“Lawless hordes” and the U.S.-Mexico border
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.”
You hear similar remarks elsewhere along the frontier. “Crime on the Texas border is still on the way down after decreasing 65 percent over the past several years,” according to Chad Foster, the mayor of Eagle Pass (its Mexican twin is Piedras Negras) and chairman of the Texas Border Coalition of mayors, county judges and economic development experts.
Many of them complain that politicians in Washington and Austin, the Texas state capital, make decisions on the border region without consulting the people most intimately familiar with its problems. The coalition reacted with irritation to an announcement by governor Rick Perry in September that he would send National Guardsmen and Texas Rangers to “high-crime areas along the border.”
“Your remarks…create a public impression of lawless hordes overrunning the border region and do not reflect our collective experience,” the coalition said in a letter to Perry. “While each of our communities has their own unique issues, being overrun by criminal elements from Mexico is not one of them.”
CARTELS AND BUSINESS SENSE
If that is the case, why not? Answers to that question range from a strong law enforcement presence in border towns to tightened border controls. Last but not least: it doesn’t make business sense for the drug cartels to export their violent disputes across the river.
“Let’s not forget the economics at stake here,” Richard Wiles, the sheriff of El Paso county and a former El Paso police chief said in an interview. “These are illicit business enterprises which exist to make profits. The last thing they want are even tighter controls of the ports of entry in response
to violent actions here. They remember what happened after September 11.”
After the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, scrutiny at border crossing points was so intense that south-north traffic backed up for endless hours in delays that crippled both legal and illegal trade. “They don’t want that to happen again.”
For good reason. According to estimates by the Department of Homeland Security, smuggling drugs across a port of entry presents less than 30 percent risk of detection, compared with a 70 percent risk for those crossing the Rio Grande and the open spaces between crossing points.
The sharply different levels of violence south and north of the border do not mean that American border cities have entirely escaped contagion. The suspect arrested in El Paso’s tenth murder this year, for example, was a teenager from Ciudad Juarez. And in May, three gunmen killed Jose Daniel Gonzalez, a drug trafficker turned informer for the U.S. government, in front of his suburban El Paso home.
Still, these cases are exceptions – so far. Curiously, the two American cities most affected by disputes between drug traffickers do not sit astride the border but are several hours’ drive from it. They are Tucson, 60 miles from the Arizona-Mexico frontier, and Phoenix, 120 miles away.
Tucson has been plagued by a rash of home invasions, most of them tied to the drug trade, that often feature criminals pretending to be law enforcement officers. They burst into houses to steal drugs, cash or guns. In Phoenix, kidnappings for ransom have become so routine that law enforcement officials call the city the U.S. kidnap capital. Most of the kidnappers, and their victims, have ties to Mexican criminal organizations.
Their activities in the U.S. have grown quietly and relentlessly. In 2006, according to a Senate hearing on Mexican drug cartels in March, they were active in around 50 U.S. cities. Now, they dominate the world’s richest drug market (move over, Colombians!) and have a presence in at least 230 cities, says the National Drug Intelligence Center. Its website has a map showing those cities.
Economics 101. Supply meets demand, as far away from the southern border as Kalamazoo, Michigan and Billings, Montana.
— You can contact the author at Debusmann@reuters.com —