Ciudad Juarez, located in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, is the murder capital of the world. The city has become infamous for its brutal gangland executions stemming from the drug war and its general lawlessness and corruption. Across the border sits its sister city, El Paso, Texas. Not only is it not overcome by the same level of violence, but it is also one of the safest cities in the United States. I traveled to El Paso to see firsthand how the local public and private security professionals handle the challenge of sitting cheek to jowl with Mexico’s most notorious criminal element and how corporate security with business in Mexico deals with the risk of violence.
One of my guides is Jaime Garcia, corporate security manager for automobile parts maker Delphi, which has factories across the border. I am with him one warm October morning as he executes his near-daily routine of crossing the Rio Grande River over the Bridge of the Americas. He immediately begins to practice defensive driving. At red lights, he makes sure he keeps a safe distance from the cars in front of him and always looks for escape routes in case he sees something suspicious, like a car trying to box him in.
Garcia’s extreme caution is warranted. Since 2008, 5,643 people have reported carjackings in Juarez. In August alone, 341 carjackings were reported, according to the El Paso Times.
But carjackings are the least of it. From January through October 2010, nearly 2,600 people had been murdered in Juarez, a city with a population of 1.3 million, according to a running tally kept by Molly Molloy, a research librarian at New Mexico State University
. By contrast, El Paso, with a population of 750,000, has experienced two murders this year, neither of them drug-related. This summer, Juarez experienced its first of two car bombs, making its inevitable comparisons to Afghanistan and Iraq more germane.
To illustrate just how much Juarez and El Paso occupy different universes, Garcia grabs a few pesos from the center console of his extended-cab Chevy pickup truck and gives it to a paper boy and takes a paper. He throws the paper on my lap. On the front page of the paper a decapitated head, eyes closed, sits on the top of a Cadillac’s roof. It’s this kind of violence they fear will spill over into El Paso and other border cities lining the nearly 2,000 mile border shared by Mexico and the United States.
There’s some evidence that the fear is warranted. Stray bullets from Juarez have hit El Paso’s City Hall and a building on the University of Texas-El Paso campus. But for now, the threat remains low, say private security professionals, high-level law enforcement officials, and the city’s mayor. And while they note that, ironically, some of the credit actually goes to the cartels themselves, because they don’t want to provoke a fight with the United States, El Paso will keep its reputation as one of the country’s safest cities largely because of law enforcement professionalism, strong public-private partnerships, and unprecedented interagency cooperation between federal, state, and local law enforcement.
The major difference between these cities on either side of the border isn’t so much the level of violence but the response to it: South of the border, corruption unleashed by the drug war has eroded the city’s rule of law. Mexican President Felipe Calderon has tried to fight back, sending 10,000 military and federal police personnel to Juarez since 2008. But corruption persists. In August, some federal police officers stationed in Juarez actually mutinied against their own commanders whom they alleged were corrupt. The military forces had handed over to these commanders responsibility for public security just months before the officers leveled their charges. The federal police ended up firing 10 percent of its force for failing lie detector and drug tests, including four mid-level commanders who were among those the Juarez rank and file accused. Despite these efforts, criminals of all stripes remain largely free to act with impunity.
North of the border, it is not that drug-related violence never occurs. In fact, two major events occurred last year, notes El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles inside his office on the outskirts of the city. The first incident occurred last May when Jose Daniel Gonzalez-Galeana, a cartel lieutenant, was gunned down in front of his home in broad daylight on an affluent cul-de-sac. The hit was particularly brazen considering El Paso’s police chief lived behind the victim. Gonzalez-Galeana had fled to El Paso from Juarez to start a new life. He started talking to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the investigative arm of federal border security (within the Department of Homeland Security).
In September, three men broke into the home of Sergio Saucedo in Horizon City, a town just south of El Paso. The men proceeded to duct tape Saucedo in front of his wife, carry him out of his home in front of a school bus full of children, and throw him into an idling dark maroon Ford Expedition with no license plates. Five days later Saucedo’s corpse turned up in Juarez with his arms chopped off and placed across his chest on top of a cardboard sign.
The crucial difference when such crimes occur in El Paso, says Wiles: “We solved those cases.”
Between both events, six men, including a U.S. Army soldier stationed at Fort Bliss, have been arrested and await trial on felony charges. The U.S. soldier and his accomplice face the death penalty for their murder of Gonzalez-Galeana.
This does not happen in Juarez, Wiles explains. Police professionalism is low, and many officers get hired because of who they know, not their qualifications. Worse, “the training’s not good” and “corruption is widespread,” he says.
David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, identifies another problem: Criminal investigations are performed by state and federal police, not municipal police, and they are overwhelmed with the work load as well as starved for resources. He adds that corruption and intimidation hamper investigations.
As a result, violent crimes go unsolved. Last year, the Associated Press discovered that out of 2,600 murders in Juarez, prosecutors filed only 93 homicide charges and won only 19 convictions.
The outgoing major of Ciudad Juarez, Jose Reyes Ferriz, with whom I met on his second to last day in office, acknowledged that the cartels do not fear the city’s criminal justice system. Just outside his window, Ferriz showed me one high-profile symbol of the slaughter that plagues his city. A few hundred feet from City Hall sits the stoplight where a U.S. consulate employee and her husband were gunned down in March.