Bandit lands are places where outlaws can base themselves and their confederates, operate their criminal enterprises and also hide from the law or other antagonists. These secret spaces can be mountains, forests, river valleys, marshes, or along borderlands – wherever access is difficult and solitude assured. They have existed everywhere since ancient times. Some still do.
Quite a few of the outlaws who have inhabited these wild areas have become, rightly or wrongly, popular heroes, celebrated in rousing songs and fiery stories. Here’s the first of an occasional Gristly History series about them titled ‘Bandit Lands’.
CORTINAS – ALONG THE RIO GRANDE
The ‘Border’, being the contested land between America and Mexico, has a long, unsettled history. Incursions, lynchings, riots, wars, smuggling and ongoing antagonism between Anglos and Mexican-Americans have produced some celebrated outlaw heores. The earliest of these was a well-born man who became known as ‘Cortinas’.
Juan Nepomuceno (Cheno) Cortina (1824-1894) was known from the time of his outlawry as ‘Cortinas’. His family had aristocratic origins and a large landholding in the lower Rio Grande Valley, particularly around the south Texas city of Brownsville, across the border from Matamoros. After fighting in an irregular unit during the Mexican American War of 1846-1848, Cortinas returned to the family farm which he appears to have used as a base for rustling. He was twice indicted for these offences but was able to escape arrest through the family political connections.
After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially declared the border between Mexico and the United States in 1848, relations between the Anglos and Mexican Americans in the Brownsville area deteriorated. One of the major issues was the belief that Americans were using their superior knowledge of the legal system to enable them to procure ever-greater amounts of land at the expense of Mexican-Americans new to the country.
One day in July 1859 Cortinas witnessed the Brownsville Marshall, Bob Spears, arresting and pistol-whipping a man who had worked on his mother’s farm. There was a confrontation in which Cortinas shot and killed the Marshall and escaped with the prisoner. Cortinas was outlawed and from then on became a guerrilla, fighting the Americans and also operating in the politics and conflicts within Mexico itself. In September 1859 he and his men attacked and occupied Brownsville, shooting five locals. Cortinas eventually retreated to the family ranch from where he later issued a proclamation defending the rights of Mexican-Americans and demanding that any who infringed them be punished.
There was ongoing violence between Cortinas’ men and various groups of Texas Rangers sent against him. Cortinas issued a second proclamation, calling on Governor Sam Houston to recognise and protect the legal rights of Mexican-Americans. By this time the outlaw’s numbers had expanded to around 400-armed men. There was further fighting with Texas Rangers in December which resulted in Cortinas retreating to Mexico and finally to the Burgos Mountains where he holed up for a year.
He returned to the American side of the Border during the Civil War, fighting against the Confederates. He then became embroiled in the politics and turmoils of Mexico, returning again to the Border in 1870. Despite attempts to have him pardoned for his crimes, based on his support of the victorious Union during the Civil War, Cortinas was forced to return to Mexico in 1871.
In later years the cattle ranchers of the Nueces Strip accused him of being the ringleader of a large rustling operation and he was eventually removed to Mexico City through American diplomatic pressure. From this time Cortinas passes from the large events of his time. He spent the sixteen years between 1877 and his death from pneumonia in 1894 in prison and under house arrest.
Despite obscurity, neglect and vandalism of his grave, Cortinas’ legend among Mexican- Americans is firmly established.[i] He is the subject of a famous corrido, or ballad, that portrays him as a great hero and friend of the Mexican people, whose death caused the gringos to celebrate:
That famed General Cortinas
is quite sovereign and free,
the honor due him is greater
for he saved a Mexican’s life.
The Americans made merry,
they got drunk in the saloons,
out of joy over the death
of the famed General Cortinas.[ii]
Cortinas was, and still is, a hero of the Mexican-American people. Stories and songs of his real and fanciful actions remained strong in oral tradition and prepared the way for the greatest of all the Border outlaws, Gregorio Cortez.
[i] Thompson, J. (ed), Juan Cortina and the Texas-Mexico Frontier 1859-1877, The University of Texas at El Paso, El Paso, Texas, Southwestern Studies 99, 1994, pp. 93.
[ii] Hispanic American Almanac, Gale, 1997.