On the first Sunday of October, the Texan city of El Paso recorded its 10th murder of the year. On the same day, El Paso’s Mexican sister city, Ciudad Juarez, recorded its 1,809th murder of 2009. Mayhem on one side of the border, relative peace on the other.
The contrast is stunning. According to an annual ranking compiled by CQ Press, a Washington publishing house, El Paso is the third-safest large city in the U.S. (after Honolulu and New York). According to a Mexican think tank, Ciudad Juarez became the world’s most violent city this year, torn by a vicious free-for-all involving warring drug cartels, hit squads, common criminals, and the military.
The two cities form a sprawling metropolitan area of some 2.5 million, divided by a river and a border fence; united by family and business ties, history and now a shared fascination with Ciudad Juarez’s gradual descent into criminal anarchy. El Paso’s citizens follow the bloodletting across the river with rapt and horrified attention.
Border mayors, business executives and many residents along the 1,240-mile frontier between Texas and Mexico – more than half the 1,951-mile line between the U.S. and its southern neighbour – tend to frown at such phrases as “spillover violence” and “border war” because they conjure up an image of the U.S. border region as a lawless no-go area.
“There’s a wide gap between perception and reality,” says Manuel Ochoa of the El Paso Regional Economic Development Corporation, a non-profit consultancy for companies considering setting up shop in El Paso, southern New Mexico and the Mexican state of Chihuahua. “And the figures speak for themselves.”