Rio Rico was once American territory

How the American town of Rio Rico became Mexican

Rio Rico, a Mexican small border village that turned out to be American.

Now, Río Rico is located along the Rio Grande in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. This settlement is known as a territory that was once American but mistakenly became Mexican. The mistake was found 60 years later.

Rio Rico is a small town that once was part of the USA. Río Rico is located on a portion of the Horcón Tract, a narrow 1.87 sq km piece of land (including the former riverbed) that formally was part of the USA until 1977.

Rio Rico gained fame for its unique status as a piece of land ceded by the United States to Mexico in 1977, as per the terms outlined in the 1970 Border Treaty between the two countries. But how did this situation happen?

The border between the USA and Mexico was officially established in 1848.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War in 1848 and established the Rio Grande as the border between the two countries. But the borderline later underwent various adjustments and negotiations.

Based on the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, any territory north of the Rio Grande was part of the United States at that time. The Horcón Tract was originally north of the Rio Grande – and thus part of the US state of Texas.

The Rio Grande is a rather winding river with many meanders, which result in kind of “fingers” of land, such as the Horcón Tract, a 1.87 sq km area that extends into the Mexican territory and is surrounded by the Rio Grande.

This story started back in the early 1900s when the American company Rio Grande Land and Irrigation had a water pumping station on the American side that took water from the Rio Grande for distribution to local farmers.

In July 1906, as a measure to regulate the river’s water flow for irrigation purposes, the Rio Grande Land and Irrigation Company dug a cutoff to shorten the course of the river, thus bypassing the so-called Horcon Tract.

The diversion was unauthorized, the company was taken to court and was fined $10,000, ordered to convey its ownership of land in the Horcón Tract to the landowners, and ordered to pay damages and costs of $7,200.

The diversion of the river was practically impossible to reverse.

Horcon Tract - Rio Rico

According to the principle of international law, only natural changes in the course of a river affect the borderline, but not if the shift was manmade, so the outlined Horcon Track was agreed to remain American territory.

But although the Horcon Tract was still legally part of the USA, its new location, south of the river, caused it to mistakenly fall under the jurisdiction of Mexican authorities. Residents adapted to becoming part of Mexico.

The history of Rio Rico

In the 1920s, a resort town with alcohol and gambling grew up in the Horcon Tract.

In 1920, Prohibition was introduced throughout the United States, and Rio Rico, left across the river on the Mexican side, was happy to supply its northern neighbors with everything they wanted, including alcohol.

We will never know whether the American visitors knew that Rio Rico was an American, but the forgotten on the other side of the river, Rio Rico didn’t comply with Prohibition, providing alcohol and gambling to its guests.

In 1928, construction began on a bridge over the Rio Grande, and over time the Rio Grande changed its course. The residents accepted the authority of the Mexican government and acted as if the Horcon Tract was Mexican.

So, Río Rico developed as a de facto Mexican settlement.

Since the Rio Grande course change was artificial, the area technically remained under USA jurisdiction, but unaware of the situation, the Mexican authorities assumed control over the area known as the Horcón Tract.

Rio Rico had casinos and a nightclub with a dance floor the size of a basketball court. There were also cockfights and brothels. More than 200 of the fastest dogs arrived for the Rio Rico Kennel Club’s inauguration race.

Prohibition made Rio Rico’s economy flourish.

The name that was heard was that of Al Capone. There is no official record of him having been there. But it is assumed that his henchmen were in charge of pumping money into Rio Rico to turn it into a tourist area.

The good times ended after 1933 when Prohibition was repealed. Río Rico became an ordinary sleepy border town. For several decades, the residents of Rio Rico had forgotten that once they were the USA citizens.

Rio Rico also had a hotel and a theater. In the 1940s people traveled to Rio Rico to see films of Pedro Infante and Sara Garcia, iconic figures in Mexican cinema particularly during its Golden Age in the mid-20th century.

The situation remained unknown until 1967 when a citizen born in Rio Rico but living in Texas faced deportation issues. During the legal proceedings, was discovered that the Horcon Tract was originally part of the USA.

Following the revelation, the residents of Rio Rico began to assert their US nationality. The USA accepted the claims of 250 people, and most of them emigrated to the USA, leaving Rio Rico a shadow of what it once was.

It’s hard to believe Rio Rico was once a very active town. Now it is a quiet kind of settlement with small rickety houses scattered throughout the former Horcon Tract, most of which are abandoned and fallen into disrepair.

Legal implications of Rio Rico’s citizenship

Boundary Treaty of 1970: Simple Explanation

To minimize future problems and regulate the borderline, the Boundary Treaty of 1970 between the USA and Mexico includes rules about what happens when the Rio Grande changes course.

If the Rio Grande naturally shifts sideways, eroding one bank and depositing sediment on the other, the boundary between the two countries will still follow the middle of the main river channel.

If the river changes differently, such as through construction or other human activities, and separates a piece of land from one country, the affected country has the right to restore the river to its original path.

If the separated land is less than 2.5 sq km and has fewer than 100 people, the affected country can take steps to move the river back.

In case, the river isn’t restored within a certain period, the boundary will be fixed according to the middle of the main channel, and the separated land will officially belong to the country it ends up in.

If the affected country decides not to restore the river, they must inform the other country. The boundary will then be set, and the land will change ownership immediately.

This treaty helps both countries manage changes in the river boundaries fairly.

Another Rio Grande border disputes

The Rio Grande has changed course several times in recorded history, leading to several border disputes and uncertainties, both international (involving Mexico and the United States) and between individual US states.

The Country Club Dispute was a dispute between Texas and New Mexico. The US Supreme Court resolved this dispute in 1927.

The Chamizal dispute was a border conflict over a parcel of land between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. The dispute was resolved by the Chamizal settlement in 1963.

The Ojinaga Cut was a disputed parcel of land between Presidio, Texas, and Ojinaga, Chihuahua. The dispute was resolved by the Boundary Treaty of 1970.

The Horcón Tract was a parcel of land surrounded by an oxbow bend of the Rio Grande, that inadvertently defaulted to Mexican administration with time after an irrigation company in 1906 dug an unapproved cut across the oxbow.

Numerous border treaties are jointly administered by the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), which was established in 1889 to maintain the border, allocate river waters between the two nations, and provide for flood control and water sanitation.

Once viewed as a model of international cooperation, in recent decades the IBWC has been heavily criticized as an institutional anachronism, bypassed by modern social, environmental, and political issues.

In particular, jurisdictional issues regarding water rights in the Rio Grande Valley have caused tension between farmers in the border region and sparked a “water war”, according to Mexican political scientist Armand Peschard-Sverdrup.

Use these tags to read more related posts and reviews:
Let us know if this article was useful for you