The real sons of anarchy
A Good City Guide to Tijuana through its outlaw history – and dives
Gangsters. Tacos. Mipsters. TV writer Matt Graham hunts for the real Tijuana via a look back at its frontier history. With its outlaw past, the misunderstood city represented the last of the West Coast’s ‘Wild West’ – you need to look at TJ through a historical lens to really get it
At first, all I knew about Tijuana was that “it was dangerous”. I went there in 1997 when I was a student at USC. Everyone warned me not to go – that I’d almost certainly be killed or at least wake up in a bath of ice with my organs removed. I heard the word “dangerous” repeated constantly.
That was the moment I started to fall in love with the place – before I’d even arrived.
I’d heard exactly the same things about Los Angeles of course, and America in general, before I moved there from England – so I didn’t pay those voices all that much attention.
A few years after my first visit, I heard a story about an ex-British Army officer who took over Tijuana and for a few months ruled it as his personal fiefdom before the First World War. It seemed too incredible to be true – like something out of a Werner Herzog film. Today, because few of the locals are Puro Tijuanense, coming as they do from all over Mexico and the world, the story of the city’s early years has been largely forgotten.
Poor Mexico. So Far from God, so Close to the United States.Porfirio Diaz
A little disclaimer about me before we begin: I’m an Outsider. I’m an Outsider everywhere I’ve ever been. So this isn’t a local’s guide because I’m not a local, I’m not even Mexican, but something about Tijuana drew me in and I wanted to share it. Outsiders have their own role to play: in Hollywood Italians reinvented the Western, for instance. Sergio Leone couldn’t even speak English. It didn’t stop him making Once Upon a Time in The West.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Tijuana had an official population of less than a hundred people, many of whom were Americans living in San Diego who ran the curio shops on the town’s single street that was to become Tijuana’s famous main drag, Revolution Avenue.
I wasn’t the first British to go to Tijuana.
The shooting resumed at dawn, but things were coming to an end. By eight am, many of the wooden Western buildings on Tijuana’s single main street were aflame and curious onlookers gathering on the American side of the border could see the Mexican customs house, the Aduana, had been captured by what looked like armed gringos. As the crowds of San Diegans watching from the rooftops across the US border grew larger, fighting intensified around the city’s bullring in a final, desperate burst. By ten am it was all over. The identity of the gringos who’d taken the town was unclear, but their leader had a British accent.
Lt Col Carol Ap Rhys Pryce was a British Army vet of the Boer War and India, a former Connaught Ranger no less – an elite unit referred to as ‘The Devil’s Own’. On the morning of May 9th 1911, he took the tiny bordertown leading a force of eighty after a two day battle. When the firing finally ceased, thirty-four lay dead, including the city’s Federal commander. Pryce led a Episcopalian service for the dead and ordered the bodies interred in a communal grave.
In a last gasp of the Wild West, Pryce’s mysterious gringo army had swept out of the desert to take Mexicali and Tecate and now Tijuana. Their control of Northern Baja seemed assured.
Aware of the US Army’s heavy presence on the border nearby, and that all eyes were on him, Pryce now invited journalists from San Diego to visit the conquered town. Because of their appearance as something out of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and their reticence to give their names to the visiting press, Pryce and his men were presumed to be mercenaries in the pay of a group of shadowy businessmen whose spokesman was local public relations promoter, Richard ‘Dicky’ Ferris.
Ferris proposed to separate the Baja peninsula from mainland Mexico, and reimagine it as a ‘Casino Republic’ dedicated to tourism – specifically gambling.
The truth was actually quite different.
Pryce and his men were actually directed by Leftist Mexican exile and Original Anarchist Flores Magon – based in nearby Los Angeles, and under heavy police observation. Magon had dedicated his life to liberating Mexican workers, who were treated as little more than expendable slaves in his home country where a tiny few held all the wealth and lived in unbelievable luxury. He had nothing in common with Ferris, who was only in anything for the money.
Pryce – a no nonsense, decorated British Army vet appeared to be the man who could get the job done. He and his men were “filibusteros” (buccaneers) or “piratas” (pirates) in local parlance.
Magon’s military plan was to take control of Baja and then move to the mainland. However, Baja was so sparsely populated it proved impossible to recruit enough locals to form an army – there were barely a thousand people living in the desert region, and almost all of them in the town of Ensenada where the few government troops in the area were based. Because of this, Magon turned to Americans, with idealistic Leftist IWW worker activists making up the majority – like Jack Mosby, Pryce’s number two, who’d deserted from the US Marine Corps and boasted of having been a gunrunner to rebels in Cuba.
These activists planned to join forces with Magon to create a ‘Socialist paradise’ in Baja. However, among their number were increasingly more than a few genuine outlaws lured by the promise of 160 acres per man in the event of victory, with names like ‘Mojave Red’ and ‘Dynamite Bill’ along with famed California train robber Sam Baron. Pryce himself had been part of this second group, joining less for ideological reasons than a sense of adventure.
His military career stagnating somewhat, Pryce had ended up in Canada after trying his hand at mining in modern day Zimbabwe. He heard about the Revolution breaking out in Mexico while bored out of his mind as a Royal Mounted Policeman in Vancouver, and was escaping, in his own words: “getting hitched”. He’d taken the next ship down the West Coast to Los Angeles, where the professional soldier eventually found himself in command of Magon’s ‘Foreign Legion’. He’d joined, as his despairing Canadian fiance Miss Hattie Biggs would contend in a letter to President Taft, “solely for the excitement”.
In fact, like Pryce, less than 20% of Magon’s fighters were actually Mexican. This would turn out to be a PR nightmare for Magon, as he and his army came under the scrutiny of the press.
Emma Goldman, dubbed ‘the High Priestess of Anarchy’ by the LA Times, was one of America’s most prominent labour leaders. The conservative-leaning LA Times had experience of her politics – the year before their Los Angeles offices had been blown up by an IWW bomb. Like Magon, and the IWW with whom she frequently worked, it’s worth remembering she and these ‘radicals’ were fighting a system in which poorly paid, often immigrant workers without any rights whatsoever were treated as disposable tools by the system – in a country where women couldn’t even vote, racism was legal in almost half the fifty states and you could literally die on the job without anyone doing anything.
As IWW men poured in from around the country, Goldman now arrived in San Diego to make speeches encouraging support for the Magonistas at Germania Hall – drawing the police onto the streets. San Diego became an armed camp as the US Army under General Bliss arrived to stop the fighting spilling into US territory.
A female suffragette, Flora Russell, rode across the border and planted a flag – announcing the new “Baja Republic” would respect women’s rights. Meanwhile a Mexican government paper alleged that the army’s true commander was the aforementioned promoter, Dicky Ferris, backed by powerful Southern California capitalists like Imperial Valley landower, General H G Otis who already owned nearly everything South of Mexicali to the Sea of Cortez.
They were playing the Magonistas as pawns.
With few Mexicans in their ranks, Magon’s army was easily depicted as a tool of men like Otis who wanted to annex Baja to the United States. It was a crippling PR problem. William Walker, the US adventurer who’d briefly taken over Baja in the 1850s with less than fifty men and limitless optimism was still in living memory. The fact that Baja California was still a part of Mexico in 1911 was something of a miracle, given that the entire American South West had been gradually annexed from Mexico in the preceding seventy years.
In the conquered city, Pryce ordered all liquor in the town to be destroyed over the protests of his men. “There is a time when it’s all right to get drunk,” he told a group of reporters from San Diego, “but this is not the time”.
There is a time when it’s all right to get drunk, but this is not the time.Lt Col Carol Ap Rhys Pryce
At this point, the contradictions in the politics between the army’s various backers came into full force. A reporter writing for Sunset Magazine asked one of Pryce’s American Lieutenants about what they were fighting for. “Land and Liberty,” was the answer, until one of his compatriots chimed in. “But mostly Land.”
Pryce, persuaded of the need for money, reopened Tijuana for gambling and drinking and sent the profits North, requesting ammunition and a heavy artillery piece with which to defend the town from the expected counter attack by Federal forces in Ensenada. He went up to LA to negotiate personally with his army’s backers, but was intercepted by Ferris in San Diego, who wined and dined him with his glamorous wife Florence. The next morning, before he could catch the train North, a doubtlessly hungover Pryce was detained by the US Army.
The wider war in Mexico now intervened, as hated dictator Porfirio Diaz finally quit, beginning a free for all South of the Border. Flores Magon was only one of a great many different rebel leaders and exiles – and living in exile in Los Angeles, hardly one of the most relevant.
In Pryce’s absence however, down in Tijuana events took on a momentum of their own. Ferris paid a surprise visit to the town himself, and in a speech to the men, implored them: “You’ve got to haul down this red flag. You’ve got to cut out your Socialism, your Anarchism and every other ism you’ve got yourself into and form a new government.”
Mosby, returning from hospital across the Border in San Diego, responded by trying Ferris in absentia. He issued a pronouncement: “Dick Ferris has nothing to do with the Revolutionary Movement, and his presence in Tijuana is not wanted. The fight is not being waged in the interest of Dick Ferris and the American Capitalists, but in the interest of the Working Class.”
Realised from jail thanks to Ferris lawyer, and meeting in LA with Magon, Pryce discovered the profits he’d sent North had been spent on fighting Magon’s acute PR problems and was told no further aid would be forthcoming; his men had been hung out to dry. Disgusted, he wrote the army down in Tijuana and told them to disband. Without support, their position was untenable.
The LA Police moved in on the Magonistas. The Federal Government regrouped, and counter attacked, its forces moving north from Ensenada, reinforced with machine guns and artillery.
IWW activist Mosby took over the army, and led it against Federal reinforcements using a secret weapon: the freight cars of the San Diego and Arizona railroad which ran into Mexico and through the rugged mountains East of Tijuana.
The element of surprise wasn’t enough. His men were defeated after a three hour gun battle. Mosby surrendered with the gringo survivors aboard a train car crossing back over the US Border, and was taken into the custody of the US Army. Mosby was later shot “while trying to escape”.
As protests were now banned in San Diego, Emma Goldman and IWW members who’d flooded into the town were chased away by a local mob known as The Vigilantes working alongside the police. The event has been largely airbrushed from San Diego’s official history.
Pryce remained in LA for a time, working as an actor in early Hollywood before heading back up to Canada and there re-enlisting in the British Army during WW1. By all accounts, he never forgot his time in Mexico. “Someday I may go back,” he later wrote. “I could hold Lower California with 1,000 men and a couple of screw guns.”
After living quietly in the area known as Edendale in LA, writing short stories and tending chickens north of what’s now LA’s Silver Lake Reservoir, Flores Magon was imprisoned in the 1919 Red Scare following the War and died in mysterious circumstances in 1922 in Leavenworth Penitentiary, Kansas.
Emma Goldman, the fiery orator who’d backed the rebels was deported as part of the same purge. The Palmer Raids were executed by a young police official named J Edgar Hoover. Goldman died in Toronto, Canada. Hoover would go on to control the machinery of US law enforcement for the next fifty years, guiding it with a sense of paranoia and personal disgust for anyone he saw as upsetting the apple cart, and creating a blackmail file with which to manipulate politicians.
The ‘Casino Republic’ proposed by Ferris was ahead of its time. Tijuana was becoming a place where the respectable citizens of America could go to get things that weren’t so respectable. Ferris became known as ‘The Man from Mexico’ and later bought real estate in Rosarito, founding the Los Angeles yellow cab company.
Ferris’s version of the city’s future won decisively out over Madero’s, yet the Frontier ethos remained as the city grew. Prohibition and massive investment turned the city into a gaudy nightlife mecca – a major destination for San Diegans looking for entertainment even after America’s experiment with banning alcohol ended after ten years. Its Red Light district grew into the largest in North America. Perhaps because of its image as a place to acquire forbidden pleasures, Tijuana’s perception in the US media has been one of relentless negativity. America watches it with dark fascination – just as those San Diegans had watched from the rooftops as Pryce’s men fought with the Federal troops a hundred and ten years ago back in 1911.
“Poor Mexico,” famously lamented the dictator, Porfirio Diaz, “So Far from God, so Close to the United States.”
In 1994, the man expected to win Mexico’s national election was murdered in the city. Eighty years later, the most important mainstream politician in Mexico, Luis Donaldo Colosio, had almost the exact same political program as Magon, who’d once stated: “dreamers are mocked as impractical, but the truth is that they create a better way of life for us all.”
Tijuana makes me feel alive.
Ten years after I first came to Tijuana, I moved to Latin America full time, flying to Mexico City and landing in a thunderstorm, lightning bolts striking the runway around the plane. Tijuana, beautiful, exciting, and energizing, always remained my first glimpse of the world South of the Border.
Anthony Bourdain famously remarked that you can eat far better in Tijuana than in San Diego on the US side of the border. In fact, modern Tijuana is a place of cultural renaissance – home of music, art and as Bourdain remarked, food. In addition, in contrast to San Diego, Tijuana, filled with new bars and galleries, has a mainly young skewing population and one rapidly growing – by 23% since 2021, in fact, according to Data México.
I’m obviously not a local Tijuanense, but I’m honoured to have many friends who are, and I can tell you a few things I love about the place. Below are a few places that bring the city’s incredible history to light:
I stayed in the Nelson Hotel on my first trip to TJ in 1997. The Nelson was once a showpiece hotel of the old days of the glamour on the border – built in 1948 with a phone in every room and the first working elevator in North Western Mexico. Today those glory days are a thing of the past. The hotel bar however remains one of the world’s most competitive contenders for “most awesome dive bar this side of the Equator.” A San Diego newspaper called it “the waiting room to Heaven”.
Dandy Del Sur Cantina
The Dandy Del Sur Cantina on Calle Sexta is an icon on the West Coast in terms of great dive bars – it’s recently even been featured on the credits for the Netflix show, Narcos Mexico. The Dandy’s legendary jukebox, and formal waiters make it a destination purely for aesthetics alone, but it’s also famous for being an integral part of TJ’s 2000’s big beat music scene, Nortec – it’s even been immortalised in a song. Opposite another great bar, the Mescalera, the Dandy Del Sur is truly an original.
Kentucky Fried Buches
As seen on Anthony Bourdain’s show, Parts Unknown, Kentucky Fried Buches is a legendary fried chicken neck joint in TJ’s red light area, Zona Norte. With only one item on the menu – the aforementioned necks – and its trademark red salsa fresca, the place is infamous in the city. Highly unremarkable from the outside, it is hidden away on Calle Constitucion.
Attracting more than a million visitors a year, CECUT is the gigantic arts complex in the Zona Rio area of Tijuana, the showpiece of which is La Bola, an enormous golf ball which contains the Omnimax theatre.
Containing a bookshop and a restaurant, the complex is the symbol of the city’s artistic identity.
If you want to watch the Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Gilda, Tonala is the place to do it – a cinema come cocktail bar on Revolution serving the best cocktails. Nowhere is the term Mipster – Mexican Hipster – more accurate.
Tijuana’s iconic gas station chain, in which ladies dressed in pink uniforms and heels pump the gas for you. Its a local business, trading off Tijuana’s image as “the city of sin”.
What’s so good about this?
Fear of the unknown is one of the most important obstacles to overcome in life, and overcoming fear is one of the hardest things to do. It’s also one of the most rewarding. In California, the fear of the “dangerous” world South of the Border obscures the fact that America has frequently played a role in that world it doesn’t always like to acknowledge.
Meet the writer
Matt Graham is a TV writer, originally from London, now based in Los Angeles. He’s the writer of the hit series Oliver Stone’s: The Untold History of the United States. As well as a great many TV scripts for Hollywood, he’s the writer of much published short fiction and a novel, The Night Driver. Matt’s the survivor of a plane crash in Panama and a roadside mock execution in Nigeria. He’s worked as a crime reporter in South America as well as a ranch manager in Colorado. He’s lived all over the world, and his great unifying passion in life is the search for the sleaziest bars imaginable. Sometimes he wakes up wondering whether or not it’s all just been a strange dream – the kind that jolts you from REM at 3am and leaves you staring at the ceiling. Follow @muzurphulus.