking a closer alliance, they committed to ending the persistent Chamizal dispute.

 
Two men shake hands on a red carpeted platform on airport tarmac surrounded by large crowd of people
US President John F. Kennedy shakes hands with Mexican President Adolfo López Mateos (right), upon his arrival in Mexico City on June 29, 1962.

CECIL STOUGHTON, WHITE HOUSE PHOTOGRAPHS / JOHN F. KENNEDY PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM, BOSTON

 
 

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    Last updated: July 20, 2020

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