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The Saturday afternoon before Christmas in 1983, the first time that I had
crossed the border since returning to Arizona. Naco was the closest port of entry to
Sierra Vista. If Naco had anything, I would pick it up and be done with my shopping.
I first entered the Farmacia Naco, the Naco Pharmacy. I noticed a
sign in both English and Spanish saying that the federal government reserved the right to
limit sales of basic goods. Nothing in the pharmacy. I then crossed the main street,
Madero. The cross streets were paved for only one block in each direction from the main
street which I visited. Nothing but groceries. I went back across Madero, and walked into
the CONASUPO grocery store.
CONASUPO is a chain of stores, started by the government to sell staples
at the lowest prices possible. I was not going to find any Christmas presents in Naco.
Back across the border, I needed sugar. Sugar was about half the price per pound, or
kilogram, that it was back home. But, there was none on the shelf.
Soon, a truckload of sugar came. It was not in the highly-refined forms
that C&H and even store brands here are; there was some brown mixed with the white.
Should I buy some, and take it away from people who might need it?
I remembered newspaper articles I had seen earlier. Mexico was in a state
of depression, and needed hard currency to pay for medicines to distribute all through the
country. I revived the Spanish I had not used for four years. Aceptan ustedes dolares,
would the store accept dollars? Yes, and I left the store with sugar, in two clear
1-kilogram plastic bags.
Crossing the border to go back home, I stopped at customs. I had the bags
next to me in the car, so the inspectors could see them clearly. But, something got them
excited. Maybe it was because there had been nothing much happen all day, and they had a
chance to make something out of the day by seizing 2 kilos of cocaine. Maybe they became
more excited because I started to pull out without closing my trunk after they had me open
it. At any rate, I had to wait 15 minutes while they ran a check on my license.
But, a lot more happened in the past. Maybe Naco deserved to cool down,
after all that happened in it in a short period of time.
Some say that Naco is a combination of the last two letters of
"Arizona" and "Mexico". Others say that it is from "prickly pear
cactus" in the Opata language. Possibly both origins were thought of, when the twin
towns on the border were started in 1897. They were founded as ports of entry between
Bisbee and the new mines at Cananea. By 1901, the railroad was completed between Naco and
Cananea. Miners and mining equipment bound for Cananea went through the two towns, and
copper from Cananea went through them in the other direction. On both sides of the border,
there were customs buildings and adobe houses. Electricity was supplied by windmills on
In 1906, volunteers who crossed and did not cross the border successfully,
the governor of Sonora, and American troops assembled in Naco, Arizona for the strike at
Cananea. When the strike was over, refugees crossed through Naco, Sonora. The mines in
Cananea stayed active, so Naco, Sonora remained a large source of customs revenues. In the
Revolution, Naco became a point of interest for every rebel movement: the initial rebels
of 1911, rebels supporting Pascual Orozco against Madero in 1912, and Obregón against the
federal armies of Huerta in 1913. Naco, Sonora changed hands so much that Americans who
crossed to its saloons and dance halls did not know if the side they had cheered for when
they entered would be the same side to cheer for when they left. Soon, the hotel on the
American side plated the windows of its rooms facing Mexico, and advertised itself as a
"bulletproof hotel". The plating did not stop every stray bullet across the
When Obregón split from Sonora Governor José Maytorena late in 1914, his
supporter in the Constitutionalists, Plutarco Elías Calles, held control of Agua Prieta.
Another of his supporters, from southern Sonora with the English name of Benjamin Hill,
brought 2,000 troops to Naco on September 26. They were hemmed in on three sides by the
United States to the north, by Pancho Villa to the east, and by Villa's ally Maytorena to
the west and south. The Constitutionalists had just lost at Cananea. They burned the
railroad bridges between Cananea and Naco, to try to stop Maytorena's advance. Four days
later, Maytorena reached the outskirts of Naco, and demanded its surrender. Hill refused.
For a week, Maytorena probed the defenses of Hill. Afterwards, a brief
truce gave an opportunity for Maytorena to bring in more Yaquis, and for more American
troops to come from Ft. Huachuca to the border. Spectators started to come from Bisbee to
watch the action. Some were turned away from the border by American troops, while others
Soon, the truce ended. Some of the Yaquis tried to attack Hill from the
north, and were met by American troops. Stray bullets killed two and wounded three north
of the border. As the shooting went on, Americans supposedly tried to end it by dynamiting
one of Maytorena's troop trains, and trying to steal his personal airplane. The Cochise
County sheriff threatened to end the fighting with a posse of 500 volunteers. On October
11, the Constitutionalists tried to break out of Naco, and join their garrison in Agua
Prieta. This attempt failed, and they retreated back into their trenches.
By October 14, the Convention of Aguascalientes, an attempt by political
leaders to end the splits among them and end the fighting throughout Mexico, ordered the
two sides to stop fighting. Both sides welcomed this cease-fire. The convention itself
broke down by November 1, and the fighting resumed. Villa's forces mounted a cavalry
charge. As many of Villa's charges in other places would end later, it was cut to pieces
by the defenders in the trenches.
Five Americans had died, and 47 had been wounded, by stray bullets and
shells falling across the border. More American troops came to the border, until their
number reached 5,000. By December 23, American General Hugh Scott came to Naco, and
conferred with Hill, Calles, Pancho Villa, and Maytorena. Villa said that he could remove
Hill in 8 hours if given the chance, but, with the way the fighting had gone, Scott did
not agree with him. On January 11, 1915, everyone reached an agreement for all troops to
evacuate Naco. Villa and Maytorena could keep Cananea, while Calles could remain in Agua
Prieta. An official named Acosta was named mayor, and allowed to keep five men to exercise
police functions. Forces supporting Villa returned to Naco in late January. By July, the
Constitutionalist forces of Venustiano Carranza came back to Naco. After Villa retreated
there from Agua Prieta on his way south in November, Carranza's forces came back, and held
Naco for good.
In 1915, Arizona established Prohibition, before it went into effect in
the United States in general. Many in Mexico wanted to ban alcoholic beverages. Calles
banned them from Agua Prieta, while he held control there. However, many groups who fought
for the winning commanders in the Revolution, and many which the winners did not care to
fight again, made tequila, vino mezcal, and other liquors. The framers of the
Constitution of 1917 opted to keep liquor legal, under federal control. Therefore, Naco,
Sonora became an active watering hole. After it was completely rebuilt, Naco again became
a large source of customs revenues. After a few years of peace, rebellions broke out in
Mexico again. Most notable was the Cristero Rebellion of 1926 to 1929, which took place in
most of Mexico except the north. Governors and generals in the north, led by José
Escobar, developed the Plan of Hermosillo, and started to rebel in 1928. Early the next
spring, having taken Cananea, the rebels came to Naco. They knew from experience that if
they could take and hold Naco and Agua Prieta, they would have enough money to keep
fighting for a long time. As a goodwill gesture to American customers of Naco's bars, they
waited to start their siege until 8 in the evening. Their initial attempts to break the
defenses of the federal troops failed.
Quickly, the rebels took the offer of a crop duster from north of the border, Patrick
Murphy, to bomb Naco from the air. The bombs were made of dynamite, scrap iron, nails, and
bolts stuffed into suitcases. His first two attempts on March 31 were duds. The third
attempt hit the customhouse, but it also sprayed spectators watching the battle from the
other side of the border on railroad cars. After lunch, he loaded four more bombs. The
first bomb landed in a federal trench, killing two soldiers, but the other three landed
north of the border. They landed on a garage, on the local Phelps Dodge office, and near
the United States Post Office. The following day, the government troops disabled Murphy's
plane before he could drop any more bombs. He landed safely behind rebel lines. He crossed
the border when the rebellion ended, and was immediately arrested.
On April 5, the federals brought in an airplane to bomb rebel positions.
It was immediately shot down, and both airmen were killed. On April 6, the rebels tried to
come into Naco behind three tanks. This assault failed. Large numbers of American troops
came to the border to make sure that they did not come back.
As the mines in Cananea were gradually nationalized, Naco dried up as a
source of customs revenues. Its other source of revenue dried up when Prohibition ended in
the United States in 1933. Naco became a separate municipality from Cananea in 1937, but
this did not revive the town. In 1967, the railroad from Naco to Agua Prieta was
completed. Now, goods could move by rail from Nogales to Cananea, through Naco to Agua
Prieta and Nacozari without having to pass through American territory. The railroad was a
first step in the reopening of Nacozari's mines.
Today, Naco itself has about 8,000 people. It is growing fast, for 4,578
people were counted there in 1986. There is railroad and maquiladora activity in
town, as well as the distribution of mining supplies. Elsewhere in the municipality, there
is agriculture, ranching, and mining. In 1993, Naco is much more lively than it was ten
years earlier. There are stoplights at the corners of Madero with Juárez and Hidalgo.
But, it is not completely lively--residents still go to Cananea or Agua Prieta to shop, or
go across to Bisbee, Sierra Vista, and Douglas.
Naco is the closest port of entry into Mexico from Sierra Vista, about 35
miles. Before crossing the border, one goes through Naco, Arizona, with about 800 people.
Naco is about 95 miles from Tucson.