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This Week in Texas History: A column

Mexican rebels seized Matamoros, Brownsville’s sister city, on March, 27, 1876, and Porifirio Diaz took a giant step toward the political prize that would be his personal property for 35 years.

Sick and tired of the incessant chaos along the Rio Grande, Texans opened their wallets and private arsenals to the Diaz cause. If the ambitious general could bring law and order to the border, it was a bargain at twice the price.

Diaz emerged as a national hero of the Mexican resistance to French occupation that climaxed in the 1867 execution of Emperor Maximilian. Shunned as a mestizo or mixed blood by the Spanish aristocrats, he faced a long hard climb to the top.

After the eviction of the Europeans, Benito Juarez again took his place as the living symbol of Mexican sovereignty. Thirty-seven-year old Diaz mounted a premature challenge at the polls but was brushed aside by Juarez on his way to the presidential palace.

Modern accounts to the contrary, as the mortal messiah of a society in shambles Juarez was no saint. Finding his abstract vision of democracy impossible to impose on a backward nation, he resorted to crude short cuts which have been the stock-in-trade of Mexican politicians for more than a century and a half.

Confronted by constant crisis, Juarez did not hesitate to rig elections and to coerce the spineless congress into giving him what he wanted. The consequential erosion of confidence in his regime strengthened the hand of his opponents.

In 1871 Diaz denounced Juarez’s plan to seek another term insisting “no citizen should perpetuate himself in office,” ironic words that would someday come back to haunt him. Then as today incumbents rarely lost elections in Mexico, and Juarez automatically renewed his option.

Diaz attempted to incite armed revolt, but a fatal heart attack saved him the trouble. As Mexicans mourned the passing of Benito Juarez, the head of the supreme court tried to fill his shoes.

Mexico edged ever closer to the precipice as the faithful follower repeated his mentor’s mistakes. He even made a few major blunders of his own, the most foolish being a blanket amnesty which allowed Diaz to come down from the hills.

Meanwhile, Texans were hopping mad over the indifference of Juarez’s successor toward the bandit gangs and Indian raiders that used Mexico as a sanctuary for attacks across the river. In lives and property Lone Star losses were enormous, and Texans were open to any solution no matter how drastic.

Believing bullets not ballots were the sole means to his political end, Diaz had no qualms about accepting aid from the hated gringos. His well-equipped insurrection got off on the right foot with the capture of Matamoros in the spring of 1876, but a setback en route to the capital forced him to flee to Cuba.

By November Diaz had slipped back into the country and picked up where he had left off. In a few weeks, Mexico City and the presidency were his with the knee-jerk blessing of the always obliging congress.

Diaz shrewdly resisted the traditional temptations to grab absolute authority and to line up each and every enemy against the familiar abode wall. At the end of a provisional four-year term, he surprised friends and foes alike by voluntarily stepping down.

With the cunning common of his resilient reign, Diaz pulled the strings that put a corrupt crony at the helm. When the public clamored right on cue for his return, he humbly heeded the call.

And return he did for 27 years of uninterrupted one-man rule. Both Mexicans and Texans craved a period of stability, and Diaz delivered with a generation of comparative calm.

Imitating the pork-barrel tactics of his northern neighbors, Diaz turned the age-old practice into a fine art. Over the decades he institutionalized graft as a permanent feature of the Mexican system.

After stripping the army of its police powers, Diaz organized the ruthless rural police. To the relief of victimized Texans, the “rurales” made short work of the border bandits with a ferocious brand of gun-barrel justice. Next on the list were the Apaches and other Indian bands in northern Mexico, and grateful settlers throughout the American southwest hailed the dictator as the greatest Mexican leader ever.

But as Diaz consolidated complete control, fewer and fewer of his countrymen shared that opinion. Critics protested the sham elections, the decline in the living standard of the impoverished peasantry and the economic domination of foreign interests.

At the ripe old age of 81, time finally caught up with the decrepit despot, whose stubborn refusal to bow out gracefully made his violent overthrow inevitable. The exile of Porifirio Diaz to Paris in 1911 began the years of cruel carnage generously called the Mexican Revolution, and Texans braced themselves for the worst.

Syndicated columnist BARTEE HAILE has written about Texas history for the San Marcos Mercury since 2011. Haile welcomes your comments or questions by mail at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here

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