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Juan Cortina

Juan Nepomuceno Cortina Goseacochea (May 16 1824October 30 1894), better known as Juan Cortina or by his nickname "Cheno Cortina" and "the Red Robber of the Rio Grande", was a Mexican rancher, politician, military leader, outlaw and folk hero. He is famous for leading a Mexican force of irregulars and outlaws organized as a guerrilla insurgency first against the Republic of Texas, then the United States and the Confederate States of America. From 1842-1846, he was part of a secret faction of large Mexican ranchers who resisted attempts by the Texas Republic to lay claim to its southern region. During the Mexican-American War between 1846-1848 he was a commissioned officer in the Mexican Army fighting against the army of General Zachary Taylor. He is remembered most infamously for leading the First and Second Cortina Wars, usually referred as the Cortina Troubles in 1859-61, against the United States including the State of Texas and its Texas Rangers and local militia of Brownsville (Texas), and the U.S. Military, in the Rio Grande Valley area. However, Cortina's hatred of Texas was sufficient to be enlisted into the Union Army during the American Civil War and he lead a Union army in Southern Texas during the war. Following the war Cortina was pardoned by the Reconstruction government, and although he continued as a noted cattle rustler and virulent anti-Texan his power was effectively co opted into the post-war structure of Texas. He also figured prominently in the war against the Hapsburg and French in Mexico but fell in intrigue in the later part of the 19th century and was imprisoned before dying in Central Mexico.

Early life and political rising

Juan Cortina that was born in Camargo, Tamaulipas, the son of a wealthy cattle-ranching family. Following the Texas War of Independence The Cortina family used their ranches as frontier strongholds to resist Texas exercising its sovereignty in accordance with the Treaty of Velasco. Cortina never recognized Texas independence, remained a citizen of Mexico and a patriot of his homeland.

In 1846, at age 22, he joined the Mexican Army under the orders of Gen. Mariano Arista, who had arrived at Matamoros in an attempt to stop the advancing forces of Gen. Zachary Taylor. Arista asked Cortina to form a force from the local Vaqueros (Mexican version of Cowboys) that worked for him and the nearby ranches. This irregular cavalry regiment (called the "Tamaulipas") was placed under his command, and as the Mexican-American War began, it took part in the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma.

With the end of the War and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848, the Cortina family estates were divided by the new frontier, leaving a vast portion of their lands inside the United States territory. However, ownership of that land was jeopardized by the legal reasoning of common law which allowed by squatter rights, discouraged vast concentrations of land wealth in non-white hands, and put alien ownership at a disadvantage. Therefore, Cortina became an important political boss for the South Texas Democratic Party, paid off the Mexican government to keep his lands as a US citizens, succeeded in defending his rights in a number of cases and thereby remained a large ranch owner albeit substantially reduced. However, Cortina never forgot his allegiance and love of Mexico, remained bitter about the loss of his land and continually resisted inroads to his caudillo power in South Texas. Since many large landowners lost land to white settlers who stole it under the new common law system, they and Cortina used their substantial retinues of vaqueros, peons, servants, and allied Mexican small farmers to form a political union which resisted Texan landgrab thereby keeping many settlers away. Eventually Cortina came in conflict with an influential group of thieves, lawyers and judges of Brownsville, who were united in opposing the political bossism of Cortina. In turn, Cortina agitated the Mexican population when he accused his opponents of expropriating land from Mexican Texans or "Tejanos", who were unfamiliar with the American legal system. Cortina spread pamphlets against the landgrabbing slavers: "Flocks of vampires, in the guise of men, Gringos" he wrote, robbed Mexicans "of their property, incarcerated, chased, murdered, and hunted them like wild beasts". Cortina managed a carefully constructed insurgency of intimidation, assassination, propaganda, agitation, legalism, and political mass action to retaliate Texan ranchers, store owners, and other Tejanos who collaborated with the authorities. Eventually, Cortina's clandestine activities and he was finally indicted twice on charges of cattle theft. However, because of the threat of wide spread insurgency and his own large private army he was not arrested. With the self-appointed purpose of defending the rights of Mexicans and Tejanos Cortina gathered, trained and armed a private army which interfered with the law, evicted or killed Texan ranchers and farmers, and stopped the enforcement of common law rulings against dividing his and other caudillo's large properties. Through his superb political maneuvering and his hatred of Americans, he became a popular leader among the poorer local population, who viewed him as a hero against the Gringos.

The Cortina Troubles

With outright flouting of the law, the tension between Cortina and the Brownsville authorities finally broke into violence, and on 13 July 1859, the First Cortina War started. That day, Brownsville Marshall Robert Shears was arresting Cortina's former employee, Tomás Cabrera who was brutalizing a prostitute for disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct, and public drunkenness. Cortina happened to pass by, and asked the Marshall to let him handle the situation, who is said to have then yelled at him "What is it to you, you damned Mexican?". Cortina pulled his sidearms and shot the marshall wounding him critically. This flouting of the law in broad daylight on the public streets caused consternation among the Texans when the authorities refused to bring Cortina to court out of fear. Realizing the weakness of the opposition to his rule, Cortina on 28 September raided, occupied, and looted the town with 40 to 80 Mexican cowboys. As the stores were pillaged and burned and the Texan men captured and brutalized, the authorities fled, Texans were effectively removed from Brownsville. Cortina then issued a famous proclamation to reveal his intentions to the Mexican population. "(...) There is no need of fear. Orderly people and honest citizens are inviolable to us in their persons and interests. Our object, as you have seen, has been to chastise the villainy of our enemies, which heretofore has gone unpunished. These have connived with each other, and form, so to speak, a perfidious inquisitorial lodge to persecute and rob us, without any cause, and for no other crime on our part than that of being of Mexican origin, considering us, doubtless, destitute of those gifts which they themselves do not possess. (...) Mexicans! Peace be with you! Good inhabitants of the State of Texas, look on them as brothers, and keep in mind that which the Holy Spirit saith: "Thou shalt not be the friend of the passionate man; nor join thyself to the madman, lest thou learn his mode of work and scandalize thy soul."

Cortina retained control over Brownsville until 30 September 1859, when he evacuated the town at the urging of influential residents of Matamoros. The following days, the surviving Texans formed a 20 man group in order to fight Cortina, called "the Brownsville Tigers". In November, the Brownsville Tigers learned that Cortina was at his mother's ranch in the nearby town of Santa Rita, five miles west of Brownsville. Although outnumbered they immediately launched an attack, only to be sent into retreat in disarray by Cortina's forces.

Later the same month, the Brownsville Tigers were joined by a unit of Texas Rangers, and Cortina decided to attack them. The offensive was unsuccessful, and on December, a second group of Rangers led by Capt. John "Rip" Ford arrived, larger and better organized. Because of appeals from Brownsville citizens, the U.S. Army sent troops from San Antonio to the nearby Fort Brown, which had been abandoned due to Cortina's incessant raids a few years previously. The fort's new commander, Maj. Samuel Heintzelman, united and coordinated all armed groups to put an end to the Cortina threat. Cortina retreated up the Rio Grande, until on December 27, 1859 Heintzelman and Ford engaged him in the battle of Rio Grande City. Cortina put up resistance but eventually fled with bodyguards leaving his partisans decisively defeated, with over sixty men killed and their arms confiscated. Cortina and his gang were pursued by Ford who eventually caught up to Cortina. In the ensuring firefight, more of Cortina's men were killed but Cortina managed to escape into the Burgos Mountains. The First Cortina War had finished, Cortina was a declared outlaw, his citizenship stripped, and following increasing pressure from both the United States without support from the Mexican Government. Cortina remained in hiding for the remainder of the year only to emerge with the beginning of the American Civil War.

In May 1861, the much shorter Second Cortina War took place. The Civil War had just began, and Cortina who despised Texas and Texans quickly aligned himself with the Federal Government of the United States. Having used the proceeding year to rebuild his partisans, and newly supplied by the Union government, Cortina invaded Zapata County, pillaging and looting the surrounding communities. However, he was defeated by Confederate Capt. Santos Benavides at the battle of Carrizo and retreated back into Mexico, after losing eighteen men. Although he would no longer conduct large scale military incursions within the territory of the United States, Cortina continued a program of assassinating individual Texan ranchers and farmers, stealing their cattle and burning their farms, for the remainder of the war. In contrast, due to events in Mexico, Cortina focused most of his attentions and resources to the south.

Later political career

In the following years, Cortina focused on his political career within the state of Tamaulipas. President Benito Juárez appointed him military commander of the forces stationed at the southeastern frontier. Cortina already held other civil offices and combined with his military office and large land he was quickly the de facto dictator of the state.

When the French intervention in Mexico began in 1862, Cortina sided with Juárez at first, and took part at the Battle of Puebla on May 5. However, as the French eventually defeated the Mexican forces led by the Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza and succeeded to establish Archduke Maximilian of Habsburg as sovereign of Mexico, Cortina sensed the opportunity to consolidate his power in the Tamaulipas region and switched sides by joining the invaders. However, this move proved costly politically. Always keen to the masses of the Mexican population, Cortina realized that despite his substantial power, a majority of the populace opposed to him would end his power. Consequently, his alliance with the Franco-Mexicans was short-lived, and soon Cortina rose against the Hapsburg ruler. Commanding a large army that he had personally gathered and equipped, he engaged the French forces who arrived to intervene at Tampico and defeated them. His further military actions along Central Mexico helped in the effort against the invasion. Along with other Mexican caudillos who sat in judgement, Cortina ordered the execution of the captured Maximilian in Querétaro. During this time, in keeping with his caudillo sensibilities, he appointed himself Governor of Tamaulipas twice in 1864 and 1865. He resignated the charge in 1866 in favor of Generals José María Carvajal and Santiago Tapia.

The attitude of the Federal government towards Cortina changed completely with his support in attacking the Confederacy and his important role in the defense of the Mexican Government. Additionally, in the wake of Reconstruction and the brief occupation of Texas, substantial numbers of wealth Americans from the northern states arrived in South Texas and bought property in the area. Thus, after returning to his estates in Matamoros in 1870, the Union forces formally him invited on several occasions as guest of honor of the city of Brownsville. His support to the Union motivated many former northerners who were now notable residents of the Rio Grande Valley (including a former mayor of Brownsville) to endorse a petition to the Texas Legislature, asking for a formal pardon for his crimes during the Cortina Troubles. However, the majority of native Texans, particularly those who were present during the Cortina Troubles and those who supported the Confederacy still viewed Cortina with hostility. Consequently, this motion didn't prosper and was eventually rejected. Nonetheless, Cortina still had the lasting sympathy of the Mexican-Texan population who viewed Cortina as the hammer of the Gringos. Indeed, the Mexican authorities in Mexico also honored him: he was appointed Brigadier General, and the largest battalion of the state of Tamaulipas was renamed "el Batallón Cortina" (the "Cortina Battalion").

Arrest and exile

However, Cortina's days of glory didn't last. His support to the Plan de Tuxtepec and Porfirio Díaz, followed by his efforts of raising an army from the local population to attempt another coup d'etat in favor of Díaz and sheltering the then-fugitive General, earned him the animosity of Juárez and his successor to the Presidency, Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada. Additionally, Cortina couldn't resist the allure of easy plucking by stealing the cattle of the smaller Texan ranchers.

Although the carpetbagger ranchers of the North were quick to support Cortina, over time they too felt the sting of Cortina's thefts. Eventually, it was these raids on the carpetbaggers which caused the loss of his support once again in America and with it the loss of support in Mexico. Repeated accusations against him by wealthy landowners in Texas of conducting raids against their cattle and properties were eventually heeded by the Mexican Government, and used as public justification to detain him. In 1875, Cortina was arrested and brought to Mexico City.

On 29 November 1876, Díaz was finally able to overthrow the Government and appointed himself President of Mexico. Cortina was allowed to return to Tamaulipas, where he once again tried to raise an armed force. But before he could put this new army to any use, Díaz ordered his arrest and confinement within Mexico City for the second time.

Many factors contributed to Díaz decision, the main ones being Cortina's ambition to power within Tamaulipas above anything, and the consequent unreliability and instability of his support, as he had already demonstrated many times in his life. Díaz had also received a large sum of money, estimated from anywhere between $50,000 to $200,000 from the wealthy South Texas ranchers to finance his seizure of power with the condition that, in turn, he would take care of stopping Cortina's raids on United States territory. Most importantly, Díaz was determined to remain in absolute control of the Government (as he did for the subsequent 33 years), no matter the means involved, and he systematically removed all traces of opposition that could have challenged his will. Also, with diplomatic pressure coming from the United States Government, which was concerned about Cortina's ambitions in Cameron County and his behavior in the past, the President decreed the arrest and execution of his former ally.

Gen. José Canales, a long time enemy of Cortina who was sent to carry out the order, decided to bring him to Mexico City instead, fearing the popular reprisals from the people of Tamaulipas. He was kept at the military prison of Santiago Tlaltelolco, without being tried or sentenced. He remained there until 1890, when he was pensioned to a big hacienda below Mexico City. Cortina never again regained power in Mexico. He died in Azcapotzalco, Mexico City on October 30, 1894.

References, additional readings and external links

  • Juan Nepomuceno Cortina Goceoscochea, by Ing. Manuel Humberto González Ramos, Universidad Autónoma de Tamaulipas, 2001.
  • Juan Cortina and the Texas-Mexico frontier (1859-1877), by Jerry D. Thompson, Southwestern Studies, 1994 (ISBN 0-87404-195-3).
  • "Cheno Cortina", the Tamaulipas man who invaded Texas, by Adrián Cerda, Editorial Contenido, 2001.
  • Juan Cortina and the Struggle for Justice in Texas, by Carlos Larralde and Jose R. Jacobo, Kendall Hunt, 2000.
  • Juan N. Cortina Bandit or Patriot? An Address by J.T. Canales to the Lower Rio Grande Valley Historical Association. 22 Oct 1951.
  • U. S. Congress, House, Difficulties on the Southwestern Frontier, 36th Congress, 1st Session, 1860, H. Exec. Doc. 52, pp. 70-82.
  • Texas Politics & the Legends of the Fall, by Robert H. Angell, McGraw Custom Publishing. 2003. pp. 23-36.
  • . Accessed on September 7th, 2005.
  • Juan Nepomuceno Cortina, el Chino Accessed on September 7th, 2205.

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