An Uneasy Coexistence: Security Along the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez Border

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The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) visited Ciudad Juarez, Mexico’s murder capital, and its neighbor in the US, El Paso. They found that violence had largely not spilled over the border, though drug trafficking continues unabated.

In September 2011, three WOLA staff members — Senior Associate Adam Isacson, Senior Fellow George Withers, and Program Assistant Joe Bateman — paid a five-day visit to El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Isacson returned to El Paso for three days in October.

[See WOLA’s full report here]

We found two cities that, while separated only by a narrow river, are rapidly growing further apart. Ciudad Juarez is undergoing wrenching change as dysfunctional state institutions confront powerful, hyper-violent criminal groups. El Paso has witnessed an unprecedented buildup of the U.S. government’s security and law enforcement apparatus.

The results have been mixed. Violence has not spilled over into El Paso, in part because the drug traffickers do not want it to do so. The flow of migrants from Mexico into the El Paso region has nearly ground to a halt due to greatly increased U.S. security-force presence, the poor U.S. economy, and the danger that organized-crime groups pose for migrants on the Mexican side of the border. The flow of drugs, meanwhile, continues at or near the same level as always.

What we saw in El Paso raised concerns about U.S. policy. Present levels of budgets and personnel may not be sustainable. Nor may they be desirable until a series of reforms are implemented. These include human rights training for law enforcement, improved intelligence coordination, reduced military involvement, stronger accountability mechanisms, increased anticorruption measures, and greater attention to ports of entry. They also include a much sharper distinction between violent threats like organized crime or terrorism, and non-violent social problems like unregulated migration.

Any reforms, however, need to be guided by a coherent policy, and for the moment the U.S. government still lacks a comprehensive border security strategy. In El Paso, WOLA found that this lack of clarity amid a security buildup has hit the migrant population especially hard.

WOLA will present a more thorough policy critique, with more specific recommendations, in a larger report, due in March 2012, based on visits to the El Paso-Juarez, San Diego-Tijuana, and Tucson-Nogales border regions. What follows is a narrative of our visits to the first of those three zones.

Violence that doesn’t spill over

“El Paso welcomes you to the safest city in America,” a recorded voice tells travelers arriving at the city’s airport. The voice is right.

With a rate of 1.9 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2010, the city at Texas’ western extremity ranked number one that year, and again in 2011, as the safest of all U.S. cities with a population over 500,000, according to a much-cited study by CQ Press. By comparison, 2010’s murder rate was 6.5 in New York and 22 in Washington. In a mid-2010 poll, only 9 percent of El Paso residents surveyed answered “no” to the question, “Do you feel safe as you walk and drive in your neighborhood during your regular daily activities?”

The situation is far different in Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican border city visible from almost any point in downtown El Paso. Just across the Rio Grande, where an intense turf battle between gangs controlled by the Juárez and Sinaloa criminal syndicates continues to rage, the 2010 homicide rate was well over 200 per 100,000 residents. More than 9,900 people have been murdered in Juarez since 2008. The world’s most violent city and the United States’ safest city are uneasily coexisting.

El Paso’s civic leaders complain bitterly about outside politicians portraying their city as a war zone. Twice during his 2010 reelection campaign, Texas Governor Rick Perry claimed that car bombs had been detonated in El Paso. The incident in question actually happened in Juarez. Throughout 2011, Republican committee chairmen in the U.S. House of Representatives have called hearings to sound the alarm about spillover violence in El Paso-Juarez and elsewhere. “There were 23 reports of attempted extortion in El Paso between August 2009 and September 2010,” testified Texas Public Security Department Director Steven McCraw at one such hearing. “It is also known that bullets from gun fights in Mexico have also stuck [sic.] colleges / universities in El Paso and Brownsville, Texas,” testified a sheriff from another Texas county. “The City Hall in El Paso was also st[r]uck.”

Those who claim violence is spilling over “ought to stop,” El Paso’s congressman, Democrat Silvestre Reyes, told a local reporter. “They don’t live in our border communities. They certainly don’t represent us and they ought to stay the hell out if they’re going to misrepresent what’s going on along the border.” El Paso saw more homicides in 2011 than 2010 14 as of July — but city Police Chief Greg Allen told USA Today that “none of the killings has been linked to cartel violence, illegal immigration or any other border issue.”

Nonetheless, authorities acknowledge some recent episodes of cross-border violence. In June 2011, an El Paso court translator was lured to Juarez by a female acquaintance, where he was kidnapped and murdered. In May 2010, a former cartel member who became an informant for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency was shot in front of his house in El Paso. Those arrested for the crime were U.S. citizens. In 2009, a cartel member was kidnapped in El Paso and murdered in Juarez. Three Mexican citizens were arrested and sentenced in U.S. federal court. Except for these cases, though, the violence in Juarez has remained almost entirely on the Mexican side of the border.

Drug Trafficking

While violent crime has not “spilled over,” drug trafficking through El Paso is common. Each year, traffickers take advantage of the city’s access to the United States’ interstate highway system to move tens of millions of dollars’ worth of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and an increasing amount of methamphetamine.

Most drugs, federal and county officials interviewed by WOLA agreed, aren’t transported through the wilderness. Instead, they pass right under border guards’ noses, smuggled in some of the tens of thousands of cars, trucks and trains that pass daily through official ports of entry. These are three bridges between El Paso and Juarez, plus six other road crossings in the U.S. Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, which includes all of New Mexico and some of west Texas.

Some vehicles’ drivers are working directly for organized crime, their crossings coordinated by cartel spotters monitoring conditions at the ports of entry. Some, though, are law-abiding citizens. WOLA researchers heard of several cases of “commuters” who hold special trusted-visitor visas, among them Mexican students at the University of Texas at El Paso, whose regularity of travel gained the notice of trafficking organizations. In some cases, drugs are placed in trunks of cars without the drivers’ knowledge. In others, commuters are approached by cartels and threatened if they do not agree to smuggle shipments. Because the victims are afraid to go to authorities, we do not have a sense of how common this practice is. Drug shipments end up being aggregated at “stash houses” in El Paso and its environs, from where traffickers distribute the product throughout the United States.

A smaller but still important amount of drugs cross the border in the vast spaces of dry scrubland and desert between the El Paso sector’s ports of entry. To the east of El Paso, heading toward the sparsely populated Big Bend region, are the counties of Hudspeth, Presidio and Brewster, which local analysts WOLA interviewed called “a drug trafficking stronghold” and “an active corridor” for traffickers. Experts and activists told us that drug organizations were forcing would-be migrants to carry drug shipments across the border in this region. The extent of this practice is impossible to determine, though, and one law enforcement official was skeptical that drug organizations would entrust an unknown migrant with thousands of dollars’ worth of product.

The above is an extract from WOLA‘s report, republished with permission from the organization. See full report here.

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