For a brief spell on Friday, the iconic Kentucky Club on the Juárez strip almost seemed like its former self. Patrons and staff, surrounded by salt-rimmed glasses and cold beers, smiled and chatted while a World Cup semifinal quarter-final graced the televisions overhead.
The mood would quickly pass, as a caravan of masked federales — Mexican federal police officers — with machine guns at the ready and turrets bolted to their vehicles, roared by outside. This city, as many knew it, has ceased to be. Drug violence between the rivaling Sinaloa and Juárez cartels has brought the death toll to nearly 6,000 in less than three years. Beheadings are common; fathers are gunned down in front of their children; once-vibrant sectors of the city have given way to garbage and boarded up windows.
In other parts of the world, elections are, at least for some, a cause for hope — some small chance for citizens to support their vision of change or at least oppose what they abhor. Here at the Kentucky Club, as throughout the city, the election of a new mayor brought, at best, indifference in the days leading up to a victory for Hector “Teto” Murguía, 57, of Mexico’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), over César Jáuregui, 44, of the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN).
“It doesn’t matter if it’s the PRI or the PAN — if the federal government can’t stop it, the municipal government can’t stop it,” said Kentucky Club bartender Carlos Velasquez on Friday. “It’s sad.”
Velasquez, like most here, is already a survivor of sorts. The Kentucky Club is one of a few legendary haunts that still stands. The Tequila Derby, Superior, the Copacabana and Fred’s Rainbow bar, the genesis of late-night excursions for generations of Juarenses and Texans alike, are gone. Some closed due to lack of business, others as part of a city project to upgrade the sector — but Velasquez agrees that the neighborhood will never be the same. Like others, Velasquez has more to worry about these days.
“Am I scared? Yes, I’m scared. I’m scared to leave my house for work,” he says, pausing briefly to wipe the bar, and then glances out the window. He repeats: “It’s sad.”
As of Monday morning, Murguía had a commanding lead over Jáuregui with more than 90 percent of the ballots counted, and later that day local media reported Jáuregui had conceded defeat. When Murguía is sworn in later this year, he will begin his second term. Mexican law prevents mayors from running for re-election; Murguía had to sit out the last three years and watch his successor, Jose Reyes Ferriz, take over where he left off.
During his first term, Juárez surely was no stranger to violence and corruption, but cartel activity was mainly relegated to other parts of the Texas-Mexico border, especially the border state of Tamaulipas, across from the South Texas border city of Laredo. Despite the bloody descent of Juárez, Murguía remains popular among the poor and within his party, though his reputation has been tainted by allegations that he is tied to organized crime. During his final year in office, he appointed Saulo Reyes Gamboa, a businessman with several interests in the U.S. and Mexico, as the city's public safety director. A year later, Reyes Gamboa was arrested in a sting operation in an El Paso parking lot for attempting to bribe a law enforcement official to facilitate the smuggling of drugs into the U.S. Reyes Gamboa was sentenced to eight years in a U.S. prison. Since then, web pages have emerged chronicling Murguía’s alleged connections to the underworld. And shortly after Reyes Gamboa’s arrest, Juárez exploded into the mayhem that still reigns today. Some posit that Reyes Gamboa’s arrest was the catalyst — as Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, saw a chance to gain control of the drug plaza that extends from Chihuahua into the U.S. Guzman had previously battled the Gulf Cartel and its former enforcement arm, Los Zetas, for control of the corridor that extends from Tamaulipas into South Texas and points north. Murguía has vehemently denied any connection to organized crime. Meanwhile, his successor, Reyes Ferriz, has supported his election campaign — despite previously claims that he inherited from Murguía a local government rife with corruption.
“I am endorsing my party for the mayoral race. There has to be some continuity of what we are doing,” he told The Texas Tribune last April.
The throngs of tractor-trailers that line the import lot at the El Paso Port of Entry — and the hundreds of Mexican citizens who daily endure slow inspection lines to shop and work in El Paso — underscore the symbiotic relationship between the sister cities. It’s the reason El Paso Chamber of Commerce CEO Richard A. Dayoub says his organization is monitoring the election season, despite the bloodshed.
“We have no control over the violence, what we can do … continue to build our joint economies together and build on the positive, and support each other,” he said. Dayoub said his organization isn't a political action committee and doesn’t endorse one candidate over the other. He admitted, though, that the chamber has a good relationship with Murguía: “We’ve worked well in the past, and so certainly, if he is in fact the designated winner of the election, it does assist us in that regard.”
Asked about the allegations of corruption and rumors of ties to crime, Dayoub demurred. “Not only do I not have that basis to make a comment, but because I don’t engage in the political side of it, I would certainly not be comfortable making any comments,” he said.
"We have no choice."
As politicians and economic leaders assess what the elections mean, 45-year-old Andrea, who did not provide her last name, struggles in a world far removed from theirs. As she walked the Paso Del Norte Bridge back into Juárez, she said she was on her way to vote — for Jáuregui. But she acknowledged that the outcome could mean little.
“Whoever wins, the things will stay the same. They don’t have the power to change things. Why? Maybe because it’s convenient for them, or maybe they too do it for security reasons,” she said. “I think all of [the politicians], in one way or another, are probably tied in with [organized crime]. And, if they can, they haven’t done anything.”
Meanwhile, Andrea, who works in a maquiladora factory on the city’s outskirts, said she fears the simplest daily tasks. The gossip at work, she said, takes a grim tone. “We talk about who we think will die next,” she said. “But what can I do? I can’t starve. I have to leave my house for work. I have no choice.”