“It all started at the border / and that’s still where it is today / someone killed Ramon Casiano / and the killer got away.” The opening line to “Ramon Casiano” sounds as much like the invocation of a Cormac McCarthy novel as it does the lead track from a Drive-by Truckers album. But the first song on the Truckers’ most thoroughly political album, American Band, opens with what seems like ought to be its most salient detail. Instead it becomes something much larger in the details.
The titular person was a 15-year-old Mexican boy killed in a disagreement with a 17-year-old American named Harlon Carter in 1931. Carter was convicted and sentenced to three years before an appeal overturned his sentence based on the judge’s instructions to the jury before deliberation. He was never re-tried and the incident itself stayed buried until Carter was confronted about it in 1981.
This doesn’t sound like an intensely important event, aside from the lack of justice, until you trace out Carter’s life afterward. Throughout his adult life, he served as a border patrol agent and even became the head of all federal border operations during the time of the infamous Operation Wetback during the 1950s. He also became an active member of the National Rifle Association, then a fairly benign group dedicated to promoting sports shooting and hunting activities. But that would change in 1968.
The Gun Control Act of 1968 was the first legislation passed to restrict gun sales and transport in some way since the 1930s. The NRA leadership found itself supporting some parts of the law and not others, but Harlon Carter was insistent that the NRA should opposed all gun legislation at all times. As a piece from the Washington Post noted about Carter: “Asked in 1975 if he would rather let convicted violent felons and the mentally deranged buy guns than endorse a screening process for gun sales, Carter did not hesitate to say yes. That’s the ‘price we pay for freedom.'”
Carter would lead a revolt from within the ranks of the NRA, and in 1977 he would become its president. Over the eight years of his leadership, he would push the NRA to become one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the United States – powerful enough to almost permanently derail more serious consideration of further gun control.
The shadow of the NRA has loomed large over American politics since, and the issues of gun and border control are linked together by Mike Cooley’s songwriting in “Ramon Casiano.” “Since [Carter] ran the operation / there’s hardly been a minute since / there ain’t a massing at the border / from Chinese troops to terrorists,” Cooley muses in the second verse. The Chinese troops reference may be a bit of a head scratcher, but in an unpublished part of AD’s interview with Cooley back in September, he noted: “When I was [researching the story for the song], I found that the obsession with the border that we seem to have today is nothing new. There’s a line in the song – there was a group in the early 60s – I think they might’ve called themselves the Minutemen, too – and this group in southern California claimed to have a stockpile of fully automatic weapons and knowledge of Chinese troops massing at the Mexican border.” In the post-9/11 U.S., concerns about terrorists coming across the border have long been talking points, but clearly even in the 60s and some of the heights of the Cold War, the border-crossing boogeymen still existed under a different guise.
“Ramon Casiano” is another great example of the Drive-by Truckers’ gift as story tellers who spin specific yarns that spool out into grander themes. The injustice of Casiano’s death — which itself sees echoes in the numerous killings of unarmed black men by police in recent years — and Carter’s connection to the bolstering of a belligerently pro-gun segment of American culture and of the longstanding issues with the border make for a powerful opening statement. So when Cooley ends the song by singing “someone killed Ramon Casiano / and Ramon still ain’t dead enough,” the heat and the dust of that day in 1931 feels as pertinent as ever. words / j neas