Nuevo León’s Quirky International Border

The border between the United States and Mexico has been a frequent topic of conversation and the news this summer. The Twelve Mile Circle doesn’t focus on political issues explicitly but it does have an interest in situations created by geography such as the recent border pirate phenomenon. In fact it was that situation that led me to the current topic, although indirectly.

Nuevo León en México
Source: Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León (UANL)

I noticed something unusual as I examined the international border between Laredo, Texas, USA and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, México. There is a notch, a little chunk of the Mexican state of Nuevo León inserting itself along the international border wedged between Tamaulipas and Coahuila. The little neck is only about 15 kilometres (9 miles) wide and not much longer. However, that’s sufficient to qualify Nuevo León as one of only ten "border states" found on either side of the line, as legitimately as Texas and its 1,997 km (1,241 mi) stretch.

It’s much easier to see the notch as one drills-down within an interactive map to capture it in more detail. Follow the international border northwest out of Nuevo Laredo and it practically jumps from the image. This would be an easy pickup of three Mexican states right in a row for those who collect those types of things. Additionally, Tamaulipas and Coahuila would be neighboring states if it wasn’t for the odd Nuevo León hernia interfering with their placement.

View Larger Map

Take an even closer look at the protrusion and notice an unusual pattern of roads. The small town of Colombia appears to be platted on a typical grid but the infrastructure southeast of it looks odd. That’s because its a staging area for international trade between the United States and Mexico, more suited to warehouse space and tractor-trailers than to residential neighborhoods. Nuevo León is a highly-industrialized powerhouse of the Mexican economy with per capita GDP and income nearly double the national average. They use their little border nub as a means to move products onto the international market.

Amazingly this didn’t happen until the early 1990’s with the construction of the Colombia-Solidarity International Bridge. Nuevo León watched idly as other border states cashed-in for years. Adjacent Tamaulipas positioned Nuevo Laredo as the most important border crossing in Latin America, and the city thrived as a result. Finally Nuevo León got its bridge across to the United States and created infrastructure around the town of Colombia to capture some of that cross-border trade.

I don’t have a complete answer on how Nuevo León obtained its border notch or how neighboring Tamaulipas got its odd northwestern tentacle along the river. However, I think I might have at least a partial answer or perhaps an educated guess. I consulted the website of the ever-helpful Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection of the University of Texas at Austin. Deep down on one of its menus lists I found a map of Mexican political divisions in 1824, created from historical sources in 1972. Assuming it’s an accurate representation, then it would follow that Nuevo León has had its river notch for close to two centuries (at least). Tamaulipas got its odd appendage because the northern third of its 1824 footprint — everything north of the Rio Grande — is now part of Texas.

That doesn’t answer why Nuevo León has river access. It merely points out that it’s been that way for a long time and predates the international border. It’s an arid area with very little rainfall so maybe the notch existed as a pathway to water. I’m speculating but I don’t know. Perhaps someone in the Twelve Mile Circle audience has greater familiarity with this topic and can use the comments section as an educational opportunity.


5 Replies to “Nuevo León’s Quirky International Border”

  1. The access-to-water theory sounds about right to me, both for irrigation/drinking and to facilitate trade to the Atlantic. We’ve certainly seen stranger things done to give states/territories access to water.

  2. Based on the little bit of research I could do, and my not-quite fluent knowledge of Spanish, the goal may have actually been access to the US border. Two sources seem to say that Bernardo Reyes, Army general and governor of Nuevo Leon, purchased the territory from one of the neighboring states so that Nuevo Leon would have a border with the US. The problem is that this acquisition would have taken place in the late 1800s, and maps show the quirky border far earlier. The only explanation would be that the borders were not well-defined and that today, historical maps use today’s borders as “guides.” I don’t know if that’s the case or not, but it is an interesting little question.

    Thanks for all the food for thought! (and research!)

    Sources (in Spanish):

    1. I have even less command of Spanish unfortunately, so your research is much appreciated and gets us closer to the solution. The conflicting dates present a conundrum. Like you, I also wonder if the borders of individual Mexican states may have been a little fuzzy during those times and subject to conflicting claims (like England’s North American colonies prior to U.S. independence). Maybe Gen. Reyes’ late Nineteenth Century purchase was intended to simply formalize a de facto situation, i.e., remove a tenuous claim from his neighbor so nagging doubts would go away once-and-for-all? Perhaps we’ll get lucky someday and a scholar of Mexican history will stumble across this page and provide the rest of the story.

  3. According to the book linked to above, Nuevo Leon acquired a plot named La Pita on the Rio Grande (a.k.a. Rio Bravo) in an exchange with Coahuila in 1907. The main purpose of this, according to the book, was to allow Nuevo Leon to engage in criminal extraditions with the U.S. without the involvement of the federal government in Mexico City!

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