Some Bocas del Toro History: Once destined for takeover by Mexico

Bocas del Toro
The Mexican government wants to reconstruct the bizarre story of Catarino Garza

Hidden in a corner of Bocas del Toro, Panama, is a part of the history of the Mexican revolution. One that the journalist and general, Catarino Erasmo Garza Rodríguez, wrote with his actions. A rebel who took up arms to fight the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, who was re-elected for 35 years. The soldier fell in his attempt to free his country from the Díaz dictatorship and went into exile. He arrived and died in Bocas del Toro.

Virtually no one knows. They don’t have to know it. Studies have determined that at the end of the 19th century, he arrived in Costa Rica. By 1895, Colombia was embroiled in civil wars waged by liberals and conservatives.

Garza, who identified himself with the liberals, left Costa Rica bound for Boca de Drago, Bocas del Toro. He had the firm intention of taking over the police headquarters of the Caribbean province, where the second most important port on the Isthmus was located. A strategic point where many foreigners lived and where there was a high volume of income from exports.

The intention was to take the Isthmus of Panama from Bocas del Toro. And from the city he would try to overthrow the conservative government and put Colombia in the hands of the liberals. The action would allow the Mexican to establish alliances and embark on the liberation of Mexico. But, he failed in the attempt. They shot him twice.

Carlos Fitzgerald, archaeologist and great-grandson of one of those who defended the barracks and who probably fought against Garza, explains that there was a geopolitical and idealistic strategy. “The revolutions started small and exploded into something big,” adds the archaeologist. His action, however, triggered other confrontations that preceded the separation of Panama from Colombia.

But where were his remains? It is believed that he was buried in a mass grave. In July 2023, the Panamanian archaeologist accompanied Mexican specialists – with remote sensors (georadar) – to evaluate areas where the bodies of Garza and others who perished in the attack may have been located.

The team managed to establish the possible places where the events occurred. Based on historical media records, it is believed that the attack occurred where the Isla Colón fire station, Bocas del Toro, is located. And that the remains of the Mexican soldier could be in an old holy cemetery. But, the information on the location of the mass bass is ambiguous. An exercise of interpretation and reconstruction of the events had to be carried out.

“A sector of the historical cultural landscape of Isla Colón was evaluated where the cemetery is located that was in use between the mid-19th century and the 1920s, when the current one was inaugurated,” explain the scholars.

To confirm the information, archaeological and forensic anthropological investigation techniques are required. “Being able to find the remains of those who fell in the military confrontation between the small group of revolutionaries led by Garza and the troops that defended the strategic port and town of Bocas del Toro is a real research challenge,” highlights Fitzgerald. And it is not known whether the bone remains are sufficiently preserved to be identified and it will be necessary to carry out a genetic analysis.

The journalist who left his pen for weapons

Garza was a journalist who was born on November 24, 1859—165 years ago—on his family’s hacienda near Matamoros, Tamaulipas. He studied high school, worked in a printing press and when he was eighteen years old he moved to Brownsville, the Texas town opposite Matamoros, on the opposite bank of the Rio Grande.

In 1879 he began an intense journalistic activity, founding the magazine “El Bien Público” in Brownsville. He was a lover of fiery, colorful journalism loaded with accusations. He wrote inflammatory articles in which he denounced the brutalities and excesses of the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship. He was even accused of slander and defamation and was even imprisoned.

In 1882 he toured the Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León as a sewing machine salesman. I have returned to the United States; Around 1885 he was consul of Mexico in San Luis (Missouri) and wrote for La Revista Mexicana.

He also distributed a “revolutionary plan” that proposed unleashing an army of insurrection to overthrow the then president and establish a liberal and democratic government in Mexico that would defend territorial integrity and reestablish constitutional order.

The project recognized the desire to have land for those who wanted to farm. Unlike other locally motivated social movements that emerged in Mexico during the same period, Catarino Garza’s had national pretensions, as noted in his proclamation. To begin, Garza organized an armed group, taking advantage of the relative freedom that Texas offered for expression and mobilization, coupled with the facilities for raising funds, and proclaimed his new destiny: “The last of the independent journalists, the most humble of all .” Today he abandons the pen for the sword in defense of the rights of the people.”

With followers of Mexican origin – day laborers, deserters and low-ranking soldiers – organizing the group that later became known as Los Pronunciados. With them he carried out attacks on Porfirista estates: they stole horses, raided, looted and ran over civilians. These were the first incursions against the Porfirio Díaz regime, twenty years before the revolution that overthrew him, but they never constituted a serious danger.

In December 1891, Garzas besieged a hacienda near Guerrero, Tamaulipas, rose to military rank, and killed twelve soldiers and several Mexican civilians. Porfirio Díaz offered $30,000 to whoever captured him dead or alive. The United States didn’t want him either because he had invaded a part of Texas. In his time, he was a famous person, who when he died no one believed it. Although, unknown in Mexican history. The Mexican president (AMLO) has insisted on rescuing him. And it does not seem to be a simple whim because research has shown the historical context of it that even touches Panama.

Search and excavation

From February 19 to April 16, 2024, a Mexican warship with twenty soldiers and sixty sailors will try to rescue those remains and, in the process, reconstruct history. That of the “hero” that you describe the president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), in his work of him Catarino Erasmo Garzas, revolutionary or bandit?

The decision was approved by the Mexican Senate with 49 votes in favor, 15 against and 12 abstentions. The military will carry out search, excavation and repatriation of the remains of the missing soldier. They will do so within the framework of a Cultural Cooperation agreement, which has not yet been signed, La Estrella de Panamá learned. At the moment it is also unknown if the Cultural or Historical Heritage Directorate has granted permits to carry out the work.

Panama must speak out clearly and guarantee that the work of Mexicans will be done with the scientific rigor required by international regulations and standards, demanded a source linked to the cultural issue. An authorization resolution must be established specifying the methodology, sample extraction protocols, participating specialists and institutional supervision, the source added.

“A sector of the historical cultural landscape of Isla Colón was evaluated where the cemetery is located that was in use between the mid-19th century and the 1920s”
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