El Paso Fights To Shield City From Mexico Violence

El Paso, Texas ranks as one of the safest cities in the U.S. It borders Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican town that has been engulfed in ongoing drug violence. Beto O'Rourke, a city councilman for El Paso, explains the impact of Mexico's drug war on his town.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Joining us now is Beto O'Rourke. He serves on the city council of El Paso, Texas. Welcome back to you, also, councilman. Thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. BETO O'ROURKE (Council Member, El Paso, Texas): Thanks, Michel. Thanks for having me on the show.

MARTIN: And the city - just to remind our listeners, your city, in fact, your district in the city, District 8, borders on Ciudad Juarez, which has just been plagued with violence that many people attribute, at least in part, to the drug cartels. When we last spoke in January, you expressed concern that there would be a spillover of violence from Mexico - since we last spoke, that it's just escalated, particularly in Juarez, but not exclusively. Statistically, though, El Paso still is considered one of America's safest cities. Have you seen any fallout from what's happening in Mexico?

Mr. O'ROURKE: Not directly in El Paso in terms of violent crimes. And you're right. El Paso remains one of the second or third safest cities in United States, where Juarez, since January of 2008, has had 2,000 violent, brutal murders. El Paso's had 20 in that same period. We've actually seen the violent crimes like kidnappings occurring in cities like Phoenix, Arizona, which are major transit and distribution hubs for the drug trade. They had almost a kidnapping a day officially reported. Some estimates have that two or three times in terms of non-reported kidnappings.

So it's interesting where the violence is actually showing in the United States, and so far not in El Paso. But it is important to remember that El Paso and Ciudad Juarez are literally one community. So what's happening in Juarez, we really feel it here in El Paso. Many of us have family members. Many of us do business in Juarez. And we really look at ourselves as one community in this valley here in El Paso-Juarez region.

MARTIN: What's your take on this idea of moving National Guard troops to the border with Mexico - and again, just to reiterate, this is not an imminent decision. But it is something the president said he would consider.

Mr. O'ROURKE: Yeah. I think it's a really bad idea, and I think that many of us on the border and especially in El Paso, Texas think it's a bad idea. One thing to keep in mind is that the border, at least here in El Paso, is not a dusty stretch of desert. Our street grid system literally extends in the Ciudad Juarez, and vice versa. It's a very urbanized metropolitan area. The border is really just a meager flow of the Rio Grande here and a political line. And we've had militarization of the border in the past.

And I'd like to point out that in 1997, US Marines were patrolling the border to try to interdict drug smugglers, and they tragically shot a high-school sophomore here in United States, Esequiel Hernandez, and killed him. He was herding his family's goats in a more rural part of the border. And the Marines thought he was drug smuggler and shot him and killed him. And soon after that, then-Defense Secretary Cohen pulled the military and Marines from the border. So it can really have some tragic consequences when you have 19, 20, 21-year-old US Army and military personnel patrolling the border, which is really more of a law enforcement function. So…

MARTIN: So this is a mismatch of mission…

Mr. O'ROURKE: Exactly.

MARTIN: …and that their training inappropriate. It's more of a policing option, as opposed to a military - you think it's more of a policing problem than a military problem.

Mr. O'ROURKE: Exactly. We would openly and we do openly welcome more Customs and Border Protection officers who are trained in domestic law enforcement laws, who are trained in immigration laws and who I think can handle the unpredictable situations that happen along the U.S.-Mexico border much better than the military can.

MARTIN: Forgive me for interrupting. We only have about a minute left. So what do you think President Obama's priority should be right now in addressing the violence across the border to ensure that it doesn't spill over?

Mr. O'ROURKE: Quickly, I just want to say it's heartening that he's paying attention to the border. And it's important to note that he said he's not interested in militarizing a border, that there's no immediate military move in mind, and that he recognizes it's a two-way street. I think he said something to that effect. And he mentioned that we have money and guns flowing south and that we need to do our part in stopping those. But short term, we need more Customs and Border Protection officials. Long term, I think we need to rethink our border policy, comprehensive immigration reform.

We need to have a serious look at our national drug policy and where our priorities are and what our ability is to stop the flow of drugs and to stop some of these problems that we are complicit in, like the flow of money and guns going south. But short term, we could certainly use some more law enforcement on the border.

MARTIN: All right. Beto O'Rourke joined us from El Paso, Texas, where he serves on the city council. Councilman, thank you.

Mr. O'ROURKE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Next: Are Americans losing faith? A new survey suggests that many Americans are moving away from traditional churches, with minorities leading the flight. We'll talk about that in our Faith Matters conversation, coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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