Club Campestre: How the lone golf course in Juárez, Mexico, overcame the drug cartels
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.
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.”
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.”
Dean Jones, the club’s high-energy general manager, has also experienced the anxiety of working in Juárez. He lives with his wife and two daughters in El Paso, and commutes to work six days a week. This is Jones’ second stint at the club; he worked here from 1992-2008, when he resigned after reaching his breaking point. “I had lost a couple members to the drug war -- not insinuating that they were in it, but that they were victims of circumstances. I lost probably four or five members,” Jones says. “That kind of rattles your cage a little bit.”
Losing friends was jarring, but the incident that finally led him to quit and find work in El Paso happened one evening when he was on the 18th fairway with the club’s junior golf team. “We heard some gunshots over the top of our heads,” Jones recalls. “I’m not saying that it went over the top of our heads, but it was very clear what the noise was.”
Miguel Ángel Viveros, Campestre’s superintendent of 16 years, had an even closer brush with danger. In 2010, he was driving home from work when he watched in horror as a young man at the wheel of a nearby vehicle was shot twice in the head. Viveros arrived home safely, but witnessing a murder took a psychological toll. “I stayed home that night. The next day I didn’t even want to read the newspaper,” he says. “You feel impotent, you feel despair. I got nervous, and I tried to avoid that area. For an entire month I didn’t pass by that place. I took other streets.”
Viveros, 52, eventually emerged from his fog, and he credits Campestre for helping him move on. “I stayed in Juárez, and I overcame this by concentrating on my job and on more positive things,” he says. “And thanks to my work and the youth I surround myself with, we’ve all overcome that. I don’t think about that day anymore. I now just tell the story as something that happened in my life. An experience. Nothing more.”
To fend off the gangs, residents of the community around Campestre asked the city to ring their neighborhood with an iron fence. The government declined -- many other neighborhoods had made similar requests -- so residents took matters into their own hands and used boulders to block an entrance to the main road. The city ordered the rocks removed, but the group made their point. “There was fear here, but most of my neighbors stayed -- maybe 10 fled,” says 79-year-old Jaime Canales, who has lived in the community for 49 years. “My house has a very high fence in front and walls around the back, so no problem. The fear was to go out at night.” By the end of 2010, the neighborhood added additional safety measures: security checkpoints on the main streets.
In many ways, the club has served as a barometer for Juárez as a whole. As the guns have quieted down, Campestre’s tee sheets and restaurants have filled up. The place was humming during my visit. A week later, it would host a Mexican amateur tournament, with competitors flying in from around the country. Later in the summer television personalities from Mexico’s Televisa network converged for a bash. The course also staged a midnight outing where members knocked around glow-in-the-dark balls. Campestre and Juárez are rebounding together.
You wouldn’t mistake the grass at Campestre for Augusta National’s, but it’s green and it’s lush. Average summer temperatures easily surpass 90 degrees, but it’s not a desert golf course. There isn’t a single cactus. Instead, there are 18 holes of verdant fairways, thick rough and more than 10,000 blossoming elms, pines and pecan trees.
As one of the two large green spaces in town (the other is Chamizal Park, near the U.S. border), the course carries an added environmental significance. “Campestre is the second lung of the city,” says Viveros, the superintendent. “This course is so important, not only to the people, but to the city, because of the oxygen quantities and benefits. Sometimes we don’t see this.”
Campestre’s condition is even more impressive when you consider what the club doesn’t have: a sprinkler system. The 45-man grounds crew still uses the “coupler system” that was installed in the 1950s. The club takes water from the city, runs it through an on-site treatment facility, and pumps it into ponds around the course. To access the water, workers attach a hose to one of the hundreds of ground-level valves.
The land is such an intense source of pride among the employees that they have never let the course turn brown, even a few years ago when it wasn’t seeing much action. “To let the greens die is to let our faith die. It’s like the cartels won,” Viveros says. “The workers had to go through cuts in their checks and they had the option to leave or to stay, and they stayed loyal to the greens and the course. Now here we are.”
And so Campestre marches on, a quirky delight full of fun and demanding shots. The third hole, for example, is a gentle dogleg-right that tempts golfers to fly a maintenance shed with their tee shots. (It calls to mind, of all places, the Road Hole at St. Andrews.) The ninth and 18th holes each have alternate greens, so it’s a good idea to confirm which putting surfaces are in play before you tee off.
Idiosyncrasies aside, Campestre is a serious, scenic test, stretching nearly 6,900 yards from the tips. Wayward shots can leave you with tough angles and tricky punch-outs. The greens roll quick and true. The tee boxes are tightly mowed. Fish and turtles fill the ponds. There’s a driving range, a putting green and two chipping areas, plus indoor and outdoor pools, a playground, racquetball courts, tennis courts and a cozy 19th hole where members gather to swap stories, clink glasses and play dominoes.
Walking is required, and each player is assigned a caddie. (Thirsty? An additional “beer caddie” will join your foursome to lug the bottles.) But don’t assume these loopers aren’t serious about the game. “If you play there, you probably have a caddie you can’t beat,” says Lee Trevino. “Those guys were very, very good.” Indeed, my caddie, Fernando Lopez Cerda, a 38-year veteran at Campestre, has played to scratch. He doesn’t mention Lee Trevino, but confirms that high-stakes gambling among members has subsided. “Now they bet five dollars, and they still get mad,” he says with a laugh.
The fun times roll all day. When my buddy Shane cold-tops his tee shot, the locals in my group happily shout, “Pinky!” -- a drive that fails to clear the women’s tee -- and tradition demands that he buy a round of drinks. I have my first taste of buche (pig esophagus!), in a taco served at a cantina near the fifth green. I never once feel unsafe.
A few months after my first round of golf in Juárez , I’m back in town visiting my in-laws. It’s autumn, but temperatures still hang in the 90s when I take my father-in-law, Fernando, to Campestre. He’s a longtime Juárez resident and not much of a golfer -- it’s his first round in 40 years -- but he’s curious to see the grounds and I’m curious to hear his impressions. Midway through we stop at the taco joint, where I begrudgingly chew through another batch of buche and check in with him.
“So, what do you think, Suegro?” I ask.
Fernando is a retired doctor, and he rarely answers open-ended questions without a little reflection. He pauses a few beats before finally smiling and shaking his head.
“This is not Juárez,” he says.
He’s referring to the green grass, the columns of trees, the caddies lugging our rental clubs, the facilities, the serenity. And he’s right. To most Juárenses, Campestre doesn’t resemble the city they know. Yet the people who work here, who tirelessly kept the course alive as their city deteriorated around them, are a powerful symbol of the resolve of Juárez itself.
On our way out, I spot my friend with the hose, maintenance man Armando Rosendo, who is deep into another eight-hour shift under a broiling sun. Working the land gives a man a lot of time to think, and Armando’s eyes soften when he describes what passes through his mind during a typical afternoon on the job.
“I think in the positive, and that helps me think of solutions to my problems once I get out of here,” he says. “I live alone. I do not need much.
“Here I find peace.”
THE CADDIE: Fernando Lopez Cerda
For 38 years, I’ve been jolted awake by a 5 a.m. alarm, which gives me enough time to shower, kiss my wife and three daughters and hop into a dusty city bus for the hour-long commute to Campestre. I rarely travel outside Juárez, but if you add up the miles I’ve walked on the course I could circle the globe three times. Because so many members know me, I rarely have to join other caddies in the line outside the pro shop to wait for a bag. I usually make one or two loops per day, and at $30 a pop, my job pays much better than the $40 weekly salary of a typical Juárez factory worker. The money is especially important for my 23-year-old daughter, Cindy. She’s deaf, and thanks to the Dream Act, she’s taking online classes at New Mexico State University with her eyes on a degree in marine biology. She’s very special to me.
Campestre really takes care of us caddies. Every year we are invited to a caddies-only Christmas party, and I’ve brought home a couple of nice TVs and some other great gifts from it. I feel blessed to have this job, and it’s a great time to be at the club. In the past, many members had bad attitudes, but now you can sit with them and make jokes. People here have changed.
THE BOSS: Dean Jones
Six days a week I wake up at my home in El Paso and drive over a bridge and through border customs before wheeling into Juárez for my job at Campestre. There are 145 folks who work here, and I’m both the G.M. and the head teaching professional, but most guys just call me “pro.” This is my second stint at the club -- I had the same position from 1992 to 2008. I’m a high-strung individual, and as the city’s problems escalated, my family and I became more and more stressed. Finally I just felt burned out, so I left for a job in the car business in El Paso. But I missed golf, and especially working with junior golfers. Things eventually improved in Juárez and my wife Violeta -- we met in Juárez -- and I decided together in 2012 that it was a good time for me to return to Campestre.
Today the safety in Juárez is better, the economy is improving and I have no regrets. There aren’t as many members here as when I left, but our numbers are growing every month. My new arrangement with the club is a little more formal than the first: in 1992 the club president and I agreed to the terms of my deal on a cocktail napkin over lunch. I wish I would’ve saved that napkin!
THE MAYOR: Héctor "Teto" Murguía, Jaurez mayor 2004-07, 2010-13
When I took office for my second term as mayor, I found a city that was very sad. People weren’t going out. I immediately acted to fix this. Now that we’ve worked together with the federal government and the state government, we’ve had the best figures for the decreasing of homicides, robberies and criminal activities in the history of Juárez. Cities like Palermo [Italy], Medellin [Colombia], New York, or Chicago, it took them almost 10 years to have these kinds of figures. We did it in two-and-a-half years.
Don’t ask me about the cartels. The only way we combat the delinquents, or the criminal organizations, is that we don’t care if they are A, B, C, D, E, F or G. We take care of combating and fighting all of the delinquency. I’m not a cartel expert. When I came into office, the rate of homicides per month was more than 400. Right now it’s 21.
THE SCHOLAR: Tony Payan, director of Rice University's Mexico Center and expert on Juárez’s drug war
Several factors sent Juárez downhill. The city was becoming more unstable even before President Calderon declared war on the drug cartels in 2007. A culture of lawlessness already existed. At the height of the violence, there were two drug cartels, called Sinaloa and Juárez, fighting for control of the corridor to the U.S. To fund itself, the Juárez cartel used street gangs to extract resources from the city population -- in other words, the gang attacked the citizens. But today the Juárez cartel appears to have moved out, and Sinaloa has re-established its superiority and control of the corridor. The mayor made some smart moves to help get things on track, but government alone hasn’t solved the problem. The Sinaloa’s enemies are either gone, or have flipped sides to join them. Now the murder rate is declining.
The Sinaloa is a drug smuggling cartel in a traditional sense, and it might sound crazy to an outsider, but the city police would be best served to simply leave the Sinaloa alone. They only attack people who get in their way. It’s a major international corporation, and the municipal police are nowhere near close to being able to confront them. If they tried, they would be eliminated. The Sinaloa doesn’t even bribe the police anymore. They simply say, “If you get in our way, you will be taken out.”
THE SUPERINTENDENT: Miguel Ángel Viveros
I never thought I’d work at a golf course. I started my career in parks and recreation, and later I served four years in the Mexican military. But 16 years ago Campestre called to offer me the superintendent job, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to work at such a beautiful place.
To keep the course alive in a desert climate and unstable economy, we had to become innovative. So, I created a special fertilizer that, along with lots and lots of water, is the magic potion that keeps Campestre green during our hot summers. The compost is a special blend of grass clippings, mud and California red worms. We bag it and store it, and we plow through about 20 tons of it every year. Universities have said that my creation is one of the richest man-made fertilizers around, and I’m very proud of it.
I love my job, but what I enjoy most is that Campestre has given me a feeling of liberty. I’m 52, and I’ve been able to provide for my wife and two children. Working at a large, gorgeous course, one just feels free, like you can do anything. That feeling is the best part of my job.