Mexico's Drug War Hits Historic Border Cantinas

The Kentucky Club is three blocks from the international bridge connecting Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas. It has lost more than 75 percent of its clientele due to people fleeing violence in the area, the owners say.
The Kentucky Club is three blocks from the international bridge connecting Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas. It has lost more than 75 percent of its clientele due to people fleeing violence in the area, the owners say. John Burnett/NPR

The country's drug violence has ruined border tourism and forced residents in border cities to flee. Three famous Prohibition-era border bars, all founded in the 1920s, are in jeopardy. Survival has meant paying off local thugs for security, and paying employees out of pocket.

Mexico's drug cartel war has killed more than 28,000 people in four years, but some of the collateral damage has not been as noticeable. A trio of famous, Prohibition-era cantinas in Mexican border cities, having survived more than 80 turbulent years, are in deep trouble.

On a recent weekday, a headline in Mexico's El Diario newspaper screams: "Juarez is the Center of the Country's Narco-War." That can't be good for business at the Kentucky Club, a venerable saloon that's been here since 1920, three blocks from the international bridge that connects Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas.

"Actually, in these times, the wave of violence here in Juarez is tremendous," says Raul Martinez, who has been the doorman at the Kentucky Club for 25 years. "Before, we had to turn people away, we were so full -- $10 or $20 wouldn't get you in. Now, I wish we had customers."

Organized Crime

Outside the tavern, federal police with ski masks and assault rifles patrol the streets of Juarez, a city of more than 1 million people. Inside, the white-jacketed, one-eyed bartender walks over to the jukebox and punches in a Sinatra tune for two tables of customers who are sipping the bar's potent margaritas.

It's estimated that one-fourth of the people of Juarez have fled the city, which has been overrun by organized crime and logs a murder every three hours, on average. The Kentucky Club estimates it has lost more than 75 percent of its clientele.

The nightclub boasted visits by Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne and then-actor Ronald Reagan, among others. Those glamorous days are long gone. Like many businesses in drug-war-torn Juarez, Raul the doorman says the Kentucky Club has to pay a cuota, or extortion, to local thugs just to keep the doors open.

"In a way, I feel calm because we pay the cuota not to have problems," he says. "Many businesses have been burned and shot up. But here, they protect us and the customer, because we pay."

'No Business, No Nothing'

Hundreds of miles downstream, the Mexican city of Ciudad Acuna sits across the river from Del Rio, Texas. In the incandescent August heat, a cab driver waits for a fare.

"Look in the street, nothing. No business, no nothing," he says.

His taxi is parked in front of what used to be the most popular bar and restaurant in town: Mrs. Crosby's, also founded in the 1920s.

Acuna is not a war zone like Juarez, but it's not the sleepy town it used to be. In May, after a state police commander was murdered, reportedly by mafia hit men, the Del Rio police chief urged people to stay out of Mexico. They have.

Crosby's co-owner, Gabriel Ramos, a 62-year-old architect, says he can't go on indefinitely paying his 22 employees out of his pocket.

"We have 87 years here, and something like this has never, ever happened. You can see," he says to a reporter who is his only customer.

How much longer can he survive? "I don't know. I think one more month, two more months. No more," he says.

Mrs. Crosby's is like a museum. The place still has the original floor tile and barstools. The walls are hung with pictures of Mexican revolutionaries, bullfighters and its namesake, Mrs. Garza Crosby. George Strait even mentions the establishment in a song lyric: "In a bar in Acuna called Ma Crosby's, I found myself not feeling any pain."

Suffering All Around

Border tourism was suffering even before the cartel war exploded.

Security measures after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks slowed traffic on international bridges. That was followed by the global economic downturn and the swine flu outbreak. Border businesses like dental offices and curio shops have been struggling.

But these historic cantinas are irreplaceable, says Tom Miller, a Tucson-based author and longtime denizen of the border.

"They're not a whole lot more than watering holes," he says. "But because of their longevity, and because they're passed down generation to generation, they have become institutionalized. There's a certain aroma that's lost if these three bars die."

For one bar, it's already too late.

A sign taped to the door of the famed Cadillac Bar, which opened in Nuevo Laredo in 1926, says it is "temporarily closed" as of Aug. 1. Nuevo Laredo -- across from Laredo, Texas -- has experienced a new spasm of violence between the Zetas gang and the Gulf cartel. A few months ago, someone tossed a hand grenade into the U.S. consulate.

A parking lot attendant on the corner says he'll be surprised if the Cadillac reopens.

"There's no future now," he says.

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio.

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