Mexico Violence Not Spilling Into Texas Border Cities

Mexico's Drug War

The drug war in Mexico killed more than 6,000 people last year and has prompted some security analysts to warn that Mexico is in danger of becoming a failed state. The drug war is affecting communities on both sides of the border.

Read more about its impact in our three-part series.

President Obama is mulling a request to put troops on the Texas border to stop violence in Mexico from spilling over. But officials in Texas border cities say the mayhem hasn't spread and that bringing in the military puts law-abiding citizens in jeopardy.

From Texas' southern tip to the westernmost city of El Paso, municipal officials said their communities have not been infected by the epidemic of drug-related murders plaguing Mexico. Officials in Texas' largest border cities — El Paso, Laredo, McAllen and Brownsville — said their cities are among the safest in the state, with some reporting decreases in violent crime.

"The sky is not falling," said McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez, who disagrees with Gov. Rick Perry's decision to ask for troops. "What's happening right now is we've got rhetoric that's driving the policy."

Some police chiefs of border cities are planning to share their concerns about having troops on the border with Perry at the Texas Homeland Security Conference on Tuesday. The conference includes law enforcement representatives from around the state and across the border.

In Brownsville, which lies across the border from the Mexican city of Matamoros, there has been a significant decrease in violence over the past decade. Brownsville, a bird-watching paradise and spring break destination because of Matamoros' party image, had three murders in 2008 and has averaged four or five a year for the past 10 years.

"This year, we've had one [murder]," said Brownsville Police Chief Carlos Garcia. None of the recent homicides has been linked to Mexico's drug cartels, he said.

Garcia said there are some Americans who live in the U.S. and cross into Mexico "to work" for the cartels, but he said he doesn't believe the violence will spread because traffickers have extensive networks to keep them safe if they are caught south of the border. "There, they have money, safe houses; if a member is captured, he can escape or buy his way out," he said.

Despite spurts of violence between the Gulf cartel and the Mexican army in Nuevo Laredo, U.S. twin city Laredo, Texas, has also seen its crime rate fall, said Laredo spokeswoman Xochitl Mora.

But Garcia said the situation on the U.S. side of the border has not always been calm. When Juan Garcia Abrego headed the Gulf cartel in the 1980s, Brownsville averaged 25 murders a year, as the convicted drug lord trucked tons of cocaine and marijuana into southern Texas by greasing the palms of officials on both sides of the border, said the veteran Texas lawman.

In those days, drug-related violence got little media attention because the Mexican government hadn't declared war on drug traffickers, Garcia said. But in 2000, then-President Vicente Fox brought his battle against the cartels to the front pages. Mexico's current president, Felipe Calderon, brought in the military. Now, the violence is in the news daily.

"They [Fox and Calderon] have stirred the hornet's nest, and people in the cartels and the military are getting killed," Garcia said.

Last year, more than 6,000 people died in drug-related violence in Mexico, and the situation has intensified as Mexican police and soldiers battle drug cartels for control of Mexico's border cities. This year, more than 1,000 people have been killed — primarily police, soldiers and traffickers.

Nowhere has the violence been worse than in Ciudad Juarez, which lies across the border from El Paso. As many as 2,000 people have been killed in the past year.

Earlier this year, security was so bad that Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz and his family fled to El Paso for safety. Calderon has sent 7,000 troops to the desert city this year, according to the El Paso Times newspaper.

But on the U.S. side of the border, calm has prevailed, said El Paso Mayor John Cook.

Cook boasted that El Paso has consistently been among the country's safest large cities, according to annual analyses of FBI crime statistics by Congressional Quarterly Press (formerly Morgan Quinto Press). He said the large number of law enforcement officers — police and sheriff's departments, customs, immigration, border patrol — give El Paso and other border cities an extra layer of protection.

"The perception is the border is dangerous. The reality is that it is not," Cook said.

But, Cook said, recent Texas history has shown that putting troops on the border could endanger the public — especially in a rural area where civilians carry guns to protect themselves and their livestock from predators.

In 1997, teenager Ezequiel Hernandez was herding goats in rural western Texas when he was killed by U.S. Marines on a counternarcotics detail. The Marines thought the boy, who carried a rifle in the rough terrain, was a drug smuggler.

"Soldiers are trained to be weapons of war," said Cook, a former military service member. "I'm all for putting more boots on the ground, but they need to be the right kind of boots."

Cook said he favors adding border patrol agents or other federal agents trained to work with civilian populations.

Rodriguez, the McAllen police chief, said he believes Perry and other politicians are calling for troops because they don't want to be seen as not doing enough to keep the U.S. safe.

Although every car coming into the United States is stopped at the U.S. border, it is rare for Mexican officials to stop vehicles coming into Mexico.

Rodriquez said putting Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents at the border crossings to search southbound traffic would keep Mexicans and Americans safe by keeping guns and ammunition out of the hands of drug traffickers.

Earlier this month, federal agents seized 997 guns headed for Mexico. More than 90 percent of the guns used by drug traffickers in Mexico are smuggled into the country from the U.S., according to the ATF. The agency has stepped up investigations of gun smuggling as a part of its Operation Gunrunner and plans to add more agents.

The Obama administration announced Tuesday that it plans to send more agents and equipment to the border, including: 100 more agents within the next month and a half to fight gun trafficking;16 Drug Enforcement Administration positions in the border area; and doubling the border enforcement security teams that combine local, state and federal officers.

But Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she hasn't decided if she will send the 1,000 National Guard members requested by Perry. The two are scheduled to discuss the issue on Thursday.

Congress has also approved $700 million to help Calderon in his fight against the cartels.

"Homeland security starts in our home," Rodriguez said. "Across those bridges go stolen property, guns, ammunition, money. Murderers run south every day."

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