by BOB CHESSEY
Have you heard of the time Al Capone visited Juarez?
The story of Al Capone crossing the international bridge in a motorcade to visit Juárez is often resurrected, usually in the Juárez and El Paso Spanish language press and on the Internet, and boasts of Juarez’s draw to one of the United States’ most notorious bootleggers.
The gist of the story claims, or implies, that Al Capone was visiting to both purchase liquor and arrange for the contraband’s transportation to Chicago for resale.
In the telling there is always a specific Juárez bar Capone visits, though it is never the same bar in all the versions told. Sometimes it is the Nuevo Tivoli, or The Kentucky Club, or The Lobby Bar. Often the “source” of the story is a family member whose ancestor received a generous gratuity. When the “source” is not cited as a family member the story still tends to include the encounter ending with the mobster’s cash being personally handed to an employee in the service sector: a bartender, waiter, or shoe shine boy. The tip is always a significant amount for the era.
Rarely in the retelling is there a specific date given for this historical visit. The author has located two articles that provide a rough estimate of the date Capone strolled upon the streets of Juárez. The first article claimed that at “precisely” 7 pm in the final days of October, 1929, Capone and entourage entered The Lobby Bar and stayed one hour. The recipient of Capone’s generosity in this version is the bar owner’s son, who was handed $15 dollars by Capone before he exits the saloon.
The second article states that near the end of 1929, after crossing the Stanton Street Bridge and entering Juárez on Calle Lerdo, Al Capone arrived to visit the city’s bar district. The implied purpose of the internationally known gangster traveling to the border was to meet with his criminal counterparts in the Juárez underworld.
Both articles give rough dates toward the end of 1929, presumably between the end of October and December. Equally of note is the fact that there is nothing in the El Paso newspapers of that time period documenting Al Capone visiting either El Paso or her sister city Juárez.The likely reason for the omission being that there is significant conflicting documentation as to Al Capone’s whereabouts for all of late 1929.
On May 17, 1929, Al Capone and his bodyguard were arrested in Philadelphia for carrying concealed deadly weapons. Within 16 hours the criminal pair had been ordered by a judge to serve prison terms of one year each. Capone served his sentence and in mid-March 1930 was released after serving nine months’ time in the Eastern Penitentiary; the crime boss was released two months early for good behavior.
Expanding the search, there is also nothing in the mid-to-late 1920’s El Paso newspapers reporting on a visit by Al Capone or even any of his associates.
Giving the benefit of a doubt to the allegation that Capone actually did visit Juárez, and the possibility that the “dates” were wrong in the newspaper articles, contact was made with Laurence Bergreen, the author of Capone: The Man and the Era. The gangster’s biographer was asked if during his research he uncovered any information about a visit by Capone to El Paso and/or Juárez.
The author replied, “This is all news to me. One way to check on this is dates. Then it might be easier to place him. In general, though, I share your skepticism.”
Ironically, although there are no newspaper articles about Al Capone visiting the El Paso/Juárez area, there is an editorial in the January 23, 1928 edition of the El Paso Herald about Al Capone NOT visiting El Paso.
At that time Al Capone was receiving significant national press attention for taking a vacation in Miami. The Herald’s article did not imply that Capone had considered visiting El Paso. The editorial seemed to be saying El Paso should be grateful Capone did not visit here due to gunfights that could break out around Capone with his underworld enemies.
The editorial concluded: “El Paso doesn’t care for visitors of Scarface’s type. Being a border town, a good town and on the highways from east to west El Paso gets quite a number of rather undesirable sojourners, but it does not get any beer warriors or gang battlers, and therefore this city’s best wishes and even its sympathy can be extended to Miami.”
There was no referencing of a previous visit to El Paso and/or Juárez in the editorial.
It is obvious that Capone never visited El Paso and/or Juárez before January 23, 1928. And he obviously did not visit between May 17, 1929 and March 16, 1930. With no documentation that a visit to the area happened between January 23, 1928, the date of the Herald’seditorial, and May 17, 1929 when he was arrested and sent to the penitentiary, I am confident he never set foot in either El Paso or Juárez.
The hypothesis that Al Capone ventured to Juárez to purchase liquor for distribution in Chicago and surrounding areas defies logic. Overlooked in this notion are the inherent logistical risks of transporting alcohol from Juárez into the U. S. and across the span of the country. The geographical distance necessary to move the product that distance increases the potential for interception by law enforcement and/or hijacking of the contraband by competitors. Canada was the realistic, and the chosen, international border for Capone’s “importation” of liquor shipments from a foreign country.
The closest the infamous Scarface ever traveled to Juárez was during the December of 1927; Capone and others boarded a train from Chicago bound for Los Angeles passing through Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico. The police hounded him out of the City of Angels so Capone and his crew boarded an outbound train to return to Chicago, passing once again through Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
Al Capone’s Juárez “visit” is one of the more persistent local urban legends from the Prohibition era. You cannot prove that a reputed event did not happen, but in this case the circumstantial evidence appears conclusive that Al Capone never visited Juárez.
A word of warning, learn from this author’s mistake. Whenever patronizing a Juárez bar which claims to have served Al Capone never attempt to explain why Capone could never have visited their establishment; they will not receive the enlightenment well.
Bob Chessey is an El Paso-Juarez historian and writer.