Juan “J.P.” Caceres-Rojas and Taha Ismail spent nearly three hours talking business on Dec. 19 at Founding Farmers. Caceres-Rojas is one of Washington’s most renowned young mixologists; Ismail is beverage director for chef Mike Isabella’s restaurants. They’re also the top officers for the new D.C. chapter of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild. After they parted, about 2:30 p.m., Ismail would not hear another word from Caceres-Rojas for days, despite repeated text messages.
Then, three days later, “we called family members,” Ismail said. “That’s when we heard where he was.”
The Bolivian-born Caceres-Rojas (who goes by the name J.P. Caceres) was being held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at an agency detention center in Farmville, Va. The bartender is considered an “immigration fugitive,” according to ICE officials. Caceres-Rojas was picked up by immigration officials after D.C. Police arrested him following a fight that occurred the same day he saw Ismail. According to D.C. Superior Court records, Caceres-Rojas was charged with simple assault, possession of a prohibited weapon and threats to do bodily harm as a result of an altercation. No further details were known as of press time.
The bartender’s friends and associates say Caceres-Rojas, 32, faces deportation, as soon as three weeks from now. But they’re not willing to let him go without a fight of their own. On Tuesday, one of Caceres-Rojas’s friends launched an online GoFundMe page to raise $7,500 for legal fees to try to keep Caceres-Rojas in the United States. The Web campaign went viral, and by Wednesday afternoon, friends and fans had raised more than $14,000.
Immigration officials said late Wednesday that Caceres-Rojas would soon be released, pending resolution of the charges filed against him. He will be forced to wear an electronic ankle bracelet and be required to check in with ICE officials.
Caceres-Rojas could not be reached for comment. But Ismail and others recently spoke with the bartender.
“He contacted us the other day. He was in a good spirits. He’s actually losing weight. He’s working out pretty much every day,” said Ismail, who spoke to his colleague via phone. “He knows that we’re fighting for him every day.”
If this sounds like standard-issue immigration and deportation stuff, it is and it isn’t. Caceres-Rojas has been living in the United States since the early 2000s, when he entered the country from Bolivia, where he was studying to become a lawyer. Despite not knowing a word of English when he arrived, Caceres-Rojas worked his way up in the D.C. hospitality industry. He started as a busser for the downtown location of Jaleo, celebrity chef Jose Andres’s famed tapas outlet, before becoming bar manager at sister restaurant Oyamel. Caceres-Rojas has had a passion for cocktails since he was a teen.
“At the age of 14, on an excursion to the Amazon with his father, J.P. Caceres first experienced the wonders of an alcoholic beverage,” Caceres-Rojas wrote on his LinkedIn page. “This particular cocktail was a glass of Singani, a Bolivian brandy, mixed with fresh squeezed grapefruit. His taste on life was never the same again.”
Caceres-Rojas later worked as general manager at Chi-Cha Lounge, beverage manager at the now-shuttered Bezu in Potomac, floor manager at Sushiko in the District, and head mixologist at Againn, the short-lived British gastropub on New York Avenue. While he was at Againn, The Washington Post named him one of the best young bartenders on the D.C. scene.
In 2011, Caceres-Rojas started his own business, Let’s Imbibe Beverage Consulting, which has developed cocktail programs for places such as Del Campo, Jackie’s Sidebar and MXDC. He became the first president of the D.C. chapter of the Bartenders’ Guild in June, and two months later, he was named as the East Coast brand master for Pisco Porton, the high-end Peruvian pisco.
Despite all of his success, Caceres-Rojas still joked about his early days in the United States. His business cards used to include a line: “Sorry but my English, it’s not very good looking,” said Jeff Faile, the newly installed bar and spirits director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group.
“He was just making fun of himself. That is just the kind of guy that he is,” said Faile, who contributed to the legal fund. “D.C. needs more people like him, not less.”
Caceres-Rojas was also married briefly to a U.S. citizen. According to ICE officials, Caceres-Rojas applied in March 2004 to become a legal permanent resident based on his marriage, but his petition was denied in 2008 because he had divorced his wife. The agency also noted that Caceres-Rojas entered the United States in August 2002 on a temporary visitor visa. Immigration officials said Caceres-Rojas overstayed that six-month visa.
On Oct. 30, 2010, an immigration judge gave Caceres-Rojas until Feb. 10, 2011, to voluntarily leave the country. When that date came and went, the United States issued an order for Caceres-Rojas’s removal. Caceres-Rojas failed to leave and did not appeal the judge’s decision, making him an “immigration fugitive,” according to ICE officials.
Ismail and others were supposed to meet with an immigration lawyer late Wednesday afternoon to work out the details of Caceres-Rojas’s defense. The lawyer could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, Caceres-Rojas’s friends and fans have been chiming in on the funding page. Wrote one commenter: “He is staying in a large room with 80 plus other people and has no privacy and is bored but is reading and writing and working out a lot. In true JP fashion, he’s helping others around him translate documents and just being an all around good guy.”
Faile hopes the legal campaign will do the trick for his colleague. “The guy is doing his best, and then something like this happens,” Faile said. “I just feel horrible for the guy right now. I just want my friend to get out and get on with his life.”