|Booking photo of La Nacha from Juarez in 1942. (Photo illustration based on photo from the National Archives at College Park, Maryland / Courtesy of Bob Chessey)|
by Bob Chessey // May 27, 2014
In the summer of 1955, a burgeoning journalist from El Paso and a
veteran drug dealer from Ciudad Juarez famously crossed paths in a
dangerous game of cat and mouse.
At the time, Ruben Salazar was earning a reputation
as a driven investigative reporter for the El Paso Herald Post. On the
opposite side of the Rio Grande, Ignacia “La Nacha” Gonzalez was
established as Juarez’s most notorious narcotics trafficker—with
opiates, not marihuana, as the major drug in transit from Juarez to El
La Nacha had been dealing and trafficking opiates
for just over 30 years. During World War II, her reputation was such
that the mayor of Juarez in 1942, Antonio Bermudez, called for a
citywide manhunt, resulting in her arrest.
Following her arrest, Harry Anslinger, the head of
the U. S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the legacy agency of the DEA, had
the U. S. government file for La Nacha’s extradition to the U. S. in
order to place her on trial for trafficking.
The request to the Mexican government failed but
did result in La Nacha’s imprisonment for the duration of the war, part
of her sentence spent in the penal colony of the Tres Marias islands off
the coast of Mexico.
Ruben Salazar was a veteran of the U. S. Military
and a recent graduate of Texas Western College (now UTEP). After failing
to secure a job with the El Paso Times that year, he was offered a
position as a reporter at the El Paso Herald Post.
In May of 1955 one of his first major stories was
having himself arrested and reporting on the wretched conditions in the
drunk tank of the El Paso City jail. An issue of concern raised in the
article was the access to drugs by prisoners.
The following December, Salazar would say the
availability of drugs in the El Paso City jail was the seed for his
decision to personally visit and purchase drugs from La Nacha.
The more likely explanation can be found in the
article Salazar wrote for page 15 of the August 10, 1955 El Paso
Herald-Post: “Special Officer Joe Villa Protects Southeast El Paso With
Special Officer Joe Villa owned the Alameda
Merchant Patrol, a private security service not attached to the El Paso
Police Department. His company provided protection for businesses in the
“south-east side” of El Paso, along Alameda Avenue. Having been raised
in the area, Villa was a 45-year-old ex-boxer with an affinity for the
While discussing crime around the Alameda business area he patrols, Villa’s conversation turns to drugs.
“Special Officer Villa is convinced that Juarez’
notorious dope queen, La Nacha, has much to do with the border dope
“’Dope addicts have told me that they take stolen
goods to her in exchange for a much needed shot,’ Villa said. ‘I myself
have been at La Nacha’s and have seen addicts squirming on the floor in a
narcotic frenzy. It is a sad thing’ Villa laments.”
Villa’s theory of the misery sown by La Nacha in El
Paso, along with his informing Salazar he had personally visited what
sounds to be one of La Nacha’s infamous shooting galleries, or
“picaderos”, is what most likely ignited the fire in Salazar’s
One week later, to the day, Ruben Salazar published
a front page article above the fold in the August 11, 1955 El Paso
Herald-Post titled: “La Nacha Sells Dirty Dope at $5 a ‘Papel.’”
Salazar’s La Nacha article describes his paying an
American addict, he called “Hypo,” $15 to introduce him to the Border
Dope Queen. La Nacha was living in a nice house in Bellavista, a rough
area of Juarez. Altogether, the pair made two purchases from her in one
After entering her house during the first visit and
meeting La Nacha’s son and daughter, they are told Salazar must meet
and be personally approved by La Nacha before he can make a purchase.
He describes La Nacha as “fat, dark, cynical and around 60” (she was 55 years old).
Hypo introduces Salazar as an El Paso musician
interested in a narcotic connection. When La Nacha notices there are no
needle marks on Salazar’s arm, Hypo deflects the concern with the
explanation that Salazar prefers to snort heroin. The ruse is
successful. Their second visit to purchase heroin from La Nacha lasts
only a minute.
Later, Hypo overdoses at home from the heroin purchased during their first visit.
When published, the article was accompanied by two
photographs. One was a mug shot from La Nacha’s arrest at the beginning
of World War II, the second photo was of the street where she lived.
Not shown was an additional photograph Salazar had wanted to include.
In a 2008 Newspaper Tree article Ken Flynn, a
veteran reporter who had worked at the El Paso Herald-Post several years
after Salazar moved to Los Angeles, discusses having had the
opportunity to meet and become friends with Salazar. Flynn describes
Ruben Salazar as a reporter of lore and legend in the newsroom from his
days of beating the pavement for the Herald-Post.
One particular memory was Salazar’s enjoyment in
recounting the episode of the photograph not used for the La Nacha
article. Flynn writes:
“I still remember chuckling over his description of
the look on Herald-Post Editor Ed Pooley’s face when Ruben presented
the boss with a package of marijuana he had obtained from La Nacha, the
famed Juarez drug queen who controlled the narcotics trade in Juarez in
the 50s, sort of a one-woman cartel. He had wanted the Post photographer
to take a picture of the weed to illustrate a story he was writing…
“Pooley, of course, became unglued, grabbed the package of marijuana and flushed it down the commode in his office.”
It appears from Salazar’s article that both
purchases he made from La Nacha were heroin, not marihuana. The
explanation for the confusion most likely is due to the time that passed
from first hearing the stories in the late 50’s and early 60’s and the
shift from heroin to marihuana as the main drug moving through El Paso
This episode illustrates both the drive Salazar
felt to build a complete story and his naiveté as a novice reporter. It
is easy to sense the horror the Herald-Post’s editor must have
experienced when he saw the heroin. If the photograph had been run on
the front page, with the accompanying story, federal officials would
have arrested Salazar for both possession and transporting the heroin
over the international boundary. Neither Salazar nor the newspaper would
have fared well.
Salazar was not the first journalist to cover La
Nacha and drug dealing on the El Paso-Juarez border. Numerous articles
over the preceding decades had reported her trafficking, including
incidences of her dealing out of her jail cell. But La Nacha had always
denied to the press that she sold narcotics, instead claiming she was a
legitimate business woman with a ranch and stores.
So Salazar, despite personal risk, visited and
purchased directly from La Nacha. He removed the opportunity for a
denial. Ruben Salazar witnessed and documented La Nacha’s sale of heroin
by purchasing it directly from her hand.
Testifying December 1955
Mr. Avant (Agent in charge, Bureau of Customs, El Paso): Yes sir, we have shooting galleries, well known.
Senator Daniel: Well-known shooting galleries at Juarez?
Mr. Avant: Yes, sir.
Senator Daniel: What do you mean by shooting galleries?
Mr. Avant: Where you can go in for a nominal fee—get your shot of heroin.
Senator Daniel: Can you identify these places? Do you know where they are located?
Mr. Avant: Not personally but less than six weeks ago a big article appeared in the local paper where a reporter went over, made several placExchange during testimony in the Price Daniel hearings regarding Ruben Salazar’s August, 1955 El Paso Herald-Post article describing his purchases of heroin from “La Nacha.”
Senator Daniel: La Nacha, who is La Nacha?
Mr. Avant: I don’t know, I couldn’t give it to you.
Senator DanielIs she a dope peddler?
Mr. Avant: Notorious.
The year 1955 found both the U.S. House and Senate sending committees across the United States investigating narcotics and their abuse in the post-war U.S. Senator Price Daniel (D-TX) was Chairman of the Sub-Committee on Improvements in the Federal Criminal Code investigating the rise of heroin use and addiction.
A front page article in the December 13, 1955 El Paso Herald-Post boasts: “Herald-Post man called to testify on Juarez Dope: Senator Daniel asks reporter to tell how he bought narcotics from “La Nacha.”
The Herald-Post man was Ruben Salazar.
The article reports “Ruben Salazar, Herald-Post reporter, was called today to testify tomorrow before Senator Price Daniel’s Senate Judiciary Subcommittee which has scheduled a narcotics hearing in San Antonio…Salazar was called to tell how he bought narcotics from Juarez dope queen Ignacia ‘La Nacha” Jasso…Lee Speer, chief investigator for the committee, said he wants to question Salazar about how easily dope can be bought in Juarez…Chief W. E. Naylor of the State Narcotics Bureau, was in El Paso recently and conferred with Salazar.”
Early in Salazar’s testimony Senator Daniel recognized his investigative reporting, “Mr. Salazar, we had the privilege of reading an article you wrote in August of this year, concerning the narcotic traffic from Juarez into El Paso and especially some of the operators in the traffic that caused us to contact you to see what other information you could give us.”
Despite the claims of the Herald-Post and Sen. Daniel, the committee had not called on nor contacted Ruben Salazar to testify. Records for the Price Daniel committee at the National Archives in Maryland instead show the El Paso Herald-Post contacted the committee to request that Salazar testify.
Any initial reservations Lee Speer, on loan to the committee from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to serve as chief investigator, may have seemed eroded by Dec. 9 when his report states “The newspaperman at El Paso seems to be working out very well.”
The reason for Speer’s optimism was both Salazar’s first-hand information regarding narcotics in Juarez and a document he committed to bring.
The September before the hearings Salazar began researching where heroin could be purchased in Juarez, and preparing a map with those addresses. Most of the locations were in Bellavista, La Nacha’s neighborhood. Salazar’s testimony refers to Bellavista as a “slum area” which is “very close to the river.”
In addition to La Nacha’s home, Salazar identified 14 other locations where heroin was sold. During testimony he referred to these places as picaderos, or shooting galleries, though committee transcripts identifies only four of them as actual shooting galleries. Of the other 10 locations one sold heroin, the rest sold marihuana.
To verify his information was current, Salazar returned to Juarez a week before his San Antonio testimony to discover, “I couldn’t find a shooting gallery open. It is very hard now, it seems, for an addict to go to Juarez and get a shot in a place.”
Though the price of heroin had not increased following Salazar’s article it was no longer possible to find “papers” of heroin selling for less than $10.
Responding to Sen. Daniel’s question if there are places one could still purchase heroin Salazar answered, “Oh, yes, sir,” naming a business run by La Nacha’s son and daughter, the Baños Jordan bath house. He identified her son as Natividad Jasso but did not give the daughter’s name.
Due to fears of arrest since Salazar’s article, it was now impossible to purchase heroin directly from La Nacha or her family. Addicts had to locate a “pusher” known to La Nacha’s family who would take the money, leave, make the purchase from the Jasso clan, return and then hand the heroin to the addict.
Salazar explained how being known to La Nacha’s daughter and her brother Natividad, who had been present in August when he bought heroin at their mother’s house, he was not able to make another heroin purchase himself. To circumvent this Salazar had an informant from El Paso, a woman addicted to heroin who had turned to prostitution to afford her habit, make two more purchases for him.
Twice the informant attempted to purchase heroin directly from the Baños Jordan and each time had to use the “pusher” known to the Jasso family.
Sen. Daniel steered questioning to La Nacha, asking if she still personally sold heroin.
Salazar informed the committee his informant had also gone to La Nacha’s home to make a purchase but La Nacha told her she longer sold heroin from her house; Salazar believed the claim to be accurate.
Daniels inquired if La Nacha had “any aid from the officials” in the Mexican government. Salazar explained amparos, an injunction against arrest issued by a court in the Mexican legal system. Salazar followed with, “This I cannot prove but I understand at one time she could buy this protection from federal judges.”
Salazar added he met with the then Juarez District Attorney, Humberto Poncinon Solaranzo, the day before his testimony and had been informed La Nacha had not received any amparos during the year and a half he had held office.
Solaranzo asked Salazar to deliver a message to the Daniel’s committee, Solaranzo had been ordered by the President of Mexico to “investigate the narcotic situation in Juarez.”
The committee also learned that following publication of Salazar’s article the Juarez Chief of Police, Pablo Cano Martinez, claimed “as far as he knew La Nacha did not sell dope anymore.”
Since making the statement Martinez had been fired, though Salazar did not know if the firing was due to his article or a change in government in Mexico.
Though Ruben Salazar and La Nacha had but one brief face-to-face meeting; the results of that encounter reverberated in the halls of their respective federal governments.
Neither La Nacha nor Ruben Salazar lost ground due to their sole confrontation.
La Nacha continued trafficking in Juarez for almost 20 more years, surviving by the adaptability demonstrated in the fallout of Salazar’s article.
DD. Notes on Ruben Salazar;
Ruben Salazar built upon his journalistic achievements to become a noted and influential reporter in both print and broadcast media in Viet Nam, Mexico City and finally the streets of Los Angeles.
Salazar was born in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico in 1928. He later moved across the river to El Paso, Texas. After high school, he served in the U.S. Army for two years. Salazar attended the Texas Western College, graduating in 1954 with a degree in journalism.
Salazar was a news reporter and columnist for the Los Angeles Times from 1959 to 1970. He served as a foreign correspondent in his early years at the Times, covering the 1965 United States occupation of the Dominican Republic, the Vietnam War, and the Tlatelolco massacre (the latter while serving as the Times' bureau chief in Mexico City).
In January 1970, Salazar left the Times to serve as the news director for the Spanish language television station KMEX in Los Angeles. On August 29, 1970, he was covering the National Chicano Moratorium March, organized to protest the Vietnam War, in which a disproportionate number of Chicanos served and were killed.
The L.A. Times columnist was resting in the Silver Dollar Bar after the Vietnam War protest became violent. According to a witness, "Ruben Salazar had just sat down to sip a quiet beer at the bar, away from the madness in the street, when a deputy --ignoring the pleas of a woman outside who begged him not to shoot-- fired a tear gas projectile" at a crowd which went into the interior of the bar, hitting Salazar in the head and killing him instantly.
The sheriff’s deputy fired a 10-inch wall-piercing type of tear gas round (for use in barricaded situations) from a tear gas gun, rather than the type of tear gas round designed to be fired directly at people (which produces a plume of tear gas smoke). A coroner's inquest ruled the shooting a homicide, but Tom Wilson, the sheriff's deputy involved, was never prosecuted. At the time, many believed the homicide was a premeditated assassination of a prominent, vocal member of the Los Angeles Chicano community.
Notes about the author of this story Bob Chessey;
Bob Chessey was born near El Paso. He returned to the city in 2006 after 24 years of self-imposed exile and for the past several years he has been researching the history of drug use and smuggling along the U.S.-Mexico border.
His dad was a DEA agent in El Paso, and his life is a good read in of itself. Much of it is covered in the book "The Drug War Zone". Chapter 42 is titled Rearcher Robert Chessey on Border Life, Law Enforcement, and La Nacha"
(Thanks to Chivis and Bjeff for some of the information on the 2 journalist)