The party’s over in Ciudad Juarez
Rubble lines the forlorn streets of Ciudad Juarez’s historic center just across the Rio Grande and the sleek glass towers of El Paso, Texas in the distance. Huge piles of grey debris lie on the roadsides as dogs sniff in the ruins of the destroyed Vampiro nightclub, its pink concrete walls nothing but a mountain of steel and dust.
The desolate remains of buildings in the Mexican border city look like the place has been bombed. This is a war zone, the bloodiest front in Mexico’s drug war where a staggering 5,500 people have died over the past 2-1/2 years. But there are no bombers flying over head.
In a desperate attempt to curb the killings, the local authorities, armed with menacing yellow bulldozers, are gradually demolishing the bars, hotels and brothels of the once famous Calle Mariscal and Avenida Juarez that officials say breed the drug crime that is terrorizing the city. The once elegant husk of a building where Frank Sinatra sang in the 1950s is slumped and dirty like an old cigarette end, but locals say it might still be saved, although no one can be sure.
Ciudad Juarez was once a fairly glamorous place, a kind of Las Vegas that boomed in the U.S. Prohibition era of the 1920s and early 1930s as it lured American film stars and singers to its famous Kentucky Club bar. Named after Benito Juarez, a 19th-century reformist president, the city is scattered with historic buildings and monuments that recall the intense fighting here during the Mexican Revolution between 1910 and 1920. Even as recently as three years ago, the city was packed with U.S. party goers and tourists looking for cheap tequila, prescription medicines and sex.
Ciudad Juarez was always a dangerous place, infamous for the unsolved killings of hundreds of young women in the 1990s. But now residents morbidly recount the drug murders on almost every corner. U.S. college students, off-duty national guard troops and day-trippers looking for a pair of leather cowboy boots do not dare step foot in the city. The Avenida Juarez is lined with abandoned pool saloons and boarded up windows, shuttered pawnshops and dentists and the padlocked gates of luxury strip bars.
Across town in an wealthy, American-style district of the manufacturing city that has mushroomed since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the pyramid-shaped Sphinx nightclub seems to sum up of Ciudad Juarez’s demise.
A grand palace of pleasure with a golden pharaoh on its roof and kitsch hieroglyphic paintings in its entrance hall, the parking lot for 400 vehicles is filled with rubble and rubbish. Pigeons have nested above the door and sully the marble steps. A big sign hangs over its balcony: “For sale, hire or partnership, ideal for casino or other business.” Ciudad Juarez is a gamble few investors are willing to take right now.