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.”
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.”
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.
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