Bubba Littrell sidled up to his favorite barstool to sip a chilly margarita at a place he calls his second home: the Cadillac Bar. To get to the storied watering hole of Texas hunters and shoppers in this city on the Rio Grande, the 69-year-old nudged past federal police, soldiers and a few olive-green Hummers.
He wondered: How did it come to this?
Littrell is one of many who fear that the Cadillac Bar may be drawing its last breath -- like other tourist-dependent businesses in this city besieged by warring drug cartels. Shortly after the police chief here was gunned down June 8, the Mexican government placed the city under martial law and the entire police department under house arrest as a corruption investigation spread. A new police chief was sworn in Wednesday.
Inside the air-conditioned bar and restaurant, Littrell and his business partner, Alan Stafford, both pool-supply salesmen, tend to their thirst. "There are times when we come here and it is really sad because we're the only two souls around," Littrell says.
Then he cuts to the heart of the matter. "It's the boys up north who just can't say no to drugs," he mutters through a handlebar moustache that spreads across his face like mini-antlers.
Drug cartels are fighting for control of a chief artery of commerce, the land port through Laredo, Tex., and Interstate 35. The turf war has shriveled tourism in Nuevo Laredo, a city created 157 years ago when Mexicans decided to leave the Spanish colonial settlement of Laredo on the north banks of the river after a bitter war ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
In recent decades, Texans flowed into Nuevo Laredo, too. Downtown, shoppers found jewelry, goblets and pottery. On the outskirts, hunters found dove, deer and quail. And in between, others found brothels, collectively known as Boys' Town.
As the sun would set in a persimmon glow, many ended up at the Cadillac Bar. Gin fizzes and fajitas could be enjoyed, as glass-eyed deer looked out from their wall mounts. Customers would find bartenders and waiters in white jackets and black bow ties solicitous to every whim.
Waiter Vicente Santos pines for the old days, especially Decembers, when Christmas shopping and whitetail deer season boosted tips. Now, with the bloodshed, "It's like a live movie, a Schwarzenegger movie," Santos says, referring to the action films of the actor who now governs California.
He fears for his job. Across the street, the Victoria 3020 restaurant, with its distinctive periwinkle blue walls, is shuttered. An entire building on the once-busy Belden plaza is for sale. Senor Frog's restaurant and bar closed at the end of June.
Ramon Salido Longoria, the Cadillac Bar's 75-year-old owner, says he can't bear to close it. Four months ago, it was painful enough to close his restaurant, the Victoria. It was located in the house he grew up in, a few blocks from his grandfather's bank.
Salido Longoria is the grandson of Octaviano "Chito" Longoria, the patriarch of one of northern Mexico's most famous business dynasties.
Now, Salido Longoria is able to cover only the payroll for his Cadillac Bar just two days a week. "I can't close it," he says. "It is something that represents such history.
"When you talk about San Antonio, you talk about the Alamo. When you talk about Nuevo Laredo, you talk about the Cadillac Bar."
Beginning Monday, Tamaulipas state will lead a campaign to lure Texas visitors back to this city, which depends heavily on tourism.
As part of the campaign, the state will send four buses three days a week to key Texas cities, including San Antonio, Austin, Victoria and Corpus Christi, and offer free rides to tourists to shop, dine and "rediscover our hospitable city of Nuevo Laredo," said Pablo Jacobo Suneson, vice chairman of the Nuevo Laredo tourism committee.
U.S. and Mexican history pours from the Cadillac Bar like sparkling water at the bar fountain. It started as El Caballo Blanco" (the White Horse) in 1922, as the U.S. prohibition on alcohol spawned many a bar along the 2,000-mile stretch of U.S.-Mexican border. In 1926, a New Orleans native purchased it, rechristened it the Cadillac Bar and infused the menu with Creole flavors.
The Longorias bought it in 1980. But in 1991, the Longoria cousins feuded and split the establishment effectively in two. One cousin took the original venue and renamed it El Dorado Bar. The other cousin and his partners took the Cadillac Bar name and moved it to a new location.
Business started slipping, then sliding, a year ago in Nuevo Laredo, as violence escalated among the warring drug cartels.
But there are at least two Texans committed to keeping the Cadillac's cash registers ringing.
Littrell and Stafford have been coming here twice a month for more than a decade. It's a ritual built into their business road trips as salesmen.
On a recent day, with the eatery nearly empty, the two men brighten as another table fills and platters of shrimp arrive. "We have company," Stafford says happily. "Sometimes we feel like it's our duty to keep coming here just to keep the business open."
Adds Littrell, "Closing this one would feel like closing down your home."