THE MAGAZINE

Bordering on Danger

By Matthew Harwood

 

Citizen Engagement
 
El Paso Mayor John Cook sits in his living room, his crossed leg showing off a cowboy boot. Cook says it’s really quite simple why his city perpetually ranks as one of the safest in the country based on the FBI crime statistics: El Pasoans trust law enforcement. “If I think the guy down the street is a drug dealer, and I call the police…I don’t worry that that cop is a dirty cop and he’s going to tell the drug dealer,” he says. “In Mexico, that’s not the case.” (After this story went to press, El Paso was ranked as the safest city in the United States with a population of more 500,000, according to CQ Press.)
 
The city of El Paso has actively cultivated that trust. In 1995, the El Paso Police Department (EPPD) organized its first Neighborhood Watch program. The area now boasts more than 600 such programs. Cook says it has instilled a sense of solidarity. “One neighbor watches out for another,” he explains. “If you see something suspicious, you tell your block captain, and your block captain calls your regional command center.”
 
Other Neighborhood Watch benefits include police tutorials on crime prevention, recognizing suspicious activity, and FAX Force weekly alerts. FAX Force is a faxed newsletter pushed out by EPPD regional commands; it details crime trends for that specific area while providing safety tips to residents to help them avoid becoming victims.
 
Some regional command newsletters even map out where crimes have occurred. With the advent of social networking, both EPPD and the sheriff’s department have created Facebook and Twitter pages so residents can follow up-to-the-minute public-safety incidents. The idea is to create aware citizens who know how to protect themselves and are attuned to the need to quickly tip off police when they see crimes or suspicious activity.
 
It works. In El Paso, the culture of observe and report is ingrained in people. “Before the person drops, the people are calling in with license plate numbers, with descriptions, whatever information they got,” says Pete Ocegueda, CPP, a retired 24-year veteran of the EPPD who lives in El Paso and now works as the security manager for a large multinational corporation with facilities in Juarez, to which he travels regularly.
 
Juarez is the antithesis of this community policing approach, notes Ocegueda. “They don’t trust police,” he says. And with good reason.
 
Juaristas, Wiles explains, have two nagging and mutually reinforcing reasons not to call the police when they see a crime. First, all levels of law enforcement have been corrupted by the cartels or other criminal organizations, and the citizens know this. Second, most crimes go unsolved, so why take the chance of reporting something when loose lips can get you hurt or killed.
 
 “And so they can walk over a body,” Ocegueda says, “and they’ll just ignore it and keep on walking.”
 
Interagency Cooperation
 
Another reason El Paso stays so safe, according to Wiles, is due to the amount of law enforcement concentrated in the area. “Because we are on the border, we have a significant contingent of federal, state, county, and local law enforcement,” notes Wiles. That includes Border Patrol; Customs; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; the FBI; and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
 
“When they make arrests, it definitely impacts the safety of our communities,” he says.
 
Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Border Patrol is a big part of that. As illegal immigration and border violence have become hot-button political issues, the federal government in recent years has invested heavily in manpower, infra-
structure, and technology along the Southwest border.
 
Since 2007, 88 miles of 18-foot-high, dual-mesh pedestrian fence have been erected predominantly between El Paso and Juarez, which makes up more than 30 percent of the El Paso Sector’s 268 miles of border. While some people, including DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, have questioned the effectiveness of fencing, El Paso’s Chief Border Agent Randy Hill is an advocate; he calls the fencing “a time generator for us.”
 
As we tour a section of the fence, Border Patrol Agent Scott Hayes explains what Hill means. When an illegal alien tries to cut through or climb over a portion of the fence, technologies such as ground-based sensors, trip wires, and day and night cameras feed into a command center. When an alarm is triggered, the command center can zero in on the sector where the disturbance occurred and direct Border Patrol agents, of which there are many, to the general area.
 
“The fact that when the alien crosses today they still have that additional barrier…to negotiate…buys us some time to ensure we can get somebody there to turn him back” or detain him, says Hill. And that’s been made easier over the past six or seven years, he says, because the El Paso sector has increased its staffing levels three-fold to approximately 2,700 agents to patrol the sector.
 
The investment has produced impressive results. In 2006, CBP apprehended 122,260 illegal aliens in the El Paso sector. As of August 31 of this year, CBP has apprehended 11,206 people, a decline of almost 91 percent in nearly 5 years.
 
Hill admits the recession may have helped decrease the number of illegals trying to enter the United States in his sector, but he believes it’s mostly due to their proactive deterrence and response, facilitated by the fencing, detection technology, and increased manpower.
 
Another factor is the high level of law enforcement cooperation. According to law enforcement sources, El Paso exemplifies the post-9-11 ethos of interagency collaboration. Each morning, for example, Wiles receives an intelligence briefing from the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), a federal fusion center with representatives from 21 different federal, state, and local agencies, including the El Paso sheriff’s office.
 
EPIC’s mission is to collect and disseminate tactical intelligence to law enforcement that disrupts transnational criminal organizations operating around the Southwest border. Intelligence is shared with more than 19,000 vetted law enforcement officers and analysts. 
 
Another federal program that El Paso law enforcement participates in is the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Program. Established by Congress in 1988, the program administers assistance to local law enforcement within areas determined to be critical drug trafficking regions. The West Texas HIDTA, which is responsible for the area surrounding El Paso, receives an average of $8 million a year, says Wiles.
 
The program grants each regional HIDTA broad discretion to design and implement strategies to tackle problems indigenous to its area. One such initiative around El Paso is the West Texas Stash House unit, a multiagency group made up of representatives from the EPPD, the sheriff’s office, DEA, and FBI.
 
The stash house unit identifies and raids vacant homes, rental properties, and warehouses where drugs are temporarily stored before they’re distributed downstream to other cities across the United States. “Since its inception, the task force has seized over 78,880 pounds of marijuana, 5,166 pounds of cocaine, and 1,345,180 in U.S. currency,” according to the Stash House Initiative Web page.
 
The unit’s success isn’t just a product of interagency cooperation, but one of community policing. The unit has an outreach program that makes the public aware of what the indicators of a stash house are, and it encourages people to call in with tips, explains Wiles.
 
Another effort is CBP’s Operation Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats (ACTT). Initiated in September 2009 in the Sonora-Arizona Corridor, ACTT is a multiagency operation whose mission is to “deny, degrade, disrupt, and ultimately dismantle criminal organizations and their ability to operate,” said CBP Assistant Commissioner Allen Gina during congressional testimony in May.
 
Other key interagency partnerships between federal, state, and local law enforcement include the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, the El Paso Human Trafficking Task Force, the El Paso Violent Crimes Task Force, the Safe Streets Gang Task Force, and the Major Theft Task Force.
 
More El Paso-centric interagency cooperation occurs as well. Each month El Paso’s City and County Office of Emergency Management’s Terrorism Committee holds a meeting for the area’s law enforcement as well as representatives from the Red Cross, area hospitals, the school district, and other city departments. “When someone’s offering training, it’s offered to everybody,” says a DHS agent stationed in El Paso who asked not to be named because he was not officially cleared to speak with Security Management.
 
The city’s remoteness, counterintuitively, may have aided this culture of cooperation and collaboration, the DHS agent says. The closest big cities to El Paso—Albuquerque, New Mexico; Phoenix, Arizona; and San Antonio, Texas—are anywhere from a four-to-eight hour drive away across the desert.
 
“We have to depend on each other for assistance,” because additional resources from our own agency are too far away, says the DHS agent, “Law enforcement people will tell you: when they request backup, they don’t care whether it’s going to be a Border Patrol, Texas Fish & Game, a sheriff, or local police.”
 
Such cooperation has gone “a long way” in preventing the violence from spilling over into El Paso, Hill says.

 

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