Bootlegging Tequila During The Prohibition Era
The Prohibition Act of 1919 created the tequila smugglers from Mexico called “tequilero” since the production and consumption of alcohol products in the United States were banned. Smugglers began smuggling spirits into the United States from Mexico. The term “tequilero” literally means “tequila runner,” as tequila was the primary type of alcohol produced in Mexico and smuggled into the United States. “Tequileros” often operated in groups of about three to four men and would cross bridges at the borders with tequila hidden in the spare tires of the car. The majority of “tequilero” corridos take place in the lower border area, such as the Brownsville-Matamoros area.
In the specific corrido “Los Tequileros,” three men named Leandro, Silvano, and Geronimo begin their smuggling operation in Ciudad Guerrero, Tamaulipas, across the border from Zapata, Texas. The target city of the men in the town of San Diego, Texas, approximately one hundred miles northeast of Zapata, is the same as the famed city involved in the “Plan of San Diego.” The men are eventually ambushed by Rangers “rinches” upon their arrival in Texas.
A Poem Sung The Tequila Smugglers
The emphasis of the corridor (Ballard) is not the act of smuggling the men in which the men partake but the conflict that ensues between the “tequileros” and the “rinches.” The majority of smuggling corridos tend to glorify the acts of the smuggler by emphasizing their violent death at the hands of the United States rangers
On the third day of November,
What an eventful day!
The rinches from the other side,
killed three from Guerrero.
They left Guerrero
with anise-flavored tequila,
the direction they were taking
was toward famed San Diego.
When they arrived at the Rio Grande,
they stopped and thought:
“We better bring Leandro,
because there are only two of us.”
They asked Leandro to go with them,
but Leandro said he could not:
“See, I am sick,
and I don’t want to go this way.”
They kept asking him to go,
until Leandro accompanied them,
in the hills of Miranda,
he was the first one to die.
They shot them at the same time,
they should have known,
Geronimo fell dead,
and Silvano fell severely wounded.
Silvano fell with two shots
he still remained speaking:
“Kill me, you cowardly rinches
so you can’t ask me any more questions.”
The captain of the rinches
came up close to Silvano,
and in a few seconds,
Sivano Garcia was dead.
The rinches were brave,
there is no doubt of that,
the only way they can kill us
is to hunt us like deer.
So here is my farewell,
on my horse Lucero,
of the killing of three fine roosters
from the town of Guerrero.
Why It Was So Romanticised
Because they limited their activity to evading unpopular laws and resisted institutionally racist Anglo authority in the process, ethnic Mexicans (Tejanos) often valorized tequileros despite their illegal acts.
Folk admiration of tequileros endures in period corridos (or romantic ballads) like “Los Tequileros,” “Dionisio Maldonado,” and “Laredo” that are still sung along the border and in the South Texas Brush Country.
Texas Rangers View
Texas Ranger Jesse Perez recounted that officers in the lower Rio Grande Valley were continually frustrated by an animal they dubbed the “Lone Rum-Running Jackass of Starr County,” whose unique talent consisted of its ability to find its way home alone at night. During the day, the donkey’s handler guided the gifted animal across the river into Mexico, where it would be loaded with liquor at nightfall. After loading, smugglers released the animal, confident it would make its way back home where its master waited. Officers’ morning discoveries of a lone pair of tracks emerging from the river provided silent testimony of the donkey’s success.
More discreet businessmen than violent brigands, tequileros tried to avoid conflict, going so far as to ride through scrubland for days to evade detection. Despite their prudence, U.S. law enforcement viewed tequileros as armed invaders and the successors of the rebels (sedicisos) of the previous decade and actively sought them out.
When The Smuggling Stopped
Confrontations between horseback smugglers and county, state, and federal law enforcement ended tequilero operations. When mounted smugglers did not lose their lives, they often lost their property or equipment, driving them out of business.
The last five years of Prohibition saw only six reports of smugglers crossing through the brush in the counties south of Corpus Christi (primarily Zapata County, Duval County in the San Diego area, and Jim Hogg County in the Hebbronville-Randado zone).
Law enforcement’s final skirmish with tequileros occurred in Jim Hogg County in February of 1927 when mounted Customs inspectors killed one smuggler and seized 700 bottles of alcohol and six horses. Future years would see the occasional horseback liquor smuggler, but mounted caravans ended six years before the repeal of national Prohibition in 1933.