Touted as one of the safest cities of its size in the nation, El Paso is awakening to its southern neighbor’s bloody nightmare.
City officials say that drug-related violence across the border in Ciudad Juárez is having a growing impact in El Paso. And the situation across Mexico is deteriorating so fast that retired five-star Gen. Barry McCaffrey warned in a new assessment of a refugee catastrophe that could devastate border cities.
“Mexico is on the edge of abyss,” he said in a Dec. 28 report. “It could become a narco-state in the coming decade,” and the result could be a “surge of millions of refugees crossing the U.S. border to escape the domestic misery of violence, failed economic policy, poverty, hunger, joblessness, and the mindless cruelty and injustice of a criminal state.”
The report helped ignite what has already been a sense of urgency among city leaders. Last week, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution that called for solidarity with Juárez. The resolution ignited local and national controversy after City Councilman Beto O’Rourke added a line calling for a once unthinkable strategy to neutralize Mexico’s powerful cartels: legalizing drugs.
On Monday, President-elect Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderón will meet in Washington and are expected to discuss the growing violence in Mexico and its impact on border communities, including El Paso-Juárez.
Few border communities have been hit as hard. More than 1,600 of the total 5,700 drug-related killings nationwide in 2008 took place in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico’s fourth largest city with a population of 1.7 million. In the first days of the new year, about 30 people have been killed.
El Paso, with a population of 600,000, sells itself as the third-safest city of its size in the United States. But Howard Campbell, a border anthropologist at the University of Texas at El Paso, said El Paso and other U.S. cities provide the infrastructure for drug distribution–warehouses, money laundering centers, weapons and even hitmen, some of them American teenagers.
The El Paso Police Department has said it knows of no kidnapping cases, and County Attorney José Rodríguez also said he knew of no cases.
Although precise figures are unavailable, anecdotal accounts indicate that many violence-weary residents of Juárez are taking up permanent residency in El Paso and sending their children to its schools.
Hotel occupancy rate, usually 87 percent, has risen in recent months to 95 percent, said Mayor John Cook.
“We have noticed that many Mexicans check into hotels for the weekend to rest from the constant violence,” he said.
EL Paso hasn’t felt the full brunt of he nationwide mortgage crisis yet, said real estate agent Juan Uribe, attributing the relatively healthy economy to the Fort Bliss military base and Mexican clients.
Dozens of victims of violence–many of them U.S. citizens–were treated at El Paso’s County Thomason Hospital in 2008, costing taxpayers more than $1 million, city and county officials said.
At City Hall, O’Rourke is incredulous at the firestorm generated by the 12 words–“supporting an honest, open, national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics”–added to a resolution that passed unanimously.
Mayor Cook later vetoed the resolution, saying that such wording could “hurt El Paso’s federal legislative agenda.”