Memorandum of Conversation, by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Mann)


Subject: Boundary and Water Problems

Participants: Licenciado Vicente Sánchez Gavito, Director General of Diplomatic Service
Thomas C. Mann, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Inter-America Affairs

After the discussion of claims problems, which is reported in a separate memorandum,1 I raised the question of the Chamizal and water problems.

I started off by saying that Lie. Sánchez Gavito would recall that this problem was first broached by me some months ago in Washington in view of the very strong feeling which existed in Mexico that the U.S. had not lived up to its obligations under the Chamizal award.

I said that since the award involved only 420 acres under the Mexican contention it would have been a relatively easy problem to settle in 1911 but that with each passing year the problem had become more difficult of solution because (a) of increasing land values of the Chamizal area, (b) the growth of the business district of El Paso immediately adjoining the area and the possibility of the business area gradually encroaching into the Chamizal and, (c) the growing possibility that a settlement of the Chamizal might not only relate to land values of the disputed area itself but might also affect values of important property outside of and adjoining the area. I said that if Mexico was genuinely interested in a settlement it seemed to me that this problem should be given preferred attention.

I went on to say that I hoped he would understand that the settlement which had been proposed would result in the following benefits to Mexico: (a) recovery of the possession of approximately 420 acres of land which, irrespective of title, was now actually in the possession of the U.S., (b) United States recognition of the award (with safeguards not necessary to repeat here) which would represent a juridical victory for Mexico and, (c) the acquisition of more water than Mexico is presently entitled to under the 1906 Water and Boundary Treaty. I said that on the other hand the United States would be required to institute eminent domain proceedings at a probable cost of several million dollars and, in addition to losing possession of the land and making concessions in water, would derive no benefits except having a river boundary between Mexico and the United States and the rather intangible benefit of presumably creating a better atmosphere and better relations.

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I said that it was important that he understand that while a settlement might present political difficulties for the government of Mexico it would also present very difficult political problems for the government of the United States and that while we were willing to make an effort to right what Mexico considered to be a historical wrong we considered that it was essential that Mexico also be willing to undertake to make the same effort and assume the same onus that we were willing to do.

Lie. Sánchez Gavito then said that the concessions that we were making with respect to the water were not sufficient in as much as Mexico was already receiving water under a revised schedule and had been doing so for many years; also that 50% of the water below El Paso which had been offered had already been used by the United States. I said that I did not agree since it could not be assumed that as water became more scarce in that area with an increased population that we would always be willing ex gratia to agree to a revised schedule of deliveries and that furthermore while the water below the city of El Paso may have previously been used it was still valuable for irrigation purposes and could easily be used again on the American side of the river in the event the Mexicans did not consider it valuable. He quickly said he did not mean to imply that Mexico was not interested in the concessions that had been offered.

Sánchez Gavito then said that the principal obstacle to a settlement had been Mr. Lawson’s suggestions that about 200 acres of Cordoba Island be left north of the proposed change in the river bed, and that this would not be acceptable to Mexico.

I said that there were two possible ways to get around this: (a) the 200 acres north of the new channel might be given to the United States in exchange for an equal amount of land of a similar agricultural value below El Paso, possibly as a part of a general settlement of the detached area question, (b) the 200 acres might be left to Mexico with an agreement that the exchange would be made at a later and more politically feasible date. With respect to the suggestion (b) he indicated that Mexico would not be willing to make a firm commitment to this effect and with respect to (a) that this would not be politically possible at this time particularly since the building of the only bridge had complicated the situation and since the city of Juarez planned to build a large stadium on Cordoba Island rather than use it for agricultural purposes. I said that these were all questions which would have to be explored further and that I hoped he would agree that it was important to have a common river boundary between the United States and Mexico in this area and that for engineering reasons and in order to maintain the minimum drop in the river at this point in order to keep the channel open there are limits to the size of the bend which could be made in the river at this point.

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Lic. Sánchez Gavito then suggested that we look at a map of the area and attempt to agree on a line which he said he wished to be as near the western boundary of Chamizal as possible. I said that I did not think it would be useful to attempt to draw lines in as much as presumably Mr. Lawson and Mr. Herrera had already drawn some and also because we could not hope to draw a good line without actually looking at the situation on the ground. I said that in this connection I thought it would be impractical to agree to any line in which Mr. Lawson did not fully concur. In conclusion I said that I would be willing at some mutually agreeable time after the meeting of the Foreign Ministers2 to meet with him in El Paso where we could go over the ground and talk directly with the two Commissioners. I said that this meeting could be held secretly and that I thought we would be able to tell within a very short time whether there was any possibility of reaching agreement. If we decided there was no possibility I said that the best thing would be to forget about the whole problem and move on to more constructive things. If, on the other hand, we could agree then it seemed to me that there was an excellent chance of getting this very troublesome problem out of the way.

In the course of the conversation Lic. Sánchez Gavito said that some people in the Foreign Office thought it would be well to have some publicity in order to have a trial balloon. I said that publicity before we had agreed upon a line would be very bad from our viewpoint because it would arouse unnecessary fears about what we would yield to Mexico. I said that after there had been a meeting of the minds we would have no objection to a trial balloon since it had been understood from the beginning that either the Mexican Foreign Office or the State Department might find it politically impossible to get their respective Congresses to go along and that I hoped that if this happened neither country would feel offended. I said that I looked at the whole procedure as nothing but a good faith effort on the part of the Foreign Offices to reach a satisfactory settlement and that no one could be certain that such a thing is possible.

T[homas] C. M[ann]
  1. Not printed.
  2. Reference is to the Fourth Meeting of Consultation of Foreign Ministers of the American States held at Washington, March 29–April 7, 1951. Documentation on the meeting may be found on pp. 925 ff.