18 October 1915 – Paper Tiger

José Venustiano Carranza Garza is eager to win recognition of his presidency from the United States, with all that such status entails in diplomatic and economic terms. A cagey operator in the full-spectrum conflict zone of revolutionary Mexico, Carranza has no territorial designs on the United States, but he is not above making best use of his American neighbor to destroy his remaining foes in detail to rule the Mexico that is. At the cost of an arm at the Battle of Léon in June, a wound which will become part of his personal legend, Carranza’s military partner General Álvaro Obregón has won decisive battles against Pancho Villa all year, putting the wily contender on the run in the north of the country, where he can run afoul of the gringos. Another of Carranza’s enemies, the exiled dictator Victoriano Huerta, has been compromised by an amateurish German agent in New York, arrested trying re-enter Mexico via El Paso, and then died in American custody this summer. Against his enemies, America is Carranza’s anvil, and Obregón is his hammer.

With Mexican food and migrant labor systems badly disrupted by the renewed conflict, banditry and lawlessness have been on the rise again, incurring official actions. America has a small land army in 1915, and much of it has already been deployed along the Mexican border in response to the increased crime and violence spilling out of their benighted southern neighbor, whereupon their uniforms have become new magnets for violence. Targeted as agents of the oppressive Anglos, the attacks reached a peak in August, when a raiding band hit a divisional headquarters at Norias Ranch and were driven off, leaving behind five dead bandits. President Woodrow Wilson was thereafter forced to deploy federalized National Guard troops to Rio Grande City, from which it has taken up position in the surrounding border towns, somewhat relieving the only real cavalry division in the US Army in its watch over the entire Rio Grande valley.

America’s response is already fully federalized. Texas Governor Oscar Branch Colquitt first called for federal Army protection in 1914, after Laredo rancher Clemente Vergara was killed on the wrong side of the border trying to recover a stolen horse; contrary to their later pop culture mystique, the Texas Rangers have been singularly unsuccessful during the ‘Bandit War,’ arresting and often lynching random Hispanic citizens in response to these events, but breaking whenever they come under fire from actual criminals. As deeply racist as his country, Wilson is nevertheless eager to dispel a burgeoning race war in Texas, where the human geography is as complex as the land is flat. Adding to frustrations, the other side of the Rio Grande is beyond their legal reach whenever livestock thieves, robbers, and murderers take sanctuary in the lawless chaos; calls for intervention are growing.

In short, the border zone is the perfect place for an operator like Carranza to make the giant dance to his tune. Since February, Americans have been captivated by rumors that a serious rebellion is underway in former Mexican territories. Titled the Plan de San Diego for the Texas city where it was supposedly drafted, the entire public narrative is based on a single crumpled carbon copy of the ‘plan’ that was found in the pocket of a Mexican man named Basilio Ramos who was arrested carrying the curious document on January 23rd while trying to recruit a prominent sympathizer of Pancho Villa in McAllen to join its creased and worn cause. Curiously, Ramos seems utterly naive about the execution of the plot; under questioning, he seems to have little specific idea of how he should proceed; the judge in his trial remarks that he seems…off, perhaps even touched by madness. This observation classifies him with Werner Horn, the German patsy recruited to bomb the Canadian railway on the US border the same day that news of ‘the Plan’ became headlines in papers.

Among other points, the crumpled manifesto calls for an armed uprising and the indiscriminate murder of whites — the kind of language that is guaranteed to heighten the fears and outrage of even non-bigoted Anglos, putting further political pressure on Wilson to Do Something. Jailed, Ramos also received a letter on February 2nd which seemed to indicate an arms purchase had taken place, but it bore a false return address in Laredo. In fact, Ramos is a patsy in Carranza’s ruthless game of thrones, and the Plan of San Diego is only as real as it has to be in order to win recognition from Washington.


A photo of the derailed Olmito train. It was not the first time railway infrastructure had come under attack by bandits

At about 10:00 tonight near Tandy’s Station, a few miles north of Brownsville, a gang reported as five dozen but probably no more than twenty men pull the rails askew right in front of the Olmita train and derail her. Immediately, the engineer is impaled and killed and the fireman badly singed, but then the scene turns even more gruesome as the banditos rob the male train passengers of their shoes, shooting soldiers and Anglo males. A white doctor and four soldiers are murdered, while others are wounded but survive. Heroically, the Negro porter runs barefoot for the nearest help; the erstwhile secesionistas let him go, for the Plan de San Diego calls for solidarity with African Americans — as well as one specific Native American tribe making trouble in West Texas, and oddly, Japanese Americans. Tomorrow, as suspects are arrested and often summarily killed, the bodies of four Mexicans are discovered in a thorny scrabble near Tandy’s Station. Possibly bandits killed in the crossfire, or possibly propaganda, three of these men wear ribbons in their hats reading “Viva la Independencia de Texas.” Rumors of a five hundred man insurgent force suddenly seem alarmingly possible, and so the Plan of San Diego alarms an American nation already perturbed by world conflicts.

Recognized by a passenger, Luis de la Rosa is an anarchist devotee of writer Ricardo Flores Magón and a genuine revolutionary recruit to the Plan de San Diego. His political writings are lost to us, but we can be sure de la Rosa’s motives for leading the attacks on the Olmita Train and Norias Ranch are political. Like a mafioso lured to his death, de la Rosa is on his way to receive his expected reward in the apparent safety of Monterrey next June when he is arrested by a Mexican officer and disappears as a political prisoner for a time, dying of tuberculosis in 1930 without ever returning to the US. Carranza has offered to help the Americans with their border problems in exchange for diplomatic recognition as the President of Mexico, and he is as good as his word, for just as the Plan seems most real, it is about to promptly disappear from the scene. Two more American soldiers are killed in October during shooting incidents, and white Texas citizens make public calls to arms, but like de la Rosa, the insurrectionists who make it to safety find themselves ‘guests’ of Mexico during the months to come.

Nevertheless, a century later the Plan of San Diego remains a radical rallying cry for those leftists and libertarians who don’t believe in borders, and a precious gift to those who want to “steal Texas the way Americans stole it from Mexico, who stole it from Spain, who stole it from the Indians, who stole it from each other,” as the old saw goes. Wrapped in pseudohistorical projections, the Plan — and the ‘impossible border‘ with Mexico — remain key obsessions of the right wing populist paranoid style of authoritarianism in American politics. Otherwise forgotten, it is a classic tale of terroristic manipulation, and argues that the supposedly-new era which dawned with our chronological century and its asymmetric conflicts is in fact our current world, now a century old. We have changed, and for the better, but in many ways we are still this America: scared, reactionary, and militant.


The casket of Corporal Albert McBee, who was in uniform but unarmed, killed instantly by a gunshot to the heart