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Bordering on Danger

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.

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.

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 wasranked as the safest city in the United Stateswith 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.

Public-Private Protection

Although El Paso benefits from the amount of federal resources and manpower poured into it because of border security concerns, its police department and sheriff’s office remain responsible for local law and order in a county of more than 1,000 square miles and 750,000 people. That can be a daunting task with fewer than 1,000 police officers and 250 sheriff’s deputies, says Wiles.

Public-private security partnerships help fill that void. “We’re very dependent on the relationships we’ve built with citizens, citizens groups, and private security,” he says. “There’s a lot more of them than there are public security officers.”

Wiles helped spearhead the EPPD’s involvement in the Law Enforcement and Private Security (LEAPS) Association when he was police chief. Before Wiles became sheriff, the office had not participated in LEAPS. After his arrival, he made sure sheriff representatives attended meetings.

To help draw private security professionals and law enforcement representatives together, he would hold meetings at nice downtown hotels and buy everyone lunch with confiscated drug money. He says these interactions did much to tear down the walls that used to divide the two professions.

“I started policing in 1982, and I’ll tell you that there was no relationship at all,” Wiles says. “It was like ‘You’re a security guard. You’re not to our level. We don’t want to have to deal with you.’”

As the private security industry became more professional, those walls began to crumble, and the interactions provided by LEAPS meetings helped to facilitate that, he says.

LEAPS, which began in Dallas in the early 1990s, is a program of the Associated Security Services and Investigators of the State of Texas (ASSIST). Its mission is to ensure that private security officers receive enhanced training by law enforcement agencies to make them more effective partners against crime while increasing the amount of information shared between the two security realms.

To exemplify how El Paso city and county government value public-private partnerships, Wiles grabs the latest issue of Managing Security Today, the quarterly magazine of ASSIST. Flipping through the pages, he notes how the magazine has articles from himself, Chief Border Agent Hill, and the FBI’s Special Agent in Charge of the El Paso Division.

“I don’t think you see this cooperation in other communities,” Wiles says. “I could be wrong, but that’s what I hear.”

The El Paso/Juarez Chapter of ASIS International also factors into the public-private partnership mix. Ocegueda, who is an ASIS member, says the chapter meetings provide good networking and training opportunities.

The chapter also offers members opportunities to hear presentations from the police, the military, and intelligence groups. For instance, noting the epidemic in carjackings in Juarez, Ocegueda says that the information shared at chapter meetings can help people decide what vehicle to drive across the border. Ford and Chevy pickup trucks and sports utility vehicles, he notes, are bad decisions. So is traveling at night or straying from main roads. Information that members gather at the meetings can be shared with their own organization’s employees working in both El Paso and Juarez.

Ongoing Threat

The war raging between cartels stays mostly south of the border, experts say, because the cartels do not want to force the United States into a battle that might close down the border. It’s basically a business decision: They need El Paso’s bridges to get drugs into the United States as the DHS agent explains. But that’s not to say El Paso is immune from fallout. There have been incidents as noted earlier. And cartels are not afraid to kidnap victims in El Paso even if they do take them to Juarez to torture, kill, and mutilate. 

Still, Wiles says that his community is resilient and ready. Good civilian police relations, strong public-private partnerships, and heavy law enforcement concentration and cooperation will continue to help El Paso stave off the violence suffered by its sister city across the border.

“We have faith in the systems that are in place [to ensure] that spillover won’t happen,” Wiles asserts. “But if it does, we believe the resources and the plans in place will be able to respond appropriately to that.”

Matthew Harwood is an associate editor at Security Management.

♦ Photo of pedestrian fence separating the El Paso Sector from Juarez by Matthew Harwood/Security Management