Destination Naco

As you emerge out of one of Arizona’s splendid, welcoming valleys, you approach the border town of Naco. But drive carefully or you may miss it and cross the border. Easy enough to go to Mexico, but it can take time to get back.

Once in Naco, you may not be sure you’re there.  It has a population of about 900 not many of whom can be found in the center of town. As the U.S. Border Patrol puts it, border violence has turned little Naco into a ghost town. So it would seem until you enter the one clearly functioning establishment, the Gay 90’s Saloon.

What’s this? No modest little bar but something worthy of Times Square – lights, glitter, bottles galore and patrons from around the area who come to drink, play pool and celebrate.

The Gay 90’s opened in 1921 during prohibition. But if someone managed to cadge a drink then, he could quickly escape across the border before the police arrived. There in Mexican Naco he could drink to his heart’s content. Prohibition, in fact, made that town prosper. Today, like other Mexican border towns, it offers an array of dentists and pharmacies for Americans willing to cross the border to save some money. There is, to be sure, some hesitation. A young woman told a travel adviser “I would go with my boyfriend who has long hair and tattoos. So hopefully that doesn’t make him a target.” At present, all seems peaceful in Naco.  “At least during the day,” notes a Border Patrol agent.

Until the drug cartels arrived, life in Arizona Naco was peaceful with occasional irruptions across the border. During the Mexican Revolution of 1914-15, Constitutionalists and rebels fought bitterly for 119 days with heavy losses on both sides and some property damage to Arizona Naco. U.S. cavalry come to the border to make sure the fighting did not spill over, and some were wounded by stray bullets. In early 1915 U.S. Army Chief of Staff Hugh Scott managed to broker a truce and end the Siege of Naco.

In a subsequent clash in 1929, federal troops held off rebels in Naco, while Arizonans came to watch in what was considered a spectator sport. One American did something more. Stunt pilot Patrick Murphy offered to help the rebels by bombing the feds. They readily accepted, and he dropped a number of bombs. A few didn’t explode, but three landed on the Arizona side of the border, hitting a number of buildings but no people. That was enough. U.S. troops grabbed Murphy’s plane and jailed him briefly for violating neutrality laws. He had the distinction of being the first person working for a foreign group to bomb the U.S. – early inadvertent terrorism.

More recently, the drug traffic has unsettled Arizona Naco. In 2007, two American private security contractors exchanged gunfire with cartel members. The pair were unharmed, but the cartel was upset. For several months afterward, it threatened both police and townspeople, causing many to leave. Despite its size, the town has become a major drug route, though a steel wall is something of an impediment. But whatever the drug problem or any other grievance, locals can find solace in the Gay 90’s Saloon.

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