Prohibition: Golden Age of Tijuana

Updated: May 3, 2021

EDITOR NOTE: Tijuana definitely had its heyday during the prohibition, being a great escape to celebrities and gangsters alike. Many legends are told, all leading to the fact, that Tijuana's history has created a culture strife with an exotic, artistic and cultural flair. Maybe now is the next Golden Age?

Many argue that the Golden Age of Tijuana was during Prohibition, when the city was mythologized as the premiere playground for the rich and thirsty. Hollywood stars with a taste for betting and boozing made it a favorite getaway, and the city came to represent the shadowy side of the American appetite — a place to do anything and everything that we wouldn’t allow ourselves to do at home.

With its then-porous land border and miles of wild coastline, Tijuana and neighboring northern Baja California towns proved too tempting to resist for many opportunistic rumrunners during those dry years. Ask any local who ran things back then and you’ll hear one name repeated: Al Capone.

The Chicago gangster seems to have left his mark on everything, from an illegal card game at a secluded coastal hideaway to any number of local cantinas. It’s a compelling story. But is it true? I went to find out, heading for a place that’s synonymous with Prohibition-era Tijuana: the Agua Caliente casino.

Greyhounds and glamour

The original Agua Caliente casino, resort and spa was built in 1928 atop a natural hot spring — hence the name, Spanish for “hot water.” “Its only rival in the world is Monte Carlo,” declared the Los Angeles Times in 1929, so glamorous was the 655-acre complex, which included an Olympic-size pool, Turkish baths, steam caves, a horse-racing track, guest bungalows and 500 hotel rooms with tortoise-shell toilet seats, not to mention an airstrip to accommodate the planes of the Hollywood elite. Signed photos of previous guests Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks adorned the walls, and rooms ranged from $5 to $12 per night; bathing suits for use in the spa cost 50 cents.

Promotional pamphlets at the time called Agua Caliente “America’s Deauville,” after the resort town on the coast of Normandy, and turf for the 18-hole championship golf course was said to have been imported from Europe.

Unfortunately, that Agua Caliente went out of business in 1938, and the casino that bears its name today has little in common with its predecessor. Reopened in 2008 on a lot a fraction of the size after a multimillion-dollar remodel, the hulking beige building is as generic as anything on the Vegas strip, all dimly lit game rooms filled with glazed-eyed patrons feeding coins into endlessly chiming electronic gambling machines.

Around the corner, a group of men stares at a series of flat-screen TVs, watching sports with the intensity of people with real money on the line. A large picture window looks out on the racetrack, where a few hours from now a half-dozen greyhounds will chase a motorized white rabbit around the same track trod by Seabiscuit when he won the Agua Caliente Handicap in 1938.

The casino is now owned by the city’s eccentric former mayor, Jorge Hank Rhon, who famously maintains a private zoo filled with white Bengal tigers, black panthers, rare birds, snakes and other exotic animals. Every year, for Mexican Independence Day, Hank compels his menagerie onto the track, staging camel, llama, ostrich and pig races for cheering fans. The crowds go wild when the announcer presents the greyhounds, who are captained by “the smallest jockeys in the world”: monkeys in mariachi suits.

The elegance certainly seems to have gone out of the place, along with any evidence that gangsters like Capone ever hung around. José Gabriel Rivera Delgado, founder of the Tijuana Municipal Archive, points me toward one of the only testimonies that exist from the era, from a former Caliente coat-check girl named Elena de la Paz de Barrón, who claimed to have met Capone. Her memory was recorded in a 1982 book, “Panorama Histórico de Baja California.”

“One day there was a big fuss,” she recalled. “Police, a big crowd and somebody’s bodyguards, like something out of a movie. Who could it be, we wondered, and somebody said, ‘Nobody special, just Al Capone.’ He wasn’t ugly, with a small scar on his face and a lovely beaver hat. I gave him the ticket, and he smiled at me, like a flirt. Everybody wanted to see the hat. And when it was time to give the hat back, bam! He tips me a $50 bill!”

The original spa and resort site, not far from the current casino, is now the Lázaro Cárdenas High School, its entrance marked by a 150-foot-tall mock-Moorish minaret. Covered in colorful hand-painted tiles, the tower, like the resort itself, was built in the California-Moorish style of the time to disguise the chimney of the old spa’s heating plant — it’s one of the last remaining reminders of the old Caliente. That’s where I waylay students David and Alejandro, on their way to class in their school uniforms, to ask whether they know anything about their school’s checkered past.

“My dad used to go here, and he saw the tunnels,” boasts David, in Spanish.

“Tunnels?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he says. “That gringo built them to carry alcohol across during Prohibition. What’s his name? From Chicago?”

“Caponay,” says Alejandro, pronouncing it in Spanish.

“Yeah, Caponay. My dad saw the tunnels. But now they’re covered over.”

They tell me the tunnels ran all the way to the airport and then across the border to San Diego. The claim sounds dubious to me, but perhaps more convincing to kids who’ve grown up reading about the network of sophisticated tunnels built by today’s Caponays, the narco barons who use them to run drugs across the border.

In truth, the tunnels were put there to house the resort’s underground water and electricity ducts, not to transport hooch, according to a recent book by the late San Diego State University historian Paul Vanderwood. (He titled his book after the nickname local preachers gave to Tijuana at the time, “Satan’s Playground.”) “Al Capone’s gangster limousine is said to be there,” wrote Vanderwood of Caliente’s subterranean passageways, “long sought but never found.”

Hollywood heavies

The next stop on my journey is the storied Rosarito Beach Hotel, which opened in 1925 with the Pacific lapping at its feet and has as much classic-Hollywood history as Caliente. “Through this door pass the most beautiful women in the world,” reads a sign above the entrance to the lobby, a reference to the many stars who once graced these grounds: Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe and Lana Turner, to name a few, as well as Orson Welles, Spencer Tracy and Anthony Quinn.

In its restaurant, fading brass plaques installed along the walls point out Gregory Peck’s and John Wayne’s favorite tables, and the spot where Burgess Meredith once had dinner. No plaque for Capone, although a waiter offers to show me the Quijote ballroom, a supposed Prohibition-era party spot.

The room is decorated with blue-and-white ceramic tiles painted with scenes from Don Quixote, and there’s a lofted area above the bar where mariachis would play. There are sumptuous satin window treatments, crystal chandeliers, stately furnishings and a knock-off Renoir hanging on one wall, but the centerpiece is a stained-glass dome on the ceiling, under which Capone allegedly ran a card game. Today the space is used mostly for weddings.

I’m beginning to feel like my hunt for Capone is itself a little quixotic. His name is on everyone’s lips, with whispers and rumors aplenty — but hard evidence is scarce.

In search of more clues, I leave the hotel and head south on the coast road, the crashing Pacific just beyond my ­passenger-side window. The landscape is as physically stunning as it is tragic, with half-built condo towers looming atop craggy bluffs, crumbling postcards from more hopeful, pre-recession times. If the day were clearer, the Coronados Islands would be visible in the distance, a grouping of weather-beaten rocks in the middle of the ocean where the wreckage can still be seen of another failed Baja business venture: an offshore casino from the 1930s that people say was run by our friend Alphonse, who must’ve been a very busy bootlegger if all these stories are true.

In fact, the ill-fated scheme was the brainchild of a San Diego lumber seller named Fred Hamilton and Tijuana builder Mariano Escobedo. By the time construction on their casino-cum-yacht-club was finished, however, Prohibition had been repealed; when the Mexican government banned casino gambling a short time later, the club closed its doors for good, and the islands were given over to seabirds and elephant seals.

I press southward, bound for the Castle Restaurant, whose Web site openly boasts that “the infamous Al Capone built this castle and a Romanesque arena to entertain his Hollywood friends in the late ’20s.” The small, two-story building — tiny, really, for a “castle” — features faux-medieval turrets and arched windows. A vast amphitheater area below delivers sweeping Pacific views. The Castle’s walls are made of volcanic rock more than a foot thick — Capone demanded bulletproofing, says the restaurant’s ­second-generation owner, David Perez Elfman.

Secluded and a little brash, the Castle certainly looks like the kind of place a gangster might like to retire for a weekend debauch with famous pals (though now it’s open only for weddings and quinceañeras, another casualty of Baja’s ailing economy). But was it really Capone, or is this just spin to drum up business?

Perez is convinced of his restaurant’s Capone credentials, telling me he’s heard the story corroborated by friends, neighbors, archaeologists — even agents from Mexico’s version of the FBI, although he admits Capone’s name wasn’t on the deed. But since when do crime bosses use their real names in real estate deals, anyway?

“It’s a myth,” writes Mario Gomes curtly in an e-mail. He runs the My Al Capone Museum, an online trove of Capone memorabilia. “I have never seen any proof of Capone in Baja.”

“I’m skeptical,” echoes culinary historian and author Richard Foss. Capone was “a big name in the illegal booze business, so all sorts of activities might be attributed to him.” Foss says there were hundreds, if not thousands, of small-time operators smuggling alcohol in from Mexico by land and sea — too many small players, with no room for a big boss like Capone to run it all.

In his book, Vanderwood cites a 1931 newspaper columnist who said that the area was ripe for takeover by an outside czar like Capone: “The golden throne is ready for the taking,” the columnist wrote. Vanderwood suggests that Ralph Sheldon, a former Capone bodyguard turned California mobster, was a pretender to that throne. I wonder, if Sheldon was running around these parts flaunting his Capone bona fides, could that be the kernel of truth at the bottom of the enduring lore? Like Six Degrees of Murderous Gangsters?

Tunnels and ghosts

There are a hundred places I could go next to investigate Capone ties. He supposedly financed a hotel in Ensenada and drank at Hussong’s, a cantina with a peanut-shell floor and a legitimate claim on having invented the margarita. A bar in Mexicali’s Chinatown claims to be connected to an underground tunnel network that was apparently subject to a shared-use agreement between Capone and the Chinese mafia to shuttle booze under the border. The list goes on.

But I’m tired of chasing ghosts and whispers. I abandon my Capone hunt and turn down a dusty country road, heading toward the Guadalupe Valley wine country, where some friends from San Diego are having dinner. A scenic ribbon of land sandwiched between purple mountains, the valley is home to dozens of boutique wineries, a handful of chic hotels and world-renowned restaurants serving locally grown everything, all of which attract well-heeled foodies from far and wide. The press is hailing it as the Mexican Napa.

I pull up to the hip new winery where my friends are sipping sparkling rosé and snacking on beef-tongue sliders from a gourmet food truck parked nearby. As the sun sinks below the horizon, painting the landscape a golden pink, it occurs to me that 82 years after the repeal of Prohibition, alcohol is still drawing Americans to Baja California. This time, though, tempranillo and tapas have taken the place of moonshine and ponies of Prohibition and the tequila shots and wet T-shirts of the ’80s and ’90s. The scene today is less Satan’s Playground, more epicurean-chic.

Maybe Baja California’s reputation as the handmaiden of American vice belongs in the mythic past, with all those wispy stories of Al Capone. Maybe its real Golden Age is now.

Originally posted by Washington Post

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