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Did You Know... Massive Flood in 1864 Altered Course of Rio Grande Resulting in Border Dispute?

The Rio Grande changed course gradually with each flood season, however the flood of 1864 resulted in the creation of large land protrusions, called “bancos,” which altered previously known borders. One of those “bancos” came to be known as Chamizal, which was named after the river thicket plants that once covered the territory. Chamizal encompassed more than 600 acres between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, that would be held in contention for almost a century.

One land tract within Chamizal was Cordova Island. Though not a true island, Cordova Island was more of a “land peninsula” surrounded on three sides by the United States. During 1920s Prohibition Era, Cordova Island was a trouble spot with an all too convenient gambling parlor and saloon just a few yards south of the U.S. border. This notorious locale, known as the Hole in the Wall, thrived in defiance of U.S. authorities until 1931, when the building was demolished.

In the 1920s cross-border drug trafficking and illegal immigration increased especially after the Immigration Act of 1924, which significantly limited the number of immigrants allowed into the United States. In what had been termed “No Man’s Land,” Cordova Island was common ground for gun battles between those attempting to cross the border illegally and the officers of the Customs Service Patrol and the Immigration and Naturalization Patrol. This “No Man’s Land,” as reported by “El Paso Times” journalist Raymond Stover, was “a name to be thought of as the bloodiest section of the entire United States border.” By 1960, the Chamizal dispute involving both the Chamizal tract and Cordova Island had remained unresolved for nearly 100 years. The beginning of the end of the dispute came in 1962 with the meeting of President Lopez Mateo of Mexico and President John F. Kennedy in Mexico City, who initiated efforts to reach a mutual agreement. In July of 1963, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Mann and Mexican Foreign Minister Manuel Tello signed the Chamizal Convention in Mexico City. President Lyndon Johnson signed the agreement in January 1964, and in April of the same year, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed Public Law 88-300, the “Chamizal Convention Act.”

The agreement awarded Mexico 366 acres of the Chamizal area and 71 acres east of the adjacent Cordova Island. Although no payments were made between the two governments, the United States received compensation from a private Mexican bank for 382 structures included in the transfer. The United States also received 193 acres of Cordova Island from Mexico. The two nations agreed to share equally the cost of rechanneling the Rio Grande which would prevent the river from blurring the international border in the future.

The Chamizal Convention of 1963 was a milestone in diplomatic relations between the United States and Mexico. In 1968, Congress established the Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso, Texas, to commemorate this treaty. Today, the Chamizal National Memorial flies the flags of both nations and celebrates the culture, history, and heritage of the U.S.-Mexico Borderland.