NEWS

Living Next to a War Zone: How El Paso Stays One of America's Safest Cities

By Matthew Harwood

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. (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.)
 
(To continue reading "Bordering on Danger," the December cover story for Security Management, click here.)
 

♦ Photo of Mexican flag hovering over El Paso border fencing by Matthew Harwood/Security Management

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