The sharp blast of gunfire broke the early morning quiet on a cold January morning in 1918. Thirteen men and two boys had just been rounded up from a small village on the Texas border and slaughtered. The families knew who the assailants were, but no one dared speak out, lest the gunmen return.
In what became one of the worst mass lynchings in the history of the state, none of families of the victims from the small village of Porvenir ever saw justice in their lifetimes. The gunmen were law enforcement officers from the Texas Rangers in one of the darkest chapters of Texas history.
The shootings stemmed from the continuing fallout from the Mexican Revolution just across the border. Competing Mexican factions had fought each other since 1910 in a brutal civil war over issues ranging from land for the poor to dictatorship to corruption. In the meantime, thousands died and thousands more fled to the United States for safety.
Some quietly set up new lives while others set up hospitals and refugee aid stations along the Rio Grande, most notably organizations like the Mexican White Cross. Others went to Texas to buy weapons or sell stolen cattle before moving back across the border.
One of these latter figures included Pancho Villa, a bandit turned revolutionary who rose from obscurity to nearly capturing the whole country by 1914.
By 1915, Villa’s fortunes had changed, and he plotted to use the United States to thrust himself back into power. His plan was not to use America as an ally, however.
He planned to raid border villages in order to force the Americans to invade Mexico. Villa, rapidly becoming a legend in Mexico, would then portray himself as a patriot defending Mexico from the American invaders and the weak central government of Mexico that allowed it.
The first and most notorious was the raid on Columbus, New Mexico, in March 1916 that left 13 Americans dead and 80 of Villa’s 100 raiders dead. Attacks on the Texas communities of Glenn Springs, San Ygnacio and Fort Hancock that summer left seven Americans dead and spread terror along the border.
The Army expedition into Mexico later that year led by Gen. John Pershing failed to capture Villa, but his activities greatly declined.
The Texas side of the border was still thick with fear and nerves were frayed by late 1917 as the nation fought in World War I and still looked warily at the unrest to the south. On Christmas Day, about 45 raiders suddenly struck the Brite Ranch in Presidio County. It was never certain if they were connected to Villa or not. Three Americans and 18 raiders were killed as the 8th Cavalry arrived and drove them off.
Army cavalrymen and Texas Rangers were now looking for revenge. One month later, on the night of Jan. 24, Ranger Company B descended on the nearby village of Porvenir, a community of little more than 140 people, mostly farmers, ranchers and field hands.
“Porvenir,” translated from Spanish, means “future.” Rangers ordered everyone out of their homes – men, women and children – and held them for two days while their homes were searched. The searches turned up nothing that implicated anyone in Porvenir in any of the recent border violence or any other crime. The people were allowed to return to their homes, but the Rangers returned two days later.
This time, the Rangers had the 8th Cavalry and four area ranchers with them. The people again were ordered out of their homes, separated the women and children from the men and the whites from Hispanics.
Thirteen men and two boys, all Hispanic, ranging from ages 15 to 72 were taken by Rangers. There were no warrants, no indictments, and no hearings. All 15 were lined up and executed. Victims included Severiano Herrera, 15; Juan Jimenez, 16; rancher Manuel Moralez, 47; and Antonio Castanedo, 72. Moralez’s wife went into labor and delivered their sixth child hours after his father’s death.
The Rangers unit attempted to cover up the entire incident. Company B did not report the incident for an entire month. The people of Porvenir fled across the Rio Grande into Mexico where the men were buried. The 8th Cavalry destroyed the abandoned village days later.
Word slowly leaked out. Widows came forward to give affidavits while the Army condemned the Rangers. By June, Gov. William P. Hobby disbanded Company B, fired five Rangers, and forced its commanding officer to resign.
Investigations by the Rangers in 1918 and the Texas Legislature in 1919, led by state Rep. Jose Canales, condemned the executions and demanded the entire company be tried for murder. In spite of the evidence and the outrage, no one was indicted. Civil cases in the 1920s faltered, and the incident largely forgotten. There was to be no justice for the men of Porvenir.
Numerous reforms to the Rangers and law enforcement have been enacted in the century since this incident took place. Descendants of the people of Porvenir have since worked to present the story of the massacre to the public. In 2018, the state unveiled a memorial to the murder victims.
But where a thriving community should exist, lay only ruins and questions still unanswered.