Border Contraband: A History of Smuggling Across the Río Grande
In 2000, nearly 80 years after his death at the hands of Texas Rangers, Leandro Villarreal’s body was disinterred from an unmarked grave at the behest of his Mexican family. He was reburied to great fanfare with a Catholic memorial mass and a massive headstone on which was forever chiseled his mythic, part-time Prohibition-era occupation: tequilero — a cross-border smuggler of Mexican liquor and American foodstuffs.
Texas newspapers depicted Villarreal as an armed thug while Tejano troubadours lionized the man in the famous corrido, “Los Tequileros.” In reality, Villarreal was a reluctant smuggler from a poor ranching background, a widower with kids who floated contraband across the Río Grande to support his family. In that sense, he was quite typical of most other smugglers, who were mostly young fathers looking to make ends meet. That’s the conclusion of historian and lifelong border resident George T. Díaz in his new account of binational smuggling on the U.S.-Mexico border throughout the 19th and 20th century.
Readers looking for lurid, modern accounts of moving meth and migrants should turn elsewhere. For most of the border’s history, contrabandistas operated like folk merchant libertarians, waving off onerous Mexico tariffs to bring tobacco, flour, sugar, and bolts of calico back to their homeland. Despite the illegality of their trade, typical smugglers would have shuddered at the term; most were bound by a moral code of community ethics. Running liquor to Americans and foodstuffs to Mexicans was seen as practical, middleman work. Rustling cattle or horses in either direction across the border, however, was an offense just short of murder in the eyes of most border residents, as it deprived working families of wealth and property.
By its nature, smuggling is an elusive subject for a document-bound historian. Díaz digs past news articles and court cases, which he believes only echo the biases of cultural elites. Instead, he examines the oral histories contained in Mexican smuggler ballads and looks at court cases with an eye as to whether suspects were apprehended by authorities or turned over by disgruntled locals.
Other notable parts of the book include Díaz’s discussion of female mescal smugglers. While women had long been involved with moving clothing and other home goods across the border, the appearance of female liquor runners in the late 19th century outraged both Anglos and Mexicans alike, as it violated notions of proper female conduct. It also had the secondary effect of subjecting Mexican women to searches by American officials. As a result, locals were quick to turn over suspected female alcohol smugglers to customs officials.
The book also provides one of the few historical accounts of illicit American firearms sales to Mexico. While Mexico’s recent drug-cartel wars have put this subject in the news, arms trafficking has been a binational security concern since the end of the Mexican revolution in 1920. As a number of church-affiliated and conservative organizations resented the land redistribution and oil nationalization reforms of the new Mexican government, radicalized insurgent groups undertook operations to obtain American guns and ammunition throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
Ultimately this book is as much an account of binational smuggling as it is about borderland culture. For nearly two centuries now, the contrabandista has been so tightly woven into this area’s economy and mores that it is little wonder that for a few months in the mid-19th century, regional residents seceded from both Mexico and the fledgling Republic of Texas to form the Republic of the Río Grande.