Iconic Mexican bar is oasis in crime central
Al Capone came across the border to Mexico during Prohibition for a tipple here as he stocked up on booze. Stars like Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and a young Ronald Reagan have also sat at the bar for a drink.
The Kentucky Club & Grill in Ciudad Juarez, a stone's throw from the Santa Fe bridge to the United States, remains an oasis of calm in a city considered the most dangerous on the planet outside established war zones.
The bar has survived the crossfire of unprecedented levels of violence involving Mexican drug cartels that killed 3,100 people in 2010 alone and created a warlike atmosphere in the city of 1.2 million people.
While some establishments have closed due to the drug war, the Kentucky -- which claims to be the birthplace of the margarita cocktail -- has so far held on.
It opened in 1920 on Avenida Juarez when the US introduced the prohibition of alcohol, an era that lasted until 1933 and prompted a surge of bootlegging and related violence.
"The bar highlights that the prohibition of any substance is a failure, and simply shifts the problem," said Rutilio Garcia, a researcher at the Autonomous University of Juarez and a local historian.
Those in search of a legal drink of tequila or whiskey had an easy time crossing the border from El Paso, Texas and traveling the 600 meters (yards) to the Kentucky.
This flow of people turned the border city into a glamorous Roaring 20s destination with casinos, nightclubs and led to a train line connecting Juarez with California.
The prohibition of alcohol in the United States led some distilleries to relocate in the Ciudad Juarez region, which at the time became the world's largest producer of bourbon, a whiskey made primarily from corn.
Local lore holds that Capone crossed the bridge from El Paso to negotiate deals for liquor, and before returning sat with his men for a drink at the Kentucky.
Garcia said this "is just a legend," and that the last person who could personally vouch for the visits, a retired bar waiter, died a decade ago.
Ronald Reagan visited in the 1960s when he was still a young actor, years before he switched to politics and became US president. Jim Morrison, the lead singer for The Doors, was also among the numerous celebrities who dropped in.
Now, the spacious wood-paneled bar is lucky to get any tourists let alone celebrities.
"The visitors don't come like they used to. People are afraid," said Luis Chavez, whose job is to protect cars for the bar customers.
The bar owners say they have avoided paying protection money to extortion gangs like Los Aztecas and others that keep the city gripped by fear.
Yet with much of Mexico reeling from the violence since the government declared war on the drug cartels in 2006, people still have a place to relax and can get the bartender to shake a margarita or pour a cold beer.
"Whiskey is best, beer only masks the thirst," said one customer while lifting his glass.
By Madeleine Coorey from AFP