Crowd pleaser with cojones

An early 20th-century postcard showing Texas Rangers over the bodies of slain Mexicans illustrates the brutal nature of Texas' so-called Bandit War, in which an estimated 3,000-5,000 Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were killed.

'Border Bandits' continues to draw audiences eager to expose Texas' Bandit War

Juan Amaya, 64, is a friendly man with a gray mustache who never met his grandfather, because his ancestor vanished along the Texas-Mexico border in the early the 20th century. Amaya is sitting in the lobby of San Antonio's Alamo Drafthouse Cinema on Friday, March 4, sipping coffee and waiting to view the historical documentary Border Bandits. He hopes the film will answer some of his questions about his grandfather's disappearance. "It's always in the back of my mind," Amaya says.

Back by popular demand, Border Bandits is screening for a third time at the Drafthouse: The independent film, produced and directed by Texan Kirby Warnock, sold out on two prior occasions `see "Demythified," November 11-17, 2004`. Tonight, the theater is not full, but everyone seems to have arrived with explicit interest in the subject. Border Bandits is not escapist entertainment. The film recounts what Warnock calls some "ugly truths" in Texas' history: the mass murder of 3,000-5,000 Mexican-Americans in the Lower Rio Grande Valley between 1910 and 1920. The body count is uncertain because the elite law enforcement agency that carried out the killings - the Texas Rangers - did not file any reports or death certificates. Like Amaya's grandfather, the dead just disappeared.

Another audience member is here tonight because she believes the film sets a precedent in revealing an untold chapter of Texas' past. "There is so much history that is never told," she says as the theater darkens. "This is new territory."

The established territory has been tramped upon again and again throughout the 20th century. Border Bandits reminds viewers of the dime novels, Hollywood westerns, and historical accounts that have canonized the Texas Rangers as heroic enforcers of law and order. Warnock's film belies such romantic notions, beginning with a portrayal of a single event that occurred in 1915 near present-day Edinburg when a group of Mexican bandits raided the prominent McAllen ranch. As the standard story goes, the next day a group of Texas Rangers rode in and put the perpetrators to permanent justice.

Witness Roland Warnock, the director's grandfather, however, tells a different story, one that inspired his grandson Kirby to research Texas' so-called "bandit war" and ultimately produce Border Bandits. As a 19-year-old Anglo cowboy working on the Guadalupe Ranch, the elder Warnock witnessed three members of the Texas Rangers shoot two unarmed men in the back and leave their bodies by the side of the road. The victims were innocent Mexican-Americans whom the officers suspected of sympathizing with the bandits who raided the McAllen ranch. A multitude of similar incidents occurred, a fact Border Bandits illustrates with grisly archival photographs of murderers with badges standing over piles of dead bodies.

The film stages dramatic reenactments and gives voice to historians who attempt to explain the bloodshed. They say that between 1910 and 1920, the majority of South Texas land owned by Mexican-Americans passed into Anglo hands. They tell how Texas Governor James Ferguson appointed whomever he wished to the rank of "Special Ranger," often deploying campaign contributors to track down so-called bandits. And they explain that the designation "bandit" came to encompass anyone with dark skin and dark hair.

When the lights come up, Warnock allows the audience to ask questions. Amaya raises his hand. He tells Warnock how his family came to America in 1910, how one day his grandfather traveled back to the border and never returned. Beneath his grandfather's gravestone, says Amaya, there is no body. Finally, he asks, "Is there a way to get the names of those killed?" Warnock tells him no, there are no records of the dead.

By Brian Chasnoff

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