Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Border mayors: Our region of the state is not a war zone

March 10, 2009
Rio Grande Guardian
by Julian Aguilar

AUSTIN, March 9 – Officials from the Rio Grande Valley and West Texas banded together on Monday in defense of their districts and told lawmakers misinformation about the border is casting their communities in a negative light.

Members of the Texas Border Coalition, including Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada, Hidalgo Mayor John David Franz and McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez, told the House Committee on Border and Intergovernmental Affairs that media reports and politicians give the rest of the country an impression the border is a war zone comparable to the worst seen in the Middle East.

“Mexico is not another Iraq,” Ahumada said, and instead compared Mexico to other countries that experience violence on a daily basis.

“You could be in Israel, where there is a war going on and live in certain areas of Israel and you wouldn’t even know there is a war going on. Detroit, Chicago, Washington (D.C.) have these isolated incidences of gun battles and violent crime. Washington (D.C.) itself had to pass laws where it banned people from owning hand guns because the crime rate is so high.”

The mayors reminded the committee more than once that the violence, blamed on rival drug cartels, is not happening in the U.S. and that media reports - combined with discussions of contingency plans where militarizing the border is an option - send the wrong message.

“There are unintended consequences when you say ‘I am going to send the military to the border,’” Cortez said, adding that the City of McAllen recently witnessed first hand a direct effect of the negative press.

“We recruit the maquiladores to come to our area and we’ve had many and we’ve been very successful in doing that,” he said.

“As soon as word came out that we were sending military to the border, 19 companies that we were about to sign up and recruit left.”

Committee Vice-Chair Dan Flynn, R-Van, seemed taken aback somewhat, and proffered that the evidence he’s seen goes against what the mayors’ testimony.

“I’ve seen videos provided by our various law enforcement that doesn’t bear out what you’re saying and I have talked to many of those local people there (and) they are very concerned,” he said. “Even our United States Justice Department has warned our teenagers not to be going over to Mexico during Spring Break because of the violence of drug cartels.”

Despite being across from Ciudad Juarez, where thousands have been killed since Jan. 2008, the City of El Paso was recently named the third safest in the country by FBI crime reports, testified Bob Cook, the president of the El Paso Regional Economic Development Corporation. Cook said the non-profit is equally focused on recruiting business to both El Paso and Juarez and testified, like the mayors, that negative images painted of the border by the media and lawmakers are unwarranted.

“Because primarily of the perception that’s out there nationally I am spending 70 percent of every business day dealing with this one issue, dealing with the perception and its impact on our clients,” he said. Lawmakers, he added, are drawing inaccurate conclusions.

“The major problem that we are dealing with (is) when national media and policy-makers at the state and federal levels start talking about the issue we see them making, many times, massive leaps when they are drawing conclusions,” he said.

Though he agreed with the border mayors about perception, Cook said the economic impact of the violence in Juarez isn’t like witnesses in the McAllen area.

“Once we talk openly about what’s happening in Ciudad Juarez and the current security environment and we bring law enforcement and security experts to the table to share in depth information about the current environment and what companies can do to mitigate against risk in the current environment, we have not had one, not one, single company that has pulled out of Ciudad Juarez nor (that) has refused to locate in Ciudad Juarez,” he said.

El Paso is also not witnessing a flood of refugees, Cook added, and said retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, the former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, stated there was “no evidence” Mexico was on the verge of becoming a failed state during a recent visit to El Paso with Gov. Rick Perry.

Committee Chair Rep. Veronica Gonzales, D-McAllen, further bolstered the assessment that Mexico remained self sufficient when she read excerpts from an opinion letter written by Antonio Garza, the former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico.

“He said ‘Failed states do not have functioning executive, legislative and judicial branches, they do not boast the world’s twelfth largest economy nor do they trade with the United States at a pace of more than $1 billion a day,’” she quoted Garza as writing.

“‘And failed states do not demonstrate, as President Felipe Calderon has done, the political will to take on the transnational cartels that threaten the region’s security.’”

Ahumada and Cortez both said it was possible that lawmakers knew facts that spur their decisions that local officials on the border do not. Ahumada was openly surprised when Flynn cited evidence that cartels had a training camp in the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas.

“We don’t know that, do you know that?” Ahumada asked Foster rhetorically.After he testified Ahumada said he’d like lawmakers to share what they knew with local officials.

“If vice-chairman Flynn has information that he could share with us, that he is privy to that we are not, I’d love to hear it,” he said. “Statements like that create a perception that does not represent the way we are living in the Southwest border region. It’s very disconnected from what I heard in some of those statements.”

Ahumada also expounded upon one issue that was touched upon briefly during their testimony: the demand for illegal narcotics in the U.S. and the power that gives the drug cartels.

“Why is it (the violence) happening? What’s driving the problem? Obviously there is a demand (for drugs) from the U.S. side and somebody is trying to meet that demand,” he said.


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