A Not-So-Secret History of Vice in Juarez
by Rafael Nuñez
Posted on March 6, 2006
There’s no doubt that old Downtown Juárez was founded on vice. The surprise may be that it wasn’t just drugs. The first few modern city blocks contained bars, brothels, eating and drinking establishments and gaming casinos, catering largely to tourists from the U.S. In fact, Juárez had gaming casinos way before Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
As Juárez journalist David Pérez-López points out in his piece “Casinos in the Desert,” Juarez in 1885 became a so-called “free zone,” which prompted the establishment of several gaming casinos that became world-famous: the Tívoli, The Moulin Rouge, the Diamond Electric Keno, and the Hotel Casino. And around those casinos came an ever-growing proliferation of brothels and drinking establishments. All-night Juárez was born. Bars and nightclubs in Juárez remained open all night until the early 1990s, when the city government decided that perhaps closing them at 3 a.m., and then at 2 a.m., would reduce the widespread crimes in and around downtown Juárez. It didn’t.
The gaming casinos in Juárez remained opened until 1935, despite the fact that since 1905 Juárez had officially stopped being a “free zone,” and therefore, gambling was supposed to be illegal … But business was just too good, so the local Juárez authorities put off closing the casinos for another 30 years.
In her impeccably and very colorfully written, all-encompassing historical essay titled “La Leyenda Negra,” Lic. Adriana Linares, a professor at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez, chronologically recounts the first two or three decades of the 20th century in Juárez, when the “Big Three” underground industries were gunrunning (from north to south), prostitution, and, during Prohibition in the U.S., liquor smuggling (from south to north).
Clearly, vice always has been a part of Juarez’s business profile. But it was a particular form of vice that became a leading international industry that persists to this day. Drug peddling had been in Juárez since the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, the whole darn thing started in a somewhat unexpected, fortuitous way, as W.H. Timmons points out in his book, “El Paso: A Borderlands History.”
Timmons notes that after the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, a good number of Chinese immigrants fled the devastation in the Bay Area and resettled in various parts of Mexico, including the then-small border town of Juárez. Most of them opened up laundries, restaurants, clothing stores, dry goods stores and cafeterias. Some were only a front, since they served to hide from prying eyes the illegal activities going on in the clandestine, private backrooms of these businesses, where the real money was being made via opium dens and gambling parlors.
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The first big drug lord in the area was a Chinese man named Sam Hing, who peddled opium out of a fake business locale that was situated somewhere in the vicinity of what is now the intersection of Paisano Drive and Oregon Street, according to Juárez newspaper archives and Juárez city historian Ignacio Esparza-Marín. He said between 1910 and 1920 in Juárez there were places where not only opium was ingested, but also morphine and cocaine.
As always in the modern drug trade, there was a hostile takeover. In the mid-1920s, 11 Chinese immigrants dedicated to the sale of narcotics were murdered in Juárez. Their deaths were ordered by a married Juárez couple, a woman named Ignacia Jasso, nicknamed “La Nacha,” and her husband Pablo González, called “El Pablote.”
Soon La Nacha and El Pablote became famous. La Nacha was well known on both sides of the border. Her neighbors invariably described as “discreet” and “respectable.” La Nacha was undoubtedly the brains of the operation, and the leader of her drug gang. Her husband, on the other hand, was a loud, boisterous braggart who frequently went on all-day drinking bouts and enjoyed spending money freely.
La Nacha and El Pablote had four kids: Manuel, Natividad, Ignacia and Pabla, the last one eventually becoming the mother of Héctor González a.k.a. “El Arabe” (The Arab), an important Juárez narcotrafficker of the 1960s.
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La Nacha was the first to consolidate in Juárez the sale of marijuana, heroin and cocaine. Her discreetness, good business sense, and willingness to “grease” the palms of government officials, allowed her and her gang to more or less control her business without having to engage in violent confrontations.
Besides selling a lot of marijuana in Juárez, La Nacha and her gang smuggled heroin into El Paso. That’s why since the 30s, throughout the entire Southwest, El Paso has had a reputation of being an “old time” tecato (heroin addict) town. As far as the marijuana goes, during La Nacha’s time it was being cultivated locally in downtown Juárez, specifically in small hidden land plots located inside a large city block, owned by one Manuel Ascárate-Montoya, at a site where now sits the intersection of Melchor Ocampo and María Martínez streets.
Marijuana was primarily sold in downtown Juárez, especially at the corner of present-day Victoria alley and Mariscal street, which according to newspaper archives became known as the “happy corner.” Esparza-Marín and others have pointed out that La Nacha and her gang formed what could be regarded as the first true “drug cartel” in Juárez, since they demanded total respect for their “territory,” not letting anyone else sell drugs within their downtown area of control.
But by the mid-1950s, the family business was in the hands of her children, and soon thereafter, their monopoly crumbled, due either to their incompetence or their lack of interest in the whole thing, since by then they were all pretty well off.
In that time, from the 1940s to ‘60s, drug peddling and smuggling became more prominent, Professor Linares writes. The reputation became widespread, drawing bohemians and some of America’s greatest musicians, including John Coltrane, who gravitated to Juárez in search of cheap, easily available heroin.
This is when Juárez drug peddling became dispersed among many different small, independent bands of drug dealers, all competing with each other, but on a small, somewhat ephemeral scale. Most of these small drug dealing rings were constantly appearing and then disappearing, without any real need or desire to consolidate or band together, nor to start between them an all-out war for control and supremacy. Apparently there was enough “business” for one and all.
This situation more or less remained the same in Juárez from the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s. From time to time, a drug dealer would obtain some notoriety – like, for example, La Nacha’s grandson Héctor “El Arabe” González in the 1960s.
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Sooner or later, it would get bigger. In November of 1976, newspaper archives record a major accusation against Juárez authorities -- The Chihuahua State Attorney General said that he had statements from inmates and officials that implicated the Juárez mayor and his son as participants in drug trafficking, as well as introducing and selling hard liquor and prostitutes inside the Juarez prison.
This was not to be the last time that this specific type of accusation was made against the local authorities. But back then, as now, the scandals died down and go away.
Linares points out that around this same time, about 50 miles east of Juárez, in the small border town of Ojinaga, a new, flashy Mexican drug capo had emerged. Named Pablo Acosta, and variously known as “El Pablote,” “The Czar,” “The Ojinaga Fox,” “The Ojinaga Godfather,” and “The Ojinaga Robin Hood,” this man was a new breed of narcotrafficker: flamboyant, openly defiant of authority, impulsive and unpredictably violent. He had penchant for fine Texan hats, R-15 machineguns, brand-new Ford Broncos, drinking tequila and snorting cocaine; he was also known in Ojinaga for helping the poor “à la Robin Hood” and for buying schoolbooks for working-class students and even paying for their university or private school tuitions.
Pablo Acosta was the first “modern” drug capo to emerge in Northern Chihuahua state —ruthless, single-minded, cruel, and completely dedicated to consolidating his power and eliminating his enemies and competitors at all costs. From Acosta to Amado Carrillo-Fuentes and the Juarez cartel, the immigrant business begun in downtown Juarez turned into a multi-billion dollar, international industry.
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Just as Juarez developed casinos and bars to serve largely U.S. demand, high-volume narcotrafficking in Juárez persists to this very day because it continues to be an extremely profitable endeavor. It is a corridor for drugs because there’s a huge market for drugs right across the river. It’s the old law of supply and demand, working in all its glory and cruelty. It’s a lesson in economics gone haywire.
Conservative estimates in the mid-1990s calculated that 30 to 40 percent of the Juárez economy was financed by laundered drug money. Other estimates held the true percentage to be closer to 60 or 70 percent. Similarly, then-Texas Attorney General Dan Morales pointed out that there just wasn’t an industrial base big enough in El Paso or San Antonio to justify the filled-to-the-brim status of their Federal Reserve Bank branches, which he determined were full of money being laundered by narcotraffickers.
As for Downtown Juarez, where much of this started, one will still find prostitution, pickpockets, street drug sellers and places where people get high. Instead of Chinese opium dens, they are now picaderos -- shooting galleries.
It isn’t the glittering Downtown Juarez of the casino era, or the jazz era, when El Paso was thriving and Juarez was hopping. Roving bands of descuenteros (small groups composed of two to four individuals, who sucker-punch and mug their victims on the street) and polviteros (men who lace their victims’ drinks with sedatives) makes the prospect of walking late at night, let’s say after midnight, in some of the more seedy areas of Downtown Juárez (notably Mariscal street, and the blocks around the intersection of Degollado and Mejía streets) very, very dangerous indeed.
One other thing I have found distinctly different about the downtown red light district in Juárez, when compared to other red light districts in Mexican cities located in the interior of that country, is that female prostitution in Juárez is not fueled by poverty, as it almost invariably is in all those other cities, but instead by drug addiction, as it is in many U.S. cities.
Linares points out at the end of her wonderful essay: “Sometime back in the ’60s, Mexican president Gustavo Díaz-Ordaz was once asked by a reporter what he thought about the fact that Ciudad Juárez was said to function as a ‘springboard’ or ‘diving board’ for illegal drugs. Díaz-Ordaz answered: ‘Don’t forget, miss, that if a diving board exists, then there must be a swimming pool.’”
Downtown Juarez, it appears, has become both the board and the pool.
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