No ‘Gringos’ in Juarez as Drug War Scares Off Tourists

No ‘Gringos’ in Juarez as Drug War Scares Off Tourists

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JUAREZ, Chihuahua, Mex.—It is six o’clock in the evening on a Mexican holy day and the Kentucky bar is almost empty. In a room with capacity for over a hundred customers, only four people are sitting at the bar. All of them long time customers.

The bar, one of the oldest in the city, with a claim to being the birthplace of the Margarita. There are still original mirrors and a wood frame that, according to the bartender, was imported from Louisiana and belonged to a luxury steam boat that roamed up and down the Mississippi.

“We used to be busy most weekends and have regulars during the week. But they are not coming anymore,’’ said the bartender, who agreed to talk to a visitor but declined to give his full name. He declined also to indicate if the place, like hundreds around the city that are still open, complies with the “quota,” a ransom payment collected every week, or month, by members of organized crime. But the bartender freely confirmed what was self-evident. “No more gringos.” At least for now.

According to the Juarez Chamber of Commerce, close to 50 percent of the businesses in the city closed last year, due to the demands of the quota. The big companies moved to El Paso.

For the past two years the U.S. State Department has been issuing warnings to American travelers that Juarez is not a safe place to visit. Word of mouth and common sense had dissuaded many of El Paso’s locals from traveling into Juarez in search of a good time.

Just last weekend, two minors, American citizens who lived in Juarez, were killed while shopping at a used-car lot. Their family members insist the boys--who commuted daily to a Catholic boys' high school in El Paso--had nothing to do with drugs.

A Mounting Crisis

From its very beginnings, Juarez had been a haven for U.S. nationals to visit. Everything illegal on the United States side was available in Juarez and it was relatively cheap. Founded in 1659 and known first as “El Paso del Norte,” Juarez quickly became famous for being the easiest way for travelers going north and south of El Rio Grande, toward the southern Rocky Mountains.

In 1848, under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which established the Rio Grande as the border between Mexico and the United States, “El Paso del Norte” got divided. But the southern side of the city flourished and gained its actual name in 1888, in honor of Benito Juarez, a Mexican President. The building where Juarez set up his headquarters is still standing, but pretty much, like large areas of the city, it is in decay, its significance long forgotten by most.

Just like many other border towns along the U.S.-Mexican border, Juarez's fortunes depended on the economic and political conditions of the United States. During the Prohibition years of the 1920s and 1930s, U.S. nationals traveled south to load themselves, literally, with alcohol.

From the ’30s to the ’40s, they visited the town for sex. In the ’50s to mid-60s Juarez became famous for as the “capital,’’ of the divorcios al vapor, a legal proceeding in which a divorce proceedings could be arranged in a matter of hours. But the glamour years were the 1970s, with then-popular discos.

“Avenida Juarez was so packed that people couldn’t even walk,’’ remembers Abel Martinez, a taxi driver in his late 50s, who now complains that he feels lucky if he can make $20 a day, half of it to be spent on gas for another journey.

“There were lots of gringos and gringas coming to have fun,’’ he adds with nostalgia.

But all that changed with the drug-cartel violence of the past four years.

“We see an average of two-to-three gringo customers a week,’’ said Ruben Cazares, owner of a small arts and crafts shop in the also once-famous Mercado Juarez.

Inaugurated in 1945, the market was a regular stop for tourists who crossed the border in search of Mexican art or cheap decorative home artifacts.

“Things began to get critical about three or four years ago, when all the violence began. Things are so bad that about two-thirds of the owners in the Mercado gave up are trying to find work somewhere else,’’ said the 74-year-old man, who start working here when he was 14.

The aisles of the market are empty. So is the parking lot. The few shop owners still tending their shops spend their time chatting with each other and taking time to dust off their merchandise.

Politicians’ Empty Promises

Shortly before the November elections for governor, the merchants got the promise that the whole market will have a makeover and that an advertising campaign will be launch to attract tourists. But like so many other government promises, nothing has happened.

“Nothing is for sure right now. They [representatives from the new state government administration] came and walked around and said they really wanted to preserve this place, but after they left we have not heard from them,’’ said Cazares.

Other shop owners gather around after quickly learning that “un periodista extranjero” [a foreign journalist] was interviewing people.

They seemed cautious about their comments, but like most of the population in Juarez, they said there is no need to start a war against the drug cartels. Some even remark that the government made a “great mistake,” since the cartels had been a source of income for the country for decades.

“Now, you don’t know who you are dealing with. Strangers just show up and demand money in exchange of protection,’’ said a man of about 45, who inherited the business from his father. When pressed if he, or any other shop owners, had been asked for the quota, he laughed.

“Of course not. They can see that there is nothing here for them to get. I am sure they might even be afraid that if they come in here we might ask them for some money, not as ransom, just as charity,’’ said the man, who would only say his name was “Ruben.”