trouble had started two weeks earlier. Enraged at the fatal
police shooting of a young Latina bystander during a drug
bust, a late-night mob descended on a Texas Department of
Public Safety complex and torched the empty buildings. By
morning, a local newscast of the barrio’s law-and-order
meltdown mushroomed into a major story, drawing the national
media to San Antonio. Since then, the presence of network
cameras had incited the south side’s bored and jobless
teenagers into nightly rioting.
the national spotlight, the governor of Texas vowed looters
would be shot on sight. Octavio Perez, a radical community
leader, angrily announced that force would be met with force.
He called on Mexican-Americans to arm themselves and resist
Disdaining Perez’s warning, Edward
Cole, a twenty-six-year-old National Guard Lieutenant, chose
a provocative location for his downtown command post: the
“This won’t be the first time
this place has been surrounded by a shitload of angry Mexicans,”
Cole told his platoon of weekend warriors outside the shutdown
tourist site. A high school gym teacher for most of the
year, Lieutenant Cole had been called up to lead a Texas
National Guard detachment. Their orders were to keep San
Antonio’s south side rioting from spreading downtown.
Now Cole was fielding yet another call over
“Lieutenant, we got some beaners tearing
the hell out of a liquor store two blocks south of my position,”
the sentry reported.
“I’d say fifty to a hundred.”
“Sit tight, Corporal. The cavalry
is coming to the rescue,” Cole said, trying his best
to sound cool and confident. From a two-day training session
on crowd control, he’d learned that a rapid show of
strength was essential in dispersing a mob. But the colonel
who had briefed Cole for the mission had been very clear
about the governor’s statement.
“Your men are authorized to fire their
weapons only in self-defense,” the colonel had ordered.
“And even then, it had damn well better be as a last
resort, Lieutenant. The governor wants to deter violence,
not provoke it.”
Lieutenant Cole had never seen combat. But
he was sure he could deal with a small crowd of unruly Mexicans.
After all, he had eight men armed with M-16A automatic rifles
under his command. Cole put on his helmet, smoothed out
his crisply ironed ascot, and ordered his men into the three
reconditioned Humvees at his disposal.
“Let’s move out,” he said
over the lead Humvee’s radio. With the convoy underway,
Cole turned to his driver. “Step on it, Baker. We
don’t want to let this thing get out of hand.”
As the driver accelerated, the young lieutenant envisioned
his dramatic entrance . . .
in hand, he’d emerge from the vehicle surrounded by
a squad of armed troopers, the awed crowd quickly scattering
as he ordered them to disperse . . .
Drifting back from his daydream, Cole noticed
they were closing fast on the crowd outside the liquor store.
“Stop, Baker! Stop!” Cole yelled.
The startled driver slammed on the brakes,
triggering a chain collision with the vehicles trailing
close behind. Shaken but unhurt, Cole looked through the
window at the laughing faces outside. Instead of arriving
like the 7th Cavalry, they’d wound up looking like
the Keystone Kops.
Then a liquor bottle struck Cole’s
Humvee. Like the opening drop of a summer downpour, it was
soon followed by the deafening sound of glass bottles shattering
“Let’s open up on these bastards,
Lieutenant! They’re gonna kill us!” the driver
Cole shook his head, realizing his plan
had been a mistake. “Negative, Baker! We’re
But before the lieutenant could grab the
radio transmitter to relay his order, the driver’s
“I’m hit! I’m hit! Oh,
my God. I’m hit!” the driver shrieked, clutching
his head. A cascade of blood flowed down Baker’s nose
and cheeks. He’d only suffered a gash on the forehead
from the broken glass, but all the same, it was as shocking
as a mortal wound. Never one to stomach the sight of blood,
Baker passed out, slumping into his seat.
Cole couldn’t allow himself to panic;
with no window and no driver he was far too vulnerable.
Mind racing, he stared outside and soon noticed a group
of shadowy figures crouching along the roof of the liquor
store. Were they carrying weapons?
“Listen up, people. I think we might
have snipers on the roof! I repeat, snipers on the roof!”
Cole yelled into the radio. “Let’s lock and
load! Have your weapons ready to return fire!”
On the verge of panic, the part-time soldiers
fumbled nervously with their rifles as the drunken mob closed
on the convoy, pounding against the vehicles.
The window on Cole’s side caved in
with a terrifying crash. The rattled young lieutenant was
certain he now faced a life or death decision—and
he was determined to save his men. With the radio still
in hand, Lieutenant Edward Cole gave an order he would forever
“We’re under attack. Open fire!”
When it was over, twenty-three people lay
dead on the black pavement beneath the neon sign of the
Rio Grande Carryout.
“The Rio Grande Incident,” as
it came to be known, led every newscast and spanned every
front page from Boston to Beijing. Bloggers went into hyper-drive.
Talk radio knew no other subject. Protests erupted in many
American cities, usually flash mobs that drew a wide spectrum
Outside the U.S. embassy in Mexico City,
tens of thousands chanting “Rio Grande” burned
American flags alongside an effigy of Texas Governor Jeff
Bradley. Massive demonstrations multiplied across Latin
America, Asia, and Europe in the days that followed. The
prime minister of France called the confrontation “an
appalling abuse of power.” Germany’s chancellor
labeled it “barbaric.” Officials in China declared
it “an unfortunate consequence of capitalist excess.”
Fed by the media frenzy, the destruction
and looting on San Antonio’s south side escalated.
In less than a week, riots broke out in other Hispanic enclaves
across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
Many Americans were shocked by the sudden
turmoil in the Southwest, yet, in hindsight, the origins
of the discontent were easy to see.
As the United States entered the second decade of the twenty-first century, a severe recession was underway. With unemployment benefits running out, millions of Americans sought any kind of job, saturating low-rung job markets. From farms to fast food chains, Hispanics were pitted against mainstream workers in a game of economic musical chairs.
Only a few years earlier, the election of the nation’s first African-American president, Adam Elewa, had brought hope to Hispanics and all minorities. But Elewa was voted out after one term following a renewal of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Elewa’s successor, Carleton Brenner, resumed what many were calling the War on Terror II. With widespread public support, Brenner quickly launched a wave of overseas military deployments and stiffened border security.
The tighter borders stemmed the flow of illegal immigrants. But the presence of millions of undocumented Hispanics already within the country was a political quagmire that remained unresolved. More significantly, Latinos born in the U.S. had long overtaken immigration as the prime source of Hispanic growth thanks to birth rates that soared far above the mainstream average. The nation’s Hispanic population had exploded — and the lingering economic slump had created a powder keg of idle, restless youth.
Fear of this perplexing ethnic bloc among mainstream Americans had given rise to an escalating backlash. Armed vigilante groups patrolling the Mexican border had shot and killed border crossers on several occasions. Inside the border, anyone with a swarthy complexion was not much safer. Assaults by Anglo gangs against Hispanics caught in the wrong neighborhood were now commonplace. “Amigo shopping,” the epidemic of muggings on illegal immigrants who always carried cash, was rarely investigated by police. Graffiti deriding Hispanics was a staple in schools and workplaces. Another burning cross in the yard of a Latino home was no longer news.
Meanwhile, politicians had discovered a wellspring of nativist passion. In a scramble for votes, a deluge of anti-immigration and “English-only” ordinances had been passed over the last decade by state and local governments as Washington’s inability to resolve the thorny immigration issue continued. Most of these laws were struck down by federal judges. Yet local politicians persisted in passing new ones. The strident nativist vote was too powerful to resist. This conflicting patchwork of laws created an unforeseen side effect. Fleeing the legislative backlash, most Hispanics—both legal and illegal—were now concentrated in “safe haven” communities, usually in crowded urban areas.
Outraged by the growing attacks against Hispanics and seeing the anti-immigrant laws as thinly veiled bullying, Latino community leaders in the Southwest had grown increasingly militant. Protest marches and rallies were on the rise. Hispanic separatists, once only fringe groups at the marches, were visibly growing in number. A favorite banner at many of these events reflected an attitude gaining in popularity: “We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us.”
Now, in a sweltering July, these long-smoldering elements were reaching the flashpoint in the nation’s teeming barrios.