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Common Ground on the Chamizal

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Bordering the Future

A seemingly insignificant square-mile stretch of flood plain is one of the most compelling examples of international cooperation anywhere along the border. True, such instances of cross-border problem-solving are not all that plentiful. But this one shows that it can be done sometimes--and in dramatic fashion.

More than a century ago, in 1864, a 600-acre tract of land known as the Chamizal ceased being a part of Mexico and joined Texas when the Rio Grande changed courses between the two small settlements that have since grown into El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, the largest twin cities on the Texas-Mexico border.

Mexican President Porfirio Diaz laid formal claim to the land in short order, and his U.S. counterpart, Grover Cleveland, quickly responded in kind. From there, the controversy caused by the rogue river came to characterize several decades of distrustful dispute on a wide range of other issues. In 1911, a Canadian tribunal even awarded two-thirds of the land to Mexico. The U.S. ignored the decision.

Compounding the situation was Cordova Island, which had been created by earlier flood-control efforts. Adjoining the eastern edge of the Chamizal, the 386-acre "island" belonged to Mexico. But it lay on the north side of the Rio Grande and jutted incongruously into the city of El Paso.

So ingrained through the years did the diplomatic impasse become that it was not until the early 1960s that the U.S. and Mexico could bring themselves to reduce the Chamizal question to its basic form--a technical problem to be resolved not by posturing, but in partnership.

The technical problem was as thorny as the chamiza and carrizo vegetation that grew along the river's banks and gave the land its name. International law governing river boundaries held that when waters changed course slowly and methodically--one bank gradually eroding and accreting to the other--the border should move along with the deepest channel. But if the waters in an international boundary were to suddenly shift, abandoning the old bed and cutting a new one, the border should remain in the deepest part of the original river channel.

But the case of the Chamizal was never simple. A combination of testimony from old-time settlers and the evidence gathered in new engineering studies showed it was impossible to determine for sure whether the Rio Grande had changed course through erosion, slowly and over time, or suddenly, by jumping its old banks and forming a new channel. Like the Chamizal itself, the truth seemed to lie somewhere between the two.

Finally, in 1962, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Adolfo Lopez Mateos told their diplomats to find a practical solution. In turn, the diplomats turned to engineers from both nations, and a new concrete-lined channel was designed. It would dissect the disputed land in the Chamizal and on Cordova Island, assigning everything south of the channel to Mexico and everything north of it to the U.S.

Negotiations had only just begun, however, when Kennedy was felled by an assassin's bullets in Dallas and Lopez Mateos suffered a series of cerebral aneurysms. Still, the Mexican president remained well enough for the time being to complete the treaty with Kennedy's successor, Hill Country native Lyndon B. Johnson, a long-time advocate of improved relations between Texas and Mexico.

On September 24, 1964--almost exactly one century after the river had changed course--Johnson and Lopez Mateos met on the Chamizal, unveiling a new boundary marker. Although the final agreement would not be signed until late 1967 (and water would not be diverted into the new channel until the following year), the Chamizal Treaty was hailed on both sides of the border; 437 acres of land had been returned to Mexico.

There were some 5,000 loose ends to clear up, though. That's how many El Paso residents and businesses suddenly found themselves living or working in foreign territory. They were the ones who had to be relocated and for whom new housing, schools, and other services had to be provided. They were the ones who paid the greatest price.

Today, the spirit of international cooperation that led to the Chamizal solution is commemorated on both sides of the border with parks, museums, and cultural events. From the nearby international bridge, you can peer into the national parks facing each other across the Rio Grande's modern course. You can see anti-U.S. graffiti scrawled on the channel's concrete sides. You can see diesel smoke rising from the idling 18-wheelers that straddle the international border. You can even see a cactus flower in the cracks of the cement.

But you can see something else, too. You can see in that channel, in those parks, in that smog--even in that graffiti--the reflection of a cross-border culture that will blossom in the years ahead.

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Bordering the Future