EL PASO, Texas
From his 10th floor downtown office, El Paso Mayor John Cook has a view of the border with Mexico barely half a mile away. Not long ago, TV correspondents stood with their backs to that same border, gesturing dramatically in the general direction of Juarez, the Mexican city that had become the epicenter of a grisly drug war that the correspondents likened to the worst violence in Iraq. The implication, to many watching, was that El Paso had been swept up in the lawlessness. Which explains why Cook received a call the other day from a TV network producer asking him to participate in a show about "America's Most Dangerous" city. Cook pointed out that El Paso is in fact one of America's safest cities.
"Over the last 12 years we have been ranked either No. 2 or No. 3 behind Honolulu and San Jose, Calif.," Cook said, citing FBI statistics.
Despite the violence next door, life in El Paso goes on pretty much as usual. The chief complaints to the city, Cook said, continue to be neighbors griping about barking dogs, boom boxes and junk cars in the street.
Cook and other border leaders do not underestimate the staggering toll of Mexico's drug war, which has claimed more than 7,000 lives in the last year, and the challenge it poses to law enforcement on both sides of the border. But as President Barack Obama's administration gears up U.S. efforts to help Mexico fight the drug cartels, border leaders worry that overreaction could threaten the region's economic engine.
"It's all about how do we deal with a serious challenge and yet at the same time avoid shutting down our border and stopping economic activity," said Richard Dayoub, head of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, noting that Mexico is the United States' second-largest trading partner.
But drugs also bind the two nations.
"Not only are we attached at the hip with Mexico," said Dayoub, "but we are unfortunately duplicitous in the drug war. We are sending all the illegal weapons and consuming all the drugs. It's a vicious circle."
The media furor has had a silver lining, he added. It galvanized the attention of the Obama administration, which has promised 360 new border agents. Paradoxically, the increased enforcement is directed less at protecting U.S. soil from the drug cartels, and more at keeping drug proceeds and weapons from getting into Mexico.
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Drug smuggling is nothing new in that part of Texas. For decades marijuana and cash crisscrossed the largely unprotected border. In those days it was easy for pickups to crash through the fence at night in remote desert locations, or for drugs simply to be thrown over the wire in bales and backpacks.
Then along came cocaine, smuggled up from Colombia. Local officials complain that the Bush administration's war on terror distracted attention from a dangerous shift in Mexico's drug trade: the emergence of Colombian-style cartels with private armies of vicious hit men.
As the cartels grew in wealth and firepower, poorly paid and ill-equipped Mexican authorities were easily corrupted, even at the highest levels. The cartels also battled one another to control the best trafficking routes in the $10 billion drug trade. Nowhere has the impact been felt more acutely than in Ciudad Juarez, which sits across the Rio Grande from El Paso.
Mexicans in Juarez have lived under virtual curfew after the drug violence began spiraling out of control early last year. Of Mexico's 7,000 drug-related deaths last year, 1,800 were in Juarez. Dozens of police officers were gunned down, some of them beheaded.
The killings dropped after 5,000 federal troops were sent to the city in early March, but bodies still appear every day.
The violence has not entirely spared American families.
In December, Marisela Granados, the Mexican wife of an El Paso warehouse supervisor, was driving home from her job in the State Attorney's Office in Juarez when her car was intercepted by masked gunmen at a red light. They fired 85 rounds from their AK-47 assault rifles, hitting their target — the deputy state attorney riding in her passenger seat — more than 40 times. One bullet hit Granados' heart. She died simply for giving her boss a ride to an El Paso Wal-Mart where his wife was Christmas shopping.
Jose Molinar, Granados' 48-year-old husband, has no hope the case will be investigated.
"They don't want to dig into it," he said. But Americans need not panic, he said. The cartels would never dare be so brazen on this side of the border.
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Despite their size differences — Juarez at 1.7 million people has more than twice the population of El Paso — it's hard from a distance to distinguish where one city stops and the other starts.
In the past, residents of Juarez and El Paso daily went back and forth for business and social activities, crossing the four bridges that link the two cities.
Border enforcement is tougher on the U.S. side, so traffic typically backs up on the bridges into Mexico. These days there is far less traffic going south.
Wealthy Mexican children attend private schools in El Paso. Many of the American managers at the 300 or more maquiladora assembly plants in Ciudad Juarez must cross the bridges daily, though most carry a special pass for an exclusive lane.
"As a child I went there all the time. Now I'm scared to death," said Marian Withnell, a resident of El Paso who spent her childhood with family on both sides of the border.
Like many El Paso residents, she rarely visits any more. The last time she visited Juarez was for a gathering of an informal wine club that she belongs to.
"We caravaned over and were met at the bridge," she recalled. Their host escorted them to a house in a yard behind high walls topped with barbed wire.
Few Americans dare to cross into Mexico these days, leaving local mariachis who used to sing for the gringos in bars scratching to make a living.
"Everyone stays home. No one goes out at night," said Miguel Angel Valdes, 32, a shoe-shiner outside the Kentucky Club, a bar once frequented by John Wayne and Steve McQueen.
The only clients one Saturday afternoon last month were a van load of Americans on a dental shuttle from Albuquerque, N.M.
"My family was really against it," said truck driver Joe Sumner, 57. "But I spit another filling out the other day so I had to do something."
Sumner said his three root canals and several extractions would cost about $1,000, less than a third the cost in the United States.
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Until last year the border in the desert around El Paso consisted of a barbed wire cattle fence. It has been replaced with an impenetrable 18-foot-high double-mesh steel fence stretching more than 100 miles and monitored by an ever-larger force of Border Patrol agents.
It does a good job stopping illegal immigrants, but it hasn't diminished the drug trade significantly, as traffickers constantly find new delivery methods — trucks, trains and even tunnels.
This has enabled the cartels to establish operations in cities such as Phoenix and Atlanta. Phoenix has reported a big jump in drug-related home invasions and kidnappings, while Atlanta has become a major drug distribution hub.
In March, Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and former governor of Arizona, announced a major new effort to intercept guns and cash making their way back to the cartels. The Obama administration says it is reviewing requests for the deployment of National Guard troops.
In the past, U.S. border inspections concentrated on incoming vehicles, rail cars and pedestrians. While southbound inspections were conducted sporadically, traffic mostly flowed unimpeded into Mexico.
"This is a logical progression in securing our borders," said Bill Molaski, 54, port director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the El Paso area. After the Sept. 11 attacks it was natural to focus on who was coming into the country. Most "outbound inspection" was done at airports, he said. "Now we are doing spot checks at the border. The message came down (from Washington) to increase the tempo."
A sign on the U.S. side of the bridge warns travelers, "Warning. Illegal to carry firearms/munitions into Mexico." Agents now regularly conduct random traffic sweeps, stopping cars at the entrance to bridges.
One weekday last month, agents questioned drivers about their purpose in traveling to Mexico. They used a density meter, known as a "Buster," to detect the presence of solid masses in what should be empty spaces in a vehicle. A German shepherd padded around the cars, sniffing for firearms and cash.
"Where are you coming from?" an agent asked two young Hispanic men in a Honda Accord. "I'm going to fix my aunt's fridge, and visit my grandmother," said Christopher Canales, 23, who works for an air-conditioning firm in New Mexico.
The car was sent for a secondary check by a mobile X-ray van that scans an entire vehicle. "It shows up the outline really well," said agent April Carrillo. A few days earlier the machine had detected $299,000 in suspected drug cash hidden in tight wads in a spare tire. "They were easy to spot," Carrillo said.
Like most drivers, Canales doesn't seem to have a problem with the extra delay.
"It's for something good, so it's okay," he said. "It's ugly what's going on over there."
David Adams can be reached at email@example.com.