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Prohibition Stimulated Economies of El Paso, Juárez
Article first published in Vol. 19, 2000.
By Dominique Ahedo, Larry Van Slyke, Valerie Peña, Yvette Barraza, Mirna Gonzalez and Sonia Carrasco
The manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors imported or exported from the United States is prohibited." This simple sentence, the 18th Amendment, changed the lifestyle of millions of Americans. In the El Paso area, it also changed the economy of our sister city, Juárez.
Prohibition was supposed to decrease criminal activity, reduce taxes and solve social problems. By the time Prohibition went into effect, Americans were drinking almost seven gallons of pure alcohol per person annually. Physicians and ministers believed alcohol damaged people's health and moral behavior and promoted poverty. Employers felt drunkenness reduced safety and productivity.
Reform groups urged Americans to practice temperance or to stop drinking. The "major arm" of the Prohibition movement was called the Anti-Saloon League, established in 1873. The Women's Christian Temperance League was formed in 1874. Not content with entering saloons and trying to convince their husbands to leave, more aggressive members attacked the saloon itself, and containers of liquor, with hatchets and other weapons. Protestant clergymen were some of the other most active reformers. By 1916, 23 states had passed prohibition laws on their own.
However, some people believed that banning alcohol would encourage crime and disrespect for the law. They maintained that government had too much power already over their lives. Norman H. Clark in his book on Prohibition says that many people in the 1800s and early 1900s mistakenly thought that hard liquor, but not beer and wine, could cause alcoholism.
The law prohibiting the manufacture and sale of liquor had its roots in the 1917 Food Control Bill, designed to stop the use of food and other ingredients for making alcohol. During World War I, grain was conserved for the war effort.
The 18th Amendment was ratified on March 5, 1918, in Congress. El Paso held a local option election on prohibition with the "Wets" claiming a 200-vote victory over the "Drys" who supported the amendment. On March 5, 1918, the Texas state legislature approved the 18th Amendment, closing all saloons as of April 16, 1918. Historian W. H. Timmons says that more than 200 saloons in El Paso were trying to get rid of their liquor by the closing hour of 10:30 p.m. on April 15, 1918.
The 18th Amendment became law all over the country on January 16, 1919. One year later, the Volstead Act, named after Congressman Andrew Volstead of Minnesota, was passed to enforce the amendment. Prohibited beverages were those containing more than 0.5 percent alcohol. However, liquors sold for sacramental, industrial and medicinal purposes, and fruit or grape beverages prepared for personal use in homes, were exempt from the law. And so, the era known as Prohibition began on January 16, 1920.
For El Pasoans, the law just meant that drinking activities moved across the border to Juárez, Mexico. Almost all the beer and liquor sold to Juárez saloons was manufactured by American firms that relocated south of the border. The El Paso Brewing Association moved to Juárez and offered free beer for 5,000 on opening day, January 15, 1922. The Waterfill and Frazier Distilling Company manufactured liquor under the name of D & W.
The easy availability of alcohol in Juárez brought hundreds of bootleggers from northern cities. Whiskey bought for $25 in Juárez could be sold for $6,000 in St. Louis, Denver or Dallas. Smuggling became rampant, and gunfire between bootleggers and American customs officials was frequent.
Prohibition brought many vices to the El Paso area, but growth and prosperity followed. Historian Oscar Martinez writes that the railroads even got into the act by promoting 10-day holidays in El Paso and Juárez. El Paso advertised itself as the "Wettest Spot on the Rio Grande" in newspapers, flyers and posters. Tourists and businessmen stayed in El Paso hotels and crossed the bridge to drink, dance and gamble. American hotels, restaurants and taxis did a thriving business as did Mexican bars, casinos and brothels.
Juárez was wide open during Prohibition. Constant turnovers in government from internal revolutions weakened Mexico's ability to rule. Not one Chihuahuan governor completed a two-year term of office from 1910 to 1934. Texas writer Edward Langston says liquor merchants controlled the city of Juárez, and more than one Juárez family fortune was made during the era of American Prohibition.
Martinez writes that the shifting of alcohol and adult entertainment from El Paso to Juárez boosted both economies. Respective Chambers of Commerce worked hard to ensure that visitors were treated well. Border Immigration Supervisor Frank W. Berkshire says that from July 1918 to July 1919, only 14,130 tourists crossed the border into Mexico. Within a year, that number had risen to 418,735. Timmons notes that this phenomenal growth in tourists created the need to build two new international bridges.
City promoters sponsored a 1923 publicity campaign in major magazines reaching about 50 million people in the U.S. and abroad, resulting in 12,000 inquiries a year from 1924-1930 from both tourists and possible residents. El Paso became a funnel to Juárez for people from all over the Midwest, South and Southwest. Some of the best known cafes and watering holes across the border included the Central Café, the Palace Café, Harry Mitchell's Mint Bar, the Crystal Palace, Fred Lacarra's Office Café, Jimmie O'Brien's Bar and the Lobby. Most of these places offered live shows, dancing, food and liquor.
Ken Flynn writes that Juárez Avenue had more saloons than any other street in the world, "one bar per 20 feet for six blocks."
Prostitution also proved to be lucrative. Timmons says that "through payoffs to the authorities, the prostitutes received protection under the law, and sold their charms through alliances with gangsters, confidence men, narcotics peddlers, thieves and taxi drivers."
With this tourist money, Juárez improved appearances by paving roads, installing street lamps, removing peddlers from mission grounds and rebuilding bars. While Juarenses were employed, most jobs were in American-owned distilleries, breweries, bars, souvenir shops and gambling houses. Juárez became more dependent on El Paso than ever.
Young soldiers stationed at Fort Bliss in the early 1920s found a way to get around the ban on the sale of alcohol in El Paso without stepping a foot out of the country. EPCC instructor Lawrence Milbourn recalls a story he heard from his parents' neighbor, Al Woody of Cheyenne, Wyoming, one of those young soldiers.
A member of the Cavalry at Fort Bliss, Woody and his pals would line up on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande by the old barracks and stables on Paisano where the river is the narrowest. Putting a dollar or two in a clean whiskey bottle, they would toss it over the river to waiting Mexicans. They, in turn, would throw back a bottle filled with reasonably decent liquor. Illegal? Absolutely. The worst crime that occurred during Prohibition? Hardly.
Contrary to the noble expectations that Prohibition would stop criminal activity, serious crime not only increased but became organized. Writer Mark Thornton says this occurred because Prohibition destroyed legal jobs, created a black market and the violence that accompanied it and diverted resources from enforcement of other laws.
In most parts of the country, illegal bars called "speakeasies" served those in need of a drink. C. L. Sonnichsen says speakeasies did not exist in El Paso because Juárez was so close. Likewise, El Pasoans were not desperate enough to make what passed for liquor in other places, poisonous mixtures that could produce blindness, paralysis and even death.
Congress repealed the 18th Amendment in 1933, some say to help the collapsed economy of the Depression era. On April 12, 1933, El Pasoans once again could buy beer, and on January 1, 1934, they began buying hard liquor legally. Juárez bars, restaurants and other nightspots closed as the number of tourists dwindled because of the Depression and because Americans could once again drink legally in their own country. Resentment against Americans became so intense that the mayor of Juárez called for a boycott of American goods.
Nationally and locally, Prohibition was a costly failure. Corruption and crime increased and organized crime achieved a stronghold never relinquished. Juárez became known as a paradise for activities illegal in other countries. Today, teens flock to Juárez where they can drink at 18. Tourists and even natives try to smuggle alcohol across the border to avoid state tax and limits on amounts. We still reap the effects of being a border city with laws different from those of our neighbors.