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The War Next Door

by Duncan Currie

Why has the Mexican drug violence not spread across the border

El Paso, Texas – Gazing out his office window, El Paso mayor John Cook enjoys a clear view across the U.S.–Mexican border into Ciudad Juárez, birthplace of the famous maquiladora factories, where thousands of Mexicans are employed assembling products for export to the United States. In years past, residents of his West Texas city went there to dine at tasty restaurants and party at beer-soaked dance clubs. Today the once-vibrant manufacturing hub is being ripped apart by savage drug violence. Its celebrated nightlife, which long served as a tourist magnet, has been extinguished by deadly gun battles between competing gangs and cartels. Cook reckons that every Juárez business owner who has survived the brutality either is paying extortion money or has left town.

Yet as the mayor proudly attests, the Rio Grande separates the most dangerous city in Mexico (and perhaps the world) from one of the least dangerous cities in the United States. In the first six months of 2010, Juárez experienced more than 1,300 homicides. Over that same period, El Paso experienced one, a murder-suicide. According to the latest CQ Press rankings of America’s safest cities with more than 500,000 people, El Paso is second only to Honolulu.

Those rankings reflect 2008 crime data. Between 2008 and 2009 — when the violence in Juárez absolutely exploded — the annual number of murders in El Paso dropped by 28 percent, falling from 18 to 13. El Paso police spokesman Darrel Petry reports that, through June 15, robberies were down by 5 percent, burglaries were down by 13 percent, and car thefts were down by 18 percent from their 2009 levels. “We have seen a steady decrease in our auto-theft rates that is just outrageous for a border town,” Petry boasts.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, says former El Paso police chief John Scagno, the city had “a massive problem” with car thievery. (The stolen vehicles would typically disappear into Mexico.) Meanwhile, it was grappling with an upsurge in gang activity and drive-by shootings. El Paso’s annual murder count peaked at 56 in 1993 before declining consistently for the remainder of the decade. In 1999, there were only 14 homicides; since then, the yearly total has never exceeded 21.

The fact that El Paso suffered only one murder in the first half of 2010 is nothing short of astounding. In mid-2009, the Census Bureau pegged it as America’s 22nd-largest city (with about 620,000 people), just ahead of Seattle and Denver, both of which rank among the ten safest big cities on the CQ Press list (Seattle is seventh, Denver ninth). Last year, El Paso had 41 percent fewer homicides than Seattle and 66 percent fewer homicides than Denver. It had 95 percent fewer homicides than Baltimore, another city of comparable size.

So what’s the secret? How did El Paso achieve such impressive security gains, and how has it managed to preserve them amid the drug-fueled carnage next door?

“I think the secret is called neighborhood policing,” says Cook. This was the crime-fighting strategy that El Paso adopted under Chief Scagno, the city’s top cop from 1987 to 1995. It entailed launching interactive partnerships between officers and residents, with a localized approach. One of the main goals, says Scagno, was to effect an “attitude change” among both the police and the citizenry. “The more the citizens worked with us, the more we were able to get prosecutions.” In a largely Hispanic city, he adds, police had to convince illegal immigrants that reporting a crime would not result in automatic deportation. Fostering trust was essential.

Scagno also created special units to tackle gang violence and car thefts, each of which delivered positive results. Since Cook became mayor in 2005, El Paso has made a serious push to increase and enhance its neighborhood associations, thereby strengthening its community-policing efforts. Looking back on the city’s record of crime reduction, Petry says “the credit definitely goes to the citizens.”

But not all the credit. Federal authorities deserve a good amount, too. Indeed, it is impossible to discuss security conditions in El Paso without mentioning an alphabet soup of government acronyms: FBI, DEA, ICE, Customs and Border Protection — each has a significant presence in El Paso. The area is home to Joint Task Force North (JTFN), run by the Defense Department, and the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), run by the DEA. Both JTFN and EPIC are based at Fort Bliss, a gigantic (and growing) Army post that stretches from El Paso County into southeastern New Mexico.

While we cannot quantify their impact, these organizations have surely contributed to the low crime rate in “Sun City.” Still, they don’t fully explain why El Paso has been so insulated from the ongoing mayhem across the Rio Grande. Two other factors must be acknowledged. First, Mexican drug traffickers and their gangland affiliates have zero incentive to perpetrate violence in El Paso, where last year police solved 100 percent of the murder cases. In Juárez, by contrast, only a tiny fraction of homicides are ever prosecuted. Second, upon entering El Paso from Juárez, you can very quickly jump on an interstate highway and head toward more lucrative drug markets. Once smugglers have passed the final choke point in Mexico, there is little reason for them to stop in El Paso.

All of that said, there are definitely drug stash houses in the city, and there are definitely cartel and gang members who live in El Paso but commit crimes in Juárez. El Paso has been shielded from the Mexican carnage, but it has not been completely unscathed. In May 2009, Juárez Cartel lieutenant José Daniel González Galeana, a U.S. informant, was shot dead outside his residence in a posh El Paso neighborhood. Then, in September, a 30-year-old ex-convict named Sergio Saucedo was snatched from inside his house in Horizon City (part of El Paso County), and his mutilated corpse was dumped in Juárez. According to the Associated Press, Saucedo had “a long criminal record including convictions for drug possession and money laundering.” Still, his vicious slaying jolted nerves.

Authorities have made arrests in both the González and Saucedo cases, reminding Juárez gangbangers that it doesn’t pay to murder or kidnap in Texas. On the other hand, there is a hot debate over just how many El Pasoans have been kidnapped since Juárez erupted in 2008. Estimates range from the single digits to “dozens,” says El Paso city councilman Beto O’Rourke. Regardless of the actual figure, it’s clear that El Pasoans have been deeply affected by the bloodshed.

Consider this anecdote, related by Howard Campbell, an anthropologist at the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP). In April, UTEP hosted an event to discuss his new book, Drug War Zone, and it drew “roughly 200 people,” most of them students. (There were also some faculty and local residents who came.) When the moderator asked how many audience members knew someone who had been killed in Juárez, at least half of the attendees raised their hands. “I was quite amazed,” says Campbell.

UTEP’s student body epitomizes the close integration of El Paso and Juárez. “We have about 1,400 students who come from Juárez every day,” says university president Diana Natalicio. (That number was higher a few years ago, before the violence spiked.) UTEP now has more than 21,000 students overall, the large majority of whom are Mexican Americans. This mirrors the broader ethnic makeup of El Paso: Hispanics, mostly of Mexican ancestry, constitute about 80 percent of its population; blacks account for less than 3 percent. Susie Byrd, a white city councilwoman who grew up in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood and graduated from El Paso’s Austin High School in 1989, emphasizes the strong “social cohesion” among residents.

Citing the need to squeeze drug-cartel finances, Byrd and O’Rourke have become vocal advocates of legalizing marijuana. “People are very open about having the conversation,” says O’Rourke, noting that many of his older Republican constituents support his stance on pot. In January 2009, the city council voted unanimously, 8–0, to approve a resolution calling for “an honest, open national debate on ending the prohibition of narcotics.” But Mayor Cook unsheathed his veto pen to reject it. Following intense pressure from Washington — namely, threats that El Paso would lose federal funds if the resolution passed — his veto was upheld by four council members.

“Had they just limited it to the marijuana question, I probably would not have vetoed it,” says Cook. While the mayor expresses concern over the implications of legalizing hard narcotics, he favors a robust debate over legalizing pot. More and more of his countrymen seem to agree. In a March 2010 Pew Research Center poll, 41 percent of Americans said that marijuana use should be made legal, compared with only 16 percent in 1987.

O’Rourke attributes the shifting mood in El Paso to the slaughter across the border. “It’s pretty much like a war in the Middle East, perhaps worse,” declared an editorial in the April 2010 issue of Juárez–El Paso Now, a local trade journal. “You have two different wars going on at the same time,” says Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. One is a war between the Juárez Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel over control of the border area; the other is a war between gangs employed by the cartels over control of individual city blocks.

Despite all the violence in their backyard, El Paso residents seem guardedly optimistic about their city’s prospects. “There’s a more positive attitude among the people in El Paso than there has been in years,” says Myrna Deckert, president and CEO of the Paso Del Norte Health Foundation. It is a relatively poor city, yet El Paso has weathered the Great Recession better than many others. The ongoing expansion of Fort Bliss has helped; so has the influx of thousands of Juárez refugees, who have boosted both the local real-estate market and the restaurant scene. El Paso has realized some short-term economic benefits from its neighbor’s collapse, but those benefits won’t last forever. El Paso and Juárez are, as O’Rourke points out, really one economy, with El Paso heavily dependent on the Juárez maquiladora industry. One bridge away from the Juárez war zone, Sun City has a dark cloud on its southern horizon.

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