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Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

Smuggling Liquor

by C. F. Eckhardt

From 1919 until 1933 the United States was in the throes of one of the worst mistakes it has ever made—prohibition. The passage of an amendment to the Constitution forbade the consumption of alcoholic beverages unless prescribed by a physician. It was a crime to sell any alcoholic beverage except by physician’s prescription, to transport any alcoholic beverage, or even to make for personal consumption any alcoholic beverage.

Texas has the longest border with Mexico of any state. Mexico had no prohibition. It was perfectly legal to make, sell, transport, and consume alcohol in Mexico. Just across the Rio Grande was a very thirsty state. There was no question money was to be made in smuggling liquor across the border. In fact there was a lot of money to be made—but smuggling liquor had its dangers. One of those dangers was a group called the Texas Rangers.

Will L. Wright was commissioned Captain of Company B, Texas Rangers, in 1918. In 1919 Co. B was assigned to the lower border, from Brownsville to Laredo. This was the hotbed of smuggling. Above Laredo there was little along the border at the time until you got to El Paso. Acuña was a wide spot in the road, Del Rio little more than that. What is now US 90 was a dirt cowpath. Presidio was almost completely isolated and the terrain between Presidio and anywhere else made smuggling heavy cans of alcohol by mule—or man—entirely impractical.

Liquor smugglers used pack trains of mules—or human carriers—to bring across rotgut alcohol in 10-gallon cans. Customarily they would attempt to cross the river on moonless nights, swimming and pushing their cans of liquor on makeshift rafts before them. Their clothing and shoes, if human carriers were being used, were placed on the rafts along with the liquor. A mule could carry up to sixty gallons—six 10-gallon cans—but a man carried only two. However, it was easier to trail mules than it was men, so many smugglers used human ‘mules.’

What came across was by no means good liquor. It was distilled from anything distillable, then cut with any number of substances once it reached the American buyers.

While excellent liquor sometimes came across the Canadian border—though Canada also had a form of prohibition, there was no Canadian law forbidding the making of liquor for export—that which came out of Mexico was often pure poison.

Federal authorities tried to stem the tide of the imports, but there were few Federal agents, the ones there were, were usually underpaid, and many of them were corrupt. The major force along Texas’ lower border was Captain Will Wright and Co. B, Texas Rangers.

Will was a salty character. He looked like he might have been Teddy Roosevelt’s twin brother. There is, in fact, a photo of Will on horseback, taken near Cotulla during a freak snowstorm, that’s often been published as a photo of Roosevelt. On one occasion, when he brought in a prisoner across a saddle, Will had to contend with a new form the Rangers adopted for reports. Formerly the Rangers had simply written narrative reports, but the new one had blocks to fill in. One of the blocks was labeled ‘Disposition of Prisoner.’ Will scratched his head, thought about it a while, then wrote “Mean as Hell. Had to kill him.”

To give an idea of how effective Wright’s Company B was, in five short days in November of 1921, the company captured 4,200 quarts of alcohol, along with 63 pack horses and mules. This took place on November 17 in Zapata County, on November 18 in Webb County, and on November 22 in Duval County. Needless to say, the smugglers, their suppliers in Mexico, and their clients in Texas were none too happy about this.

The pack trains, whether animal or human, were guarded. Most of the guards were noted pistoleros—men of considerable reputation on both sides of the border. Many of them were wanted in Texas or other border states for murder. There were few captures without a gunfight. Exactly how many pistoleros died—or were captured, though most died—there seems to be no exact record. Since many of the pistoleros were facing the noose or electric chair north of the border, they usually elected to shoot it out with Wright’s Rangers rather than submit to capture. The carriers, who were always unarmed save for perhaps a machete, usually either shed their cargoes and took to the brush or surrendered. A few Rangers lost their lives in the desperate shootouts, but many, many more pistoleros fell to Ranger gunfire. It was called ‘naturalizin’ ‘em.’

When the amendment was finally repealed, beginning in 1933 with the legalization of the sale of 3.2% beer, the Rangers breathed a sigh of relief. They didn’t consider interdiction of alcohol to be their primary purpose. However, since the Federal authorities along the border were almost entirely ineffective in doing it, the Rangers filled the gap. For the record, they’re still ‘filling the gap.’ This time it’s narcotics, not liquor. If the Ranger record in interdicting narcotics traffic is ever publicized, it will again outstrip that of the Federal authorities.

© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas" September 4, 2010 column

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