I live about 50 miles from Juarez, which is in the midst of a fierce war between competing drug cartels. 3,000 people were murdered there in 2010 giving it the highest murder rate in the world. Many of the victims were just collateral damage caught in the middle or mistaken for gang members. The drug war has been going on for many years but really started heating up when President Felipe Calderón sent in 5,000 army soldiers into Juarez in early 2009 to roust the cartels. Once, one of the fastest growing cities in the world, Juarez is now shrinking. The middle class is leaving as many dual citizens relocate to El Paso. The US Army, which has a large military installation in El Paso (Fort Bliss), has declared Juarez off limits and tourism has pretty much shut down. No gringos visit Juarez today and it’s really, really sad because Juarez was a great place to visit back in the ’70s and ’80s.
My parents moved from Colorado Springs to El Paso in 1971. They soon discovered all the great things in Juarez and visited it regularly despite knowing no Spanish. Whenever I came for a visit, one of the first things we did was to go to Juarez. The only thing a gringo had to worry about when visiting Juarez was getting the car stolen or being stopped by the Police and shaken down for a bribe.
There were two great shopping areas: City Market and the Decor Center. The bottom floor of the City Market was a great place to get really good produce grown in the Juarez valley south of town and abutting the Rio Grande. The second floor contained stalls with all sorts of handicrafts and souvenirs. My mother really loved the hand-woven rebozos (shawls) and would use them as table runners and or give them as gifts. Bargaining was expected and she made some really good deals. Most of the stalls were staffed by good looking young men who always told us that they were students at UTEP and could be trusted;-) My Dad wasn’t a fan of the market because he was always worried that the car would be stolen and didn’t like all the little kids begging us to buy their chicletes at the Market entrance.
The Decor center was in less congested area and had been specifically built for the tourism trade. The big parking lot was patrolled by people offering to watch your car for a dollar. Here we bought high-end decorative items, jewelry, and beautiful pottery. I bought a 4′ tall parrot made out of hammered brass sheets for $80. Five years later I saw the exact same item in the French District in New Orleans for sale at $1200. Shoppers could also get pictures framed and custom furniture made for very good deals at the largest store. When my mother and I went to the Decor center, we stayed for a great lunch on the second floor of the furniture center and I became quite fond of the Bohemia ale.
Juarez had a a few very good and fancy restaurants. My Dad’s favorite was a Chinese restaurant run by a Chinese-Mexican family. The family was descended from a Chinese coolie “Shanghaied” to build the Mexican railroad crossing the Copper Canyon. Dad liked going to the restaurants because they had secured parking lots and he didn’t have to worry about the car being stolen. I understand that some of the better restaurants have shut down or the owners have moved them to El Paso.
The biggest hassle crossing the border was getting stuck in traffic at the port of entry coming back into the US. It was very crowded and custom agents were always on the look out for drug smugglers. One time, my mother, being an honorable and law-abiding citizen, declared some custom-made frames. Much discussion ensued and the custom agent had a very hard time figuring out the import duties from an enormous tome that he was flipping through. After 10 minutes or so she ended up paying an import duty of $3.
To avoid all the backup at the border, my folks made a weekly trip into Zaragoza, a small border town south of Juarez and really close to where they lived. Dad went to the barber shop, Mother went to the beauty shop, they stopped at the market to pick up limons, avocados, fresh tortillas, and restock the liquor cabinet. Whole avocados could not be brought into the US, so a kid who worked in the market would use a big knife (roughly half the size of a machete) to quickly pit the avocado. Getting back through customs was easy but anyone buying liquor in Mexico had to buy state liquor stamps for any alcohol purchased. The state had a little shack stationed by a very bored and overweight Texas agent just beyond the port of entry. One time I went by myself to pick up some liquor.He looked at me and my VW bus, and decided that I probably was trying to sneak in some marijuana. He ineffectually searched for about 20 minutes, found nothing but the two bottles I declared, took my $1 (tax was 50 cents/liter) and I was on my way.
When the gas crisis hit following the middle eastern embargo on oil to the US, my dad bought a used diesel VW Rabbit and added an auxiliary tank giving him an effective driving range of 1500 miles. He would drive over Zaragoza to buy diesel at one peso/gallon (about 12 cents). Today, Zaragoza is a major entry point for all the cross-border maquiladora traffic. The highway off of I-10 has 8 lanes of traffic and is usually loaded with semis. I wonder what happened to that little village with one paved road leading directly to the Mexican equivalent of a strip mall.
I sincerely hope that I will be able to go back to Juarez some day. What great times we had there back in the day.