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The Forgotten Americans ... The Story of Rio Rico

Posted on Jul 3rd 2018

The Forgotten Americans ... The Story of Rio Rico

In 1906 the Rio Grande Land and Irrigation Company owned the tract of land south of Mercedes, TX which is now known as the Horcon Tract. Located on this tract of land was a small Texas town called Rio Rico. Owners of the company were concerned that the Rio Grande River, the official boundary between Texas and Mexico, would shift its course leaving their new irrigation pumping station high and dry.

Without legal authorization, they diverted the river's course manually by blasting and digging a new channel north of the town of Rio Rico. When all was said and done, Rio Rico, TX was left south of the river.

American authorities charged the company with violating treaties with Mexico that forbade artificial water diversions. Those treaties also stipulated that while such diversions might change the course of the river, they did not change the international boundary. The company paid a $10,000 fine in 1911, and also paid $2,000 to survey and mark the international boundary in the nowdry riverbed.

Even though the tract of land was legally still a part of the United States, its location, now south of the river, caused it to come under the jurisdiction of Mexican authorities in the area.

Local Texans paid little attention to this situation. In fact the town of Rio Rico prospered as a gambling community during the prohibition years. A Chicago syndicate, rumored to have ties to Al Capone himself, developed Rio Rico in 1928. They built a greyhound race track and saloons and welcomed Texans to come and enjoy themselves. Some say that they may have smuggled narcotics out of Mexico by hiding the drugs under the blankets placed over the dogs after a race.

For 10 cents, anyone could cross a two lane, 260-foot suspension bridge built in 1928 linking Rio Rico, on the south end of the bridge, and Thayer, Texas. "The story goes, in one year they paid back the bridge completely on that 10-cent fee. That's how many people went over there," said Laurier McDonald, retired Edinburg attorney and local historian.

The town's resort status plummeted at the end of prohibition in the mid-1930s. When a storm washed away the bridge in 1941, the town became just another small border town.

Legal Ramifications
When the Rio Grande Land and Irrigation Company paid the fines imposed and the cost of surveying the international boundary, they neglected to pay an additional $200 to place markers defining those boundaries.

After prohibition was repealed Rio Rico faded into the past and became just another sleepy border town. Persistent flooding caused residents of the town to relocate farther south to where it is presently located. Mexican authorities continued to govern the area even though officially it was still in United States territory.

For three decades Texans virtually ignored Rio Rico as though it never existed. Then in 1967 James E. Hill Jr. was writing a scholarly treatise and stumbled upon the forgotten EI Horcon Tract. Calling the tax assessor of Hidalgo County, Hill asked if they were collecting taxes on the Texas land. He was told they weren't since the county had no control of Rio Rico because it was south of the river, Mexico territory.

Though the residents of Rio Rico were nicknamed the Lost Americans, the Forgotten Americans, nothing more was done until Homero Cantu Trevino entered the picture, walking into the Edinburg, TX law office of Laurier McDonald to inquire about immigration papers. As fate would have it, McDonald had been talking to the County Tax Assessor and knew of the stories of Rio Rico and the Horcon Tract.

When Cantu stated his birthplace as Rio Rico, McDonald's interest was piqued. "As far as I'm concerned, based on what you told me, you're an American citizen," McDonald told Cantu.

As a result of this chance encounter and the litigation that followed, Cantu was declared an American Citizen by Interim Decision No. 2748 in Hidalgo County.

In 1970, the U.S. ceded the territory to Mexico in the Boundary Treaty of 1970, the American-Mexican Treaty Act of October 25, 1972 authorized the U.S.'s participation and the handover to Mexico took place in 1977.

At the announcement of Rio Rico being American soil from 1906 to 1972, Rio Rico became a virtual ghost town overnight as residents flocked to the U.S. to gain their rightful citizenship. From around the world, non-Americans called, claiming Rio Rico as their birthplace hoping for that elusive U.S. citizenship. McDonald helped over 250 claim their legal rights as Americans.

If only the land and irrigation company had paid the $200 for those silly little markers, copious amounts of time and money would have been saved.

On a final note... in 1978, Hidalgo County received a check in the amount of $7,873 for back taxes for Rio Rico.