In Juarez, the Zona de Tolerencia has Moved, and the Mariscal is Changing
by Rich Wright
Posted on January 24, 2008
Louie Gilot reported in the El Paso Times that the city of Juarez is buying properties in the city's notorious zona de tolerancia in an effort to reinvent the city's historic downtown.
That probably doesn't mean a lot to most people. The Mariscal, named for the one of the zona's main thoroughfares, doesn't get a lot of traffic these days. The meat of the sex industry has moved out to the suburbs. You can read the ads in the classified section of El Diario de Juarez. She is the girl next door, one ad reads in English. High class. Another, more graphic, reads Pussy apretadita, Mojadita, Compruebame toda . . . .
They're ads like you'll see in any big city, almost. Like in Denver. Or Houston. Juarez is a big city, with big city vice and big city problems, big city murder and big city corruption.
Prostitution is legal in Juarez. Maybe not legally legal, but as a practical matter. Nobody's hauling a paddy wagon full of hookers off to the Center of Social Readaptation. That's the euphemism for jail in Mexico. I'm not sure there's a lot of social readaptation taking place in El Cereso. Judging from the reports in the papers, Mexican prisons are just pressure cookers of all the crime and vice taking place in all the rest of the country. There are riots in the prisons. Gang violence. Murder, and vengeance killing.
I love Mexico. But prisons everywhere are bad places.
Americans used to drive the Juarez entertainment economy. Prohibition fueled a huge tourist business. In the twenties, Avenidas Juarez and Lerdo used to be lined with bars, and Americans came from all over to visit them. The less reputable concerns, gambling joints and flophouses, were further back, in the Mariscal.
The Mariscal starts at the foot of the Paso del Norte bridge, a block west of Avenida Juarez, and runs up to Diesyseis. Santos Degollado runs parallel, a block west of Calle Mariscal. Up until maybe six months ago, this was the city's Zona de Tolerancia, an area dedicated to vice. Prostitution and drug use. Lately the drug of choice seems to be crack cocaine, but some of the older residents are junkies, or they'll fire up a mix of coke and heroin, like John Belushi.
Women, typically, haven't been allowed in bars or beer halls in Mexico. They're still not allowed in most bars or beer halls in the smaller towns away from the border, except for the more respectable joints, called ladies bars. Juarez, because it's so close to the United States, has always been more liberal. In the rest of Mexico, Juarez is famous for la vida loca.
For most of my high-spirited youth, the bars in Juarez were open twenty four hours. We'd take our shades, dangling on Croakies, to the discos at night, because without shades the sun hurt on the way home. Not all the twenty four hour clubs were as nice as the discos. Starting at two or three or four, Club Felix would fill with the marginally homeless who would nurse a beer and sleep in a booth.
I used to go into the Mariscal after the bars closed, in those sporadic years when the closing times were strictly enforced. Sometimes you could find clandestine beers in the back rooms of the whorehouses. Or sometimes we'd buy after-hours beer at a hotel, and drink it in the hallway. Mostly it was weird. I never thought it was dangerous, but maybe it would have been for somebody else. I'm tall, and athletic, and bilingual, with hyper-developed social skills from years in the service industries.
There doesn't seem to be a lot of violent crime in the Mariscal. I've never seen any. There's a lot of cops. On the weekends the paddy wagons make regular circuits with their lights flashing. And cops on bicycles cruise the street with guns on their hips, like cowboys on two wheeled horses.
Historically, the web of Mexico's social fabric is a tighter weave than here in the United States. Drug consumption got a late start there, except for the traditional ritualistic drug consumption of the brujos, or the Huichol peyote sweat lodges, or the grandmothers who made a tea with leaves from the marijuana plants growing in their yards. Mexico, mostly, has learned its bad habits from the United States.
Judging by a walk through the Mariscal on a recent Sunday morning, only a few legitimate whorehouses still exist. Large tracts have been leveled. The Panama is still standing. It made the papers a couple of years ago when it was revealed that coyotes were recruiting truck drivers there to haul undocumented workers past the checkpoints. The Dia y Noche was bought out and bulldozed. The Casa Colorado closed its doors years ago. Irma's looked like it's probably still open. But none of those were good places to get after-hour beers. The good places for after-hour beers were the flophouses where the streetwalkers plied their trade.
Those girls, and transgender individuals, are the infantry of the sex industry. The foot soldiers. Mercenaries, because they're all independent contractors, without the benefit, or protection, of a legitimate whorehouse. And when the Zona shifts, like it has, they're left without options, because if they had options in the first place, they wouldn't have ended up there. But I suppose if anybody is disposable in the grand economic plan, it would be them.
Life changes. Shit happens. And the bottom line is the bottom line.
Sometime in the eighties, they passed laws in Juarez that closed the bars at two. Bermudez was mayor, and the popular rumor was that he shut down the all night party so that the workers would show up for their shifts at his maquilas.
Soon after the law changed, for three months I ran an after hours club myself in Juarez. Without hookers, except, occasionally, as customers. It was over on Ferrocarril, a half a block from the bullring. It was a nice joint, but a little wild sometimes. Some Sunday mornings I'd stumble out onto the street and meet families on their way to mass. They'd step into the street to walk around me. Long, hot showers wouldn't make me feel clean after that. Remembering it makes me feel dirty again.
One of my partners in that speakeasy had a brother who was powerful in the city administration. “Don't worry about the police,” that partner would tell me. I thought he meant that his brother would protect us. I found out later that what he really meant was that I'd get a good cell in El Cereso.
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