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

Club Campestre, Armando Rosendo, Juárez
Angus Murray
Armando Rosendo is part of a 45-man grounds crew at Club Campestre.

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

Fernando Lopez Cerda, Club Campestre, Juarez Mexico
Angus Murray

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

Dean Jones, Club Campestre, Juarez Mexico
Angus Murray

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

Hector 'Teto' Murguia, Juarez Mexico
Courtesy of Hector Murguia's office

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

Tony Payan, Juarez Mexico
Courtesy of Rice University

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

Miguel Angel Viveros, Club Campestre, Juarez Mexico
Angus Murray

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.

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