Paseo del Norte, Part I

By Jessica M. Vaughan on February 27, 2009

Disturbia on the Border

El Paso is America’s largest border city, and one of the safest, friendliest and cleanest cities of its size. It is connected by four bridges and a dense web of long-standing commercial and family ties to the Mexican city of Juarez, on the other side of the border, which is perhaps the most dangerous city in North America, if not the world. At the local level, the cities’ self-conscious interdependence is celebrated. But the metropolis presents an unusual challenge to the federal immigration agencies operating there, and to the rest of the country. For all the genuine improvements in border security that have been made over the last several years, there remain a number of serious vulnerabilities. The situation is truly urgent – the escalating violence and deteriorating political stability in Juarez and other parts of Mexico are already putting new pressure on our immigration systems and could potentially provoke a long-term public safety and economic catastrophe here.

I spent three days in Juarez and El Paso last week. I had the chance to meet with about two dozen U.S. and Mexican federal and state officials and private citizens, and observe the workings of our immigration system from several perspectives. In the coming weeks, I’ll report on the various pieces of the picture including the ports of entry, the border and fence, the visa process, and interior enforcement. But before getting into the policy details, it is important to understand the new context in which these policies are being administered.

At first glance, the city of Juarez seems quite functional. The traffic is surprisingly orderly and the roads as well maintained as any in Massachusetts (ok, maybe not the best standard to use). It has the feel of a giant industrial park, with neat, non-descript factories and warehouses everywhere. Everyone is pleasant, and the food is decent. Looks can be deceiving.

In the few days I was there, at least eight people were murdered and mutilated in and around Juarez, including four police officers and two city council women. One had his head chopped off. One body reportedly turned up in the U.S. Consul General’s neighborhood. The day I left, the police chief of Juarez resigned, in order to stop the slaughter of police officers at the hands of the local cartel, which had promised to kill a cop every 48 hours until the chief quit.

One day, the Juarez newspaper, Norte, reported that in the month of January alone, 277 people in the region had reported being the victim of telephone extortion, or “virtual kidnapping,” where they receive a telephone call claiming that their loved one has been snatched, and demanding payment. Officials and experts agree that only a fraction of these cases are actually reported, since most people believe that the authorities are either incapable, incompetent, or in cahoots with the extortionists. There are real kidnappings too, and they often don’t end well. The ICE attaché to the US consulate described to me in chilling detail the condition of some of the bodies he has had to deal with. [For more on the eroding conditions in Mexico, see George Grayson’s backgrounder, “Surge Two."

On the day I arrived, protesters in Juarez blocked the entrances to three of the bridges to El Paso for four hours, effectively disrupting commerce for the day. The demonstration was ostensibly to protest the treatment of Mexican soldiers who were mobilized to fight the drug cartels, but the El Paso Times speculated that the event was instigated by the cartels to prove that they can shut down the city of Juarez (and wound El Paso) anytime they feel like it.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection also made several big drug seizures during the week, including a two-ton load of marijuana valued at nearly $4 million, detected in cardboard crates on one of the hundreds of trucks that ship goods over the Juarez-El Paso bridges every day.

The prospect of “spillover violence” is no longer just a threat – it’s already happening, if not so much in El Paso, then in other communities. A slew of recent law enforcement, intelligence, and news media assessments note the problems that Mexican drug cartels and their affiliated U.S.-based gang partners are causing in communities around the nation. The National Drug Intelligence Center reports that Mexican cartels have drug distribution networks in 230 cities across the United States. The Los Angeles Times has published a map of these cities and the cartels associated with them. As reported in our recent study on immigrant gangs, from 2005 to 2007, ICE arrested nearly 4,000 Mexican citizens who were involved in criminal gangs. Three Mexican illegal alien gang members, aged 15, 17 and 20, were arrested earlier this month in central South Carolina after trying to kill a deputy sheriff and his police dog with a 12-gauge shotgun.

Some officials, including new DHS secretary Napolitano, have pooh-poohed the threat of spillover violence, noting that the last thing the cartels want is to jeopardize their illicit profits by committing acts that will draw attention, resources, and prosecution from the far stronger U.S. law enforcement agencies. Yet there are many signs that the norms of past cartel behavior do not apply to the new generation of gang and cartel leaders emerging in Mexico and the United States. Texas homeland security officials described to me the increased militarization of cartel operations, and their adoption of terroristic tactics against police and other authorities in Mexico. In past years, children and other family members were considered off-limits for kidnapping and violence; now they are the bread and butter activity for at least 140 organized gangs throughout Mexico [Norte, February 19, 2009, p. 1B]. This week, Stratfor, the open source intelligence publication, predicted that as U.S. authorities crack down on the drug trafficking, the U.S.-based immigrant gangs will turn to kidnapping and extortion here, starting in immigrant communities, where they have a better chance of intimidating victims into silent cooperation. Phoenix is already the kidnapping capital of the United States, with 370 cases last year, all of which were linked to alien and/or drug smuggling.

Most of these thugs, their affiliated smugglers and their victims have passed through our immigration system in one way or another, and a fair number probably came through Juarez and El Paso. Every day 100,000 people and 38,000 vehicles cross over one of the four bridges, some to shop, some to work, some to smuggle, and some to start a new life. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll explain how it happens.