President Trump, as the New York Times and others have pointed out, has it all wrong about crime in El Paso. El Paso is, and long has been, one of the safest big cities in the United States. In many years, it has ranked as the safest or second-safest large American city, often running neck-and-neck with Honolulu. It has a lower violent-crime rate than does Austin and about one-fourth the violent crime rate of Kansas City, and in 2018 its violent-crime rate was just about the same as sleepy Anaheim.
But why is El Paso so safe? It is, after all, a city in which people have at times sat on their roofs and watched running gun battles across the river in Juarez for entertainment. Buildings in El Paso have been struck by stray bullets from Mexico.
There are a few theories about this. One is that El Paso has a large military presence and a massive law-enforcement presence, which may tamp down crime.
Another theory is that El Paso is essentially South Philadelphia writ large.
Crime watchers say keeping a low profile in El Paso also suits the business-minded cartels who use the isolated Texas city as an entry point for tons of marijuana, cocaine and other drugs bound for a U.S. markets worth $30-$50 billion a year by some estimates.
“To kill people in El Paso is bad for business, and to kill them in Juarez is business,” said author Charles Bowden, whose book “Murder City” chronicles the slaughter in Juarez.
When South Philadelphia was the front lawn of the Italian mafia, it was considered one of the safest neighborhoods around. It was full of mob wives, mob grandmothers, mob girlfriends, etc. To mug somebody in a neighborhood like that, or to commit a burglary there, was to risk ending up at the bottom of the Schuylkill River.
There are many cartel figures who do their business in Mexico and live in and around El Paso. Many of them keep family there. Would you want to try a home-invasion robbery on a mansion with a Mercedes parked out front in a city like that?
El Paso is a lovely city and a strange one. It is an outward-looking border city rather than an inward-looking one, having so little to do with the rest of Texas that it isn’t even in the same time zone as Dallas, Houston, and Austin. It is a little like Las Vegas or New Orleans, a sui generis city whose strengths and weaknesses probably don’t provide many insights that would be applicable to other cities.