Nearly two dozen small casinos have opened across the border in Sonora, slowly taking advantage of a 2004 Mexican law allowing private casinos with slot machines, video poker and off-track betting.
Southern Arizona casino officials say they are not worried about losing business because their Mexican counterparts are smaller, offer fewer amenities and cannot feature live games like poker and blackjack.
But several gamblers in the popular beach town of Puerto Peñasco, known to Tucsonans as Rocky Point, said they now choose to play slots without the hassle of crossing the border or the temptation to spend a lot on a cross-border trip.
"When you go to the United States, you bet $500, $600," Rocky Point resident Ricardo Santana, 55, said in Spanish. "Here, no. You bet $80 or so."
Santana, owner of a Rocky Point restaurant called El Rey del Taco, said he goes to the Black Dog Bar and Grill or another local casino three or so times a week. For him and others, Rocky Point's casinos have taken the place of twice-a-week trips to Why, Ariz., where they would visit the Tohono O'odham Nation's Golden Ha:san Casino.
Santana said he still likes going to bigger casinos in Las Vegas or Phoenix, but for his more routine visits he now stays near home.
small towns get casinos
In the United States, casinos are mostly owned and operated by American Indian tribes. In Mexico, however, the 2004 law allows them to be built wherever and by whomever the federal government approves.
That's why they're appearing in places like Magdalena de Kino, Sonora, about an hour south of Nogales. The small town is known for the crypt of Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino in its picturesque plaza.
But last February U.S. and Mexican investors opened Las Vegas Club Magdalena.
The casino has 45 slot machines and is becoming popular for its $400 bingo prize, said casino manager Fidencio Hernández.
To reach out to U.S. tourists, the Las Vegas Club has a bilingual staff and is open seven days a week. But it's also targeting Sonorans who used to travel to Tucson just to visit the casinos, Hernández said.
Most casinos in bigger cities like Hermosillo, Ciudad Obregón and Nogales are operated by Mexican national corporations like El Palacio de los Números, owner of Casino Palace Bingo & Sports Book at the Nogales Mall in Nogales, Sonora. The Mexican company also has casinos in other northern states like Chihuahua.
In Nogales there's also Casino Palermo at Plaza Galerías and Casino Nogales. Hermosillo has six casinos, the biggest ones in the state, and there are two in Guaymas and three in Ciudad Obregón.
In Rocky Point, four casinos have opened, but two were closed temporarily last month. One cited technical issues, and an employee at another, Lucky Point Casino, said officials closed the business July 17 because of a permit issue.
Lucky Point, Rocky Point's newest casino, is owned by American expatriate and former Tucsonan Rodger Clifton, who left his Arizona real-estate business in tatters when he moved to Rocky Point in the early 1990s. Clifton and his wife, Jeannette, have since established themselves as prominent Peñasco citizens, active in real estate and charities.
At Black Dog Bar and Grill on a steamy Wednesday afternoon, the approximately three dozen slot machines were humming. Customers crouched over their chosen machines, engrossed in a way that American gamblers would find familiar.
Regulars greeted and joked with one another as they meandered from machine to machine, drinking coffee or soft drinks, since alcohol is banned.
Ivan Castillo, the manager, wandered the floor occasionally with a wad of bills. To play the machines, customers must change their Mexican pesos to U.S. dollars, because the machines accept American currency only.
Over Castillo's head, a disco ball still hung, two years after the casino's opening. The room used to be a dance floor.
In a side room, local teacher Elisa Guadalupe Adame and school principal Ana Elisa Camargo were feeding the machines as they do every day on their summer break.
Adame said she used to go on frequent trips to U.S. casinos, but not so much anymore.
"Those of us with vices have vices here and in the United States," Adame said.
Mexican casinos lack live games and few have restaurants, concert venues or attached hotels.
That's why Sol Casinos CEO Wendell Long said he is not worried about the growing industry just across the border.
"We are after totally different markets," he said. "Gaming isn't the primary entertainment here, it's the entire entertainment experience."
The Pascua Yaqui Tribe owns two Tucson-area casinos: Casino of the Sun and Casino Del Sol, with its 5,000-seat Anselmo Valencia Amphitheater, or AVA.
The Tohono O'odham operate Desert Diamond casinos in Tucson and Sahuarita along with the casino in Why and an attached hotel in Tucson.
"It's a little too early" to worry about the growing casino industry in Sonora, especially since it doesn't allow live games, said Scott Sirois, CEO of Tohono O'odham Nation Gaming Enterprise.
"We don't drive a very high percentage of our business from Mexico," said Sirois, who estimated that less than 5 percent of visitors to O'odham casinos come from south of the border.
Long said he's been in many of the Sonoran casinos and they go after local, oftentimes lower-income customers. But he said Sol Casinos values Mexican clients, which is why it focuses a lot of its marketing efforts south of the border.
"We regularly have people who come from Guaymas, Hermosillo, Obregón up here," said Long, who estimated about 20 percent of his clients are from Mexico.
Some border residents said they see a distinction between Mexican and U.S. casinos, too.
Slots at U.S. casinos seem to be "looser" than Mexican slots, said Héctor Camou Hernández, a businessman from Hermosillo who visits casinos in both sides of the border.
"If you go to the U.S., you entertain yourself, and here it's like you come and lose your money," he said.
His wife, Clementina Noriega, said Sonoran casinos are more for socializing than gambling. She and her friends changed their weekly poker game to a visit to the casinos in Hermosillo.
And some residents just object to the casinos being around.
"It's too many casinos for a state where the word unemployment is everywhere," said Sonoran lawyer Pedro Pablo Coronado Margaillan.
Contact reporter Mariana Alvarado at 573-4597 or email@example.com