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Club Campestre: How the lone golf course in Juárez, Mexico, overcame the drug cartels

Club Campestre, Juarez Mexico
Angus Murray
Club Campestre is largely ringed by a posh neighborhood and rows of trees, but some areas on the course, like this one near the third tee, offer a glimpse of a Juárez street.

On a blistering June afternoon just south of the United States-Mexico border, Club Campestre is bustling. General manager Dean Jones, who cleared customs and two security checkpoints on his way to work, sits in his office in the pro shop crunching numbers for an upcoming outing. Caddie Fernando Lopez Cerda, whose commute included an hour’s ride across town on a city bus, is on his second loop of the day, a bulky bag slung over his shoulder. And maintenance worker Armando Rosendo waters the grass in the trees behind the first green. He leans over and unhooks his sun-bleached garden hose, preparing to hustle to his next task on what in this sun-scorched part of the world is a remarkably verdant piece of land.

“The heavy hose that I have to carry on a daily basis is nothing compared to what other people have been through in these past years,” Armando says as beads of sweat cascade down his face. “The mission here is to keep this alive.”

Armando is referring to the turf beneath his boots, but his words resonate far beyond the gates of this leafy enclave in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. You’ve probably heard of Juárez -- not because of its golf course, but because of its powerful drug cartels and bloody past. From 2008 to 2011, more than 7,500 murders were committed in this sprawling city two miles from El Paso, Texas. The appalling peak came in 2010, when officials recorded 3,075 homicides, or an average of about eight per day, cementing Juárez’s ignoble reputation as the “murder capital of the world.” Tourism tanked. Businesses shuttered. After dark, residents hunkered down in their homes, fearful of kidnappings and random acts of violence.

Yet through it all, the city’s lone golf course stayed open.

Club Campestre refused to die.

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Juárez wasn’t always so dangerous. Set hard against the Rio Grande, Juárez is blue-collar and near the mountains and home to 1.5 million residents, many of whom work the assembly lines in its maquiladoras while cranking out everything from Hi-def TVs to seat belts for American companies. Not long ago Juárez was also a booming destination for gringo tourists looking to pop over the bridge for cheap merchandise, potent drinks and fun times. Outdoor festivals were big. Night clubs were packed. Margaritas were plentiful -- legend has it that they were invented here.

And none of that explains how Juárez became Mexico’s so-called “City of Death.” As drug trafficking in Juárez escalated in the early to mid 2000s, so did violent crime. In late 2006, then Mexican president Felipe Calderón declared war on the cartels and soon after deployed 45,000 troops across the country to wipe out trafficking; thousands of guards were sent to Juárez, which had the effect of slamming a 5-iron into a beehive. The city became a veritable war zone. In 2008, the situation grew even more grave when the tanking U.S. economy eliminated thousands of factory jobs and left a fresh faction of Juárenses unemployed and desperate for money. “In Mexico we have 50 million people, 30 million of them in extreme poverty,” says former Juárez mayor Héctor “Teto” Murguía Lardizábal, whose term expired in October. “That cultivates a culture of extreme criminality.”

The violence intensified as local cops accepted bribes from powerful drug bosses. Police, soldiers, and judges who wouldn’t play ball were slaughtered, often publicly and gruesomely. Innocent bystanders were caught in crossfire. Streets emptied before dusk. “The government was simply overwhelmed and unable to respond to the security situation,” says Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University in Houston and an expert on Juárez’s drug war. “They would just throw their hands up, sweep up the bodies, put them in the morgue and try to figure out what to do with them.”

Then, quite suddenly, things improved. In 2012, the number of homicides in Juárez plummeted to 749 -- a 76 percent dip from two years earlier. In 2013, just 256 murders had been reported through July. Murguía credits his decision to stamp out corruption by replacing more than half of his 2,600-member police force. Payan says that the killings only slowed once the warring mobs -- Sinaloa cartel and Juárez cartel -- stopped fighting once Sinaloa had re-established superiority.

“The Sinaloa cartel now controls the corridor, and therefore most of the need to eliminate its rivals is gone,” Payan says. “With the Juárez cartel gone, we are beginning to see a sort of peace in the city.”

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Club Campestre dates to the early 50s, when wealthy local businessman Tomás Fernández donated the expansive property that inspired the track’s name: “Campestre” means “of the fields.” “This course was out in the middle of whoop-whoop,” quips 70-year-old Alejandro Gonzalez, whose father was a founding member. “I watched a cotton field turn into a country club.”

Fernández hired acclaimed English architect Percy Clifford, who built more than 40 courses throughout Mexico, to create the track, and Campestre quickly became popular with locals -- including one up-and-coming club pro who was honing his game and hustling cash just across the border. “I used to play there at least once a week. We used to have some big money games down there,” says Hall of Famer Lee Trevino, who worked at a club in El Paso from 1966-77. “It was always in much better condition than the courses in El Paso. We absolutely loved it.”

Campestre privatized in the 1980s, and membership rates have fluctuated with the times. In the booming ‘80s, initiation was more than $10,000; a few years ago it bottomed out at $700. Today the club has more than 600 members, including doctors, lawyers, accountants, and other members of Juárez’s moneyed set. Neighbors, club members and local police say that there’s never been a violent incident inside Campestre’s gates. During my visit this past summer, guests had to clear a security point at the entrance and another in the lobby before heading to the pro shop, but there was no sign of armed guards on or around the course.

Which isn’t to say that Juárez’s troubles didn’t impact the club and its members. “Most of us are professionals, and we’d try to hide -- take taxis to work, that sort of thing,” says Enrique Treviño (no relation to Lee), a local dentist and president of Campestre’s golf committee. “If I did drive, I’d stop short of the car in front of me, so I’d have room to drive away if I needed to.”

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