Thursday, August 26, 2010

Border meeting raises more questions than answers

Bellingham Herald
July 19, 2010
by John Stark

BELLINGHAM - Federal officials had little information to offer the two dozen people who turned out for a Monday, July 19 meeting that was meant to identify public concerns about environmental impacts from the activities of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The issues that the public identifies are supposed to be addressed in an environmental impact statement for the entire northern border, which is to be completed in draft form some time in October 2010. The draft is then available for additional public comment before it becomes final in spring 2011.

Chuck Parsons, environmental program manager in CBP's Laguna Niguel, Calif., office, invited those at the meeting to submit written comments by mail or e-mail, or by using a comments box set up for the meeting. A court reporter was on hand to record comments of those who wished to submit oral remarks at the meeting one-by-one, but there was no open comment session.

Parsons took a few questions from the audience but mostly apologized for not having more information.

Jim Davis of Bellingham, a member of the North Cascades Conservation Council, told Parsons he needed more information.

"I'm a little bit stymied as to how to make reasonable comments since I don't know what you're doing along the border," Davis said.

Parsons said people could comment on the environmental impacts from CBP activities they already know about.

The environmental impact statement is meant to identify the effects of all CBP activities on land, sea and air, and make sure that the agency complies with a range of federal environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act.

Ken Wilcox of Bellingham, a member of the Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission, asked Parsons how CBP could accomplish such a broad review so quickly for almost 4,000 miles of northern border.

Parsons replied that the border will be considered in four segments. Washington state is part of a segment that takes in the area from the crest of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific.

David Graves, Northwest field representative for the National Parks Conservation Association, said his group is concerned about impacts on North Cascades National Park, whose northern boundary is the U.S. border.

Caroline Correa, a representative from the Community to Community Development immigrant rights group in Bellingham, said she had been impressed by the dedication of CBP and Border Patrol personnel during a recent tour of their Blaine facilities. But she said she still has concerns.

"We're worried about the militarization of the border and we're also worried there might be walls built, like in Mexico," Correa said.

Migrants turn to the sea to enter US illegally

Associated Press
August 26, 2010
by Elliot Spagat

SAN DIEGO — The speedboat is about three miles offshore when a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent cuts the engine to drift on the current in quiet darkness, hoping for the telltale signs of immigrant smuggling — sulfur fumes or a motor's whirr.

"It's like trying to find a needle in a haystack, and the haystack is the Pacific Ocean," agent Tim Feige says minutes before sunrise marks the end to another uneventful shift.

This is a new frontier for illegal immigrants entering the United States — a roughly 400-square-mile ocean expanse that stretches from a bullring on the shores of Tijuana, Mexico, to suburban Los Angeles. In growing numbers, migrants are gambling their lives at sea as land crossings become even more arduous and likely to end in arrest

Sea interdictions and arrests have spiked year-over-year for three years, as enforcement efforts ramp up to meet the challenge.

While only a small fraction of border arrests are at sea, authorities say heightened enforcement on land, and a bigger fence, is making the offshore route more attractive. The number of Border Patrol agents doubled to more than 20,000 since 2003, and President Barack Obama is dispatching the National Guard after clamor for a crackdown in the desert led to Arizona's tough new immigration law.

"Your options are to go east through the mountains and the desert, or west through the ocean, or you tunnel underground," said Michael Carney, deputy special agent in charge of investigations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego. "I think they found that going west through the ocean is probably their best bet."

U.S. agents have arrested 753 suspected illegal immigrants on Southern California shores and seas between October and Aug. 24, up from 400 the previous 12 months and 230 the year before. They have spotted 85 watercraft since October, up from 49 during the previous 12 months and 33 the year before.

The smugglers use old, single-engine wooden vessels known in Mexico as "pangas." They're several feet wide and about 25 feet long. If they are found on U.S. waters, they're almost invariably smuggling people or drugs.

U.S. authorities have stepped up sea patrols near the border, forcing pangas loaded with illegal immigrants and sometimes with marijuana farther offshore with landings farther north. An abandoned vessel was found in November in Laguna Beach, 85 miles north of Mexico. A boat with 24 people was found 43 miles off the San Diego coast in May.

Six boats have landed at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base, more than 50 miles north of the border, since November, including two that were abandoned. The base, only a short hike to Interstate 5, has stepped up security.

Authorities believe smugglers put their passengers ashore and return to Mexico, when possible, to avoid losing their boats and leaving evidence behind. But they also quickly abandon the boats and run for it if they sense they're about to be caught.

Smuggling on California waters dates back to the alcohol trade during Prohibition, but authorities noticed a change in late 2007 when pangas began traveling without lights at night with up to 25 people packed on open decks. At up to $5,000 a person — roughly twice the fee to cross illegally over land — one overnight trip can generate $100,000.

Some arrests at sea may be a result of heightened enforcement. This year, the Orange County Sheriff's Department joined in boat patrols on a 32-mile coastal stretch south of Los Angeles.

Only two immigrants are known to have been killed crossing in U.S. waters, their boat overturning in the San Diego surf in January. Two months earlier, eight were rescued atop an overturned boat that was adrift for a day.

Smugglers have been arrested on both sides of the border, with those in the U.S. being sentenced to a year or two in prison.

In Mexico, the boats launch from a poor fishing village named Popotla, about 15 miles south of the border. It sits between Playa de Rosarito's high-rise hotels and condos that cater to American tourists and expatriates and next to the studio where the 1997 blockbuster "Titanic" was filmed.

Squatters live in about two dozen shanties crammed on a hillside on federal land. There is no electricity, paved road, sewage or garbage collection.

But it is easy to understand why smugglers are drawn to the village. It's out of view from the highway only 200 yards away. Its crescent-shaped beach invites gentle waves and it is the only public boat launching spot on a 50-mile stretch south of the border.

Locals flock to Popotla's two dozen or so restaurants on weekends for a wide array of fresh catches. Beachgoers drive pickups down a short, steep road and park right up to the tide.

A restaurant worker, Victor Estrada, said he saw about eight migrants being led to a boat on the beach one recent night after they waited several hours inside a sports utility vehicle, but about a dozen other workers and residents insisted they knew nothing about smugglers.

"You see nothing during the day but fishermen," said Carlos Verdugo, 48, president of one of Popotla's 11 fishing cooperatives who lives in nearby Tijuana. "It's possible (the smugglers) come at night. During the day, it's pure fishing."

Jose Eduardo Montero, public safety chief of Playas de Rosarito, offers a different view: "The place is invaded by criminals, drug traffickers, undocumented immigrants, drug dealers. It's all mixed in with the fishing business."

One January night, Montero said, his officers detained 23 people as they were preparing for a crossing, including two alleged guides who were arrested on smuggling charges.

Authorities have failed to pierce the top ranks of smuggling organizations. Boat drivers offer little information when captured and toss their GPS devices and radios into the water before agents reach them.

The low-slung boats, when weighed down with people, can float only about one foot above water, making them difficult to see on radar. Night-vision binoculars have limited reach.

"They're beating us with low-tech," said ICE's Carney. "I'm not saying they can't be detected, but I'm saying they're very hard to detect."

On a recent night off San Diego shores, two CBP speedboats prowled the coast. A CBP helicopter with infrared surveillance equipment was down for repairs, which happens pretty often, said CBP supervisory agent Mark White, his boat idled with Tijuana's lights behind him.

"We're one step behind," he says.

White spent much of the night near two unlit beaches that are popular with smugglers. He described the positioning as educated guesswork. Just because boats have been landing north, he can't afford to neglect beaches close to the border. Some migrants dash one mile from Tijuana on Jet Skis, hugging the shore.

"We're trying to smell, we're trying to see, and we're waiting," White said.

This night, like most others, concluded with no arrests or boat sightings.

Agents got lucky the following night, arresting 23 suspected illegal immigrants from Mexico on a boat about five miles offshore from San Diego's tony La Jolla area around 3 a.m.

The driver said he was being paid $600 for his work and knew his employer only as Frausto, according to court records. A passenger who said he agreed to pay a smuggler $5,000 dropped a GPS device in the ocean as agents arrived, sinking potentially promising evidence.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Former IBWC counsel alleges abuses affecting safety

Brownsville Herald
August 8, 2010
by Emma Perez-Trevino

While water seeps quietly under the foundation of the two dams in the vast water-management system along the Rio Grande, a whistle-blowing lawyer says he has important information that he hopes will filter to the surface before tragedy occurs.

The dam and levee system provides water for more than 3 million people who live along the Rio Grande.

The two dams – Amistad in Val Verde County and Falcon in Zapata County – are operated by the International Boundary and Water Commission, a U.S.-Mexican agency charged with handling issues concerning bodies of water, sanitation, water quality and flood control along the border.

Robert McCarthy, a self-described whistleblower from El Paso who was employed as general counsel for the U.S. section of the IBWC, says he was fired shortly after he made allegations of fraud, waste, abuse and suspected criminal activity within the agency. A judge has backed the firing but McCarthy has appealed the decision and says he is hoping his termination will be declared improper.

In an interview last week with The Brownsville Herald, McCarthy said abuses within the IBWC have compromised operations, including the safety of the dams and the levee system along the Rio Grande.

In the summary of his appeal, McCarthy states: “The agency operates several international wastewater treatment plants, international dams, and other flood-control facilities, all of which are put at greater risk by this tiny cabal (of some employees at IBWC in 2009) that sees no further than their own parochial bureaucratic interests, jeopardizing the health and safety of millions of border residents.”

Representatives of the IBWC have denied wrongdoing and say the agency continues to properly do its work in managing the dams and levees.


McCarthy’s list of complaints about some of the processes within IBWC in 2009 includes claims that certain employees:

* Solicited bids and issued a contract to construct levees with funds received from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 with architectural designs for which the agency had no contractual rights and which cited state rather than required federal rules and standards. IBWC received $220 million in Recovery Act funds for rehabilitating levees and for flood-control projects.

* Conspired to conceal mismanagement of the $220 million flood-control project funded under the Recovery Act, making false and fraudulent reports to the U.S. Department of State.

* Illegally subsidized a border barrier in Hidalgo County for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security with Recovery Act funds intended solely for flood control.

* Chose to build a “cosmetic” levee with $37 million of emergency flood-control funds in Presidio to give the appearance of safety while covering up geophysical reports that the new levee would not withstand another flood.

* Issued an $88 million contract for an expansion of the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant in San Diego, Calif., months before Congress appropriated the funds, then knowingly covered up the violation;

“While senior agency officials help themselves to illegal pay raises, spy on their colleagues with remote surveillance equipment, and routinely abuse agency staff, levees crumble, millions of dollars are siphoned off for projects unrelated to the agency’s mission, and millions of border residents are put at ever-greater risk of catastrophic injury to their health and safety,” according to McCarthy’s appeal.

He also maintains that the agency has downplayed deficiencies at Amistad Dam near Del Rio and Falcon Dam near Roma, saying an inspection in 2007 conducted by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers and technical advisers to IBWC found that the entire foundation of Amistad Dam needs evaluation due to the potential impact of seepage from naturally occurring sinkholes.

The reports show that inspectors also noted that Falcon Dam’s entire foundation was in need of further assessment, citing a problem with seepage.

“It’s hard to see what, if anything, has been done since then,” McCarthy told the Herald Thursday.


McCarthy’s allegations predate the administration of present IBWC Commissioner Edward Drusina, who was appointed in January by President Barack Obama.

McCarthy is appealing his firing by the former IBWC commissioner, La Feria native C. W. “Bill” Ruth.

McCarthy says Ruth fired him on July 31, 2009, three days after he reported his allegations to an array of federal agencies, including the White House. McCarthy had been with the agency just six months. Previously, he had served as a supervisory attorney with the U.S. Department of the Interior from 1999 to 2008.

Ruth declined to comment on McCarthy’s termination but did address the issue of sinkholes at Amistad Dam and said studies are under way.

“We have been working on that problem and we’ve been with our technical advisers, the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, and Mexico, and the preliminary report has been made,” he said.

Ruth is referring to a report that a panel of technical advisers issued in November 2009 regarding the condition of Amistad Dam and a plan of action.

“The judgment is that we needed to go forward and do additional studies and that is in progress at Amistad, and we were supposed to have gotten started looking at Falcon Dam this year.

“The judgment was that there was no immediate danger and that the dams had been maintained properly and were in a good state of repair, but that these other problems should be looked at, and they are,” Ruth said.

He said they are monitoring Amistad very closely “to make sure that there isn’t any increase in that flow or that there is no change in the flow being monitored coming from under the foundation.”

“You know, every dam leaks to some extent,” Ruth said. “I mean, that is just a natural occurrence. You will never be able to, in my opinion, completely shut it off. But I mean, whatever needs to be done will be done.”

He said that the longevity of the dams proves that they are of sound structure.

“Most of the dam failures that take place take place when the dam is first put into service,” Ruth said. “If there is a problem developing, you need to address it and that is what we are trying to do now – to determine if there is a problem or not.”

The IBWC has refused to release a copy of the November 2009 report on Amistad Dam to The Brownsville Herald, despite a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act.

IBWC’s FOIA Officer Eric Meza on Thursday declined the request in writing, stating that the report on Amistad Dam is exempted from public disclosure because it falls in the category of “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency.

“Such record is privileged as reflecting the deliberative process of government, in addition to containing the guidance of consultants acting in the interest of the agency,” he said, noting that the decision could be appealed.


Regarding his firing from the IBWC, McCarthy has filed a petition for review by the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Ruth, the man who fired him, declined to discuss the matter, citing ongoing litigation.

However, in the July 31, 2009, termination letter to McCarthy, obtained by the Herald, Ruth said McCarthy’s conduct had failed to demonstrate his fitness for continued employment. He writes that McCarthy had not supported him or the executive staff in a “constructive and collegial manner” in Ruth’s effort to bring unity within the executive staff.

McCarthy’s petition on his firing already has been heard by merit board Administrative Judge David A. Thayer.

IBWC spokeswoman Sally Spener said in a written statement Friday that Thayer on April 9 denied McCarthy’s request for corrective action.

“Judge Thayer found clear and convincing evidence that the agency would have terminated Mr. McCarthy’s employment regardless of his alleged whistleblower disclosures,” Spener said. “Judge Thayer found that Mr. McCarthy’s employment was terminated after he prepared and distributed numerous factually and legally erroneous memoranda.”

Spener also noted that levee rehabilitation projects in Hidalgo County have been designed to meet federal criteria for the 100-year flood and that all construction contracts issued have been in accordance with federal contracting rules and standards.

In a letter she sent to McCarthy’s lawyers last August, Spener described the agency as one that had undergone a significant and positive transformation. Earlier, in 2005, the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Inspector General had issued a scathing report that found the agency under then-Commissioner Arturo Duran to be grossly mismanaged and lacking oversight.

McCarthy believes there can be no changes within IBWC until it comes under the oversight of a larger agency, such as the Department of State, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

In October 2006, the Department of State’s Office of Inspector General wrote that the IBWC “is simply too small, too isolated, and too vulnerable to management abuse to continue without the protection and oversight of a major government department.”

“The Department (of State) was asked in early 2005 to provide its own solution to the oversight problem and could not do so,” the OIG report further noted.

GOP: Border security remains issue despite statistics

Brownsville Herald
August 8, 2010
by Jazmine Ulloa

An independent study that found that deportations of illegal immigrants have increased under President Barack Obama drew fire from Texas Republicans who said the figures skirt Obama’s inadequate response to the issue of border security.

The report released last week by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University said that 279,035 undocumented immigrants had been deported in the first nine months of this fiscal year — a 10 percent increase compared to the 254,763 deportations in the same time frame in 2008, the last and busiest year of President George W. Bush’s administration.

The findings come amid a tense political debate that has pitted comprehensive immigration reform against questions about whether the Obama administration has done enough to secure the nation’s borders.

Supporters of immigration reform have said the nation is in a period of enforcement, in which not only deportations but also immigration prosecutions continue at high levels, similar to the situation under Bush.

Studies show Obama continues to pour billions of dollars into the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Some immigration attorneys say he has stepped up the criminalization of immigrants so much that they have given the system a new name — “crimmigration.”

The TRAC study states that the deportation figures undermine blasts from GOP leaders that Obama has failed to secure the U.S.-Mexico border.

But Texas Republican leaders said that although Obama might be targeting noncitizens inside the country, he is not placing enough focus on tightening the border to keep undocumented immigrants from entering in the first place.

“While we are pleased these actions are increasing, you cannot secure the border with investigations and prosecutions alone,” said Katherine Cesinger, deputy press secretary for the Office of Gov. Rick Perry. “The governor has continually urged the Obama administration to increase the number of law enforcement personnel patrolling the Texas-Mexico border. Without adequate manpower available to patrol the border, it will continue to be exploited by drug and human traffickers.”

How to secure the border?

Border security came to the forefront of the immigration debate when an Arizona rancher was killed allegedly by drug smugglers, leading eventually to a new Arizona law that has incited national controversy because it requires local, county and state law enforcement officers to enforce immigration law.

But surging violence in Mexico has kept border security at the center of the debate, often displacing comprehensive immigration reform. Gov. Rick Perry on a recent trip to Brownsville was clear about his position — border security first, immigration reform second.

“The whole issue of immigration reform is a waste of time until you focus on the issue of border security,” Perry said. And for most Republican leaders, the issue appears to be about more resources, more technology and more boots on the ground along the border.

President Obama announced in May that he would deploy 1,200 National Guardsmen to the Southwest border and request $500 million for border protection and law enforcement activities to combat illegal activity. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Department announced last month that more than 250 of those troops would begin arriving in Texas this month.

But in Brownsville, Perry said he did not think Obama was sending enough troops to the state, which he said needed at least 3,000 — not the mere 286 it has been allocated.

“It is a first step. I will be blunt — it is a baby step,” he said of the deployment.

In a op-ed article in the Austin-American Statesman, U.S. Rep Henry McCaul (R-Austin) and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo) call for a “layered strategy” to patrol the Texas-Mexico border. The congressmen push for the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which use cameras, radar systems and other sensors to provide real-time intelligence to the Border Patrol.

In a statement, McCaul said the increased number of deportations was not enough.

“The fact remains that until we commit to a comprehensive strategy to secure our borders and aggressively address illegal immigration, we will continue to see an influx of illegal crossings,” he said.

Frank Morris, chairman of the Cameron County Republicans of Texas, said he has not seen enough commitment by the current administration to border enforcement projects, such as the U.S.-Mexico border fence.

“The fence became so controversial in the media that other means to secure our border had to be utilized instead of completing the fence,” Morris said. “You can’t do these things half-heartedly and say they’re not working. The fence is not working – of course it is not working, it hasn’t been completed.”

Immigration advocates and attorneys counter that the emphasis on border security is part of the GOP’s strategy to obstruct immigration reform, leaving millions of undocumented immigrants to live in the shadows.

Javier Maldonado, in immigration attorney in San Antonio, said the United States has been focusing on border security since 9/11.

“Everything has been about securing the border, from tightening our financial laws, tightening national security laws, to increasing the personnel on the border,” he said. “We need a balance.”

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

July proved deadly month for migrants

Arizona Daily Star
August 3, 2010
by Brady McCombs

July was the second-deadliest month on record for illegal immigrants crossing in Southern Arizona, with 59 bodies ending up at the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office.

The month's total ranks second only to the 69 deaths recorded by the office in July 2005.

The death toll began early in the month and continued at such a fast pace the office had to bring in additional storage space to house the bodies.

• On July 2, the office handled the bodies of five illegal immigrants who died in Arizona's desert.

• Thirteen more bodies came in over the next eight days. Then, six July 11 and four more bodies a day later.

• July 15 was the worst day, with seven bodies: five men and two women.

The deadly month brings the calendar year-to-date total through July for the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office to 153, ahead of the past two years at the same time and only slightly behind the 159 handled through the same date in the 2007, a record-breaking year.

"I hope that people - no matter which side of the immigration debate they are on - agree that individuals dying in our community is an absolute tragedy and that something needs to be done about," said Kat Rodriguez of Coalición de Derechos Humanos.

The Medical Examiner's Office has handled the bodies of more than 1,650 illegal border crossers found since 2001 on the Tohono O'odham Nation, and in Pima, Santa Cruz and Pinal counties.

The Cochise County Medical Examiner's Office reported two bodies in July, bringing its yearly total to 19, compared with 21 at the same time last year.

More than two-thirds of the dead illegal immigrants who ended up at the Pima County office this past month had died recently, said Dr. Bruce Parks, chief medical examiner. All but nine were men, and 46 of the 59 remained unidentified.

The busy month filled the medical examiner's two refrigerated storage spaces, prompting officials to put a 55-foot refrigerated trailer in service to house additional bodies, Parks said.

It's difficult to track exactly how much taxpayer money is spent handling the illegal border crossers because the 27 employees fit the recoveries, autopsies and investigations in with the rest of their work. One way to estimate is by multiplying the average cost of an autopsy, about $2,000, times the number of bodies, which this year would total $306,000.

It's unclear exactly why this July was so deadly, but heat obviously was a factor: At least 32 of the 59 people died from hyperthermia or exposure to the heat, medical examiner records show. Most of the other causes of death are pending or undetermined.

In terms of the average temperature recorded at Tucson International Airport, July was the seventh-warmest on record for the metro area, said meteorologist John Glueck of the National Weather Service. The month also had 18 days of 100 degrees or higher temperatures in Tucson, with the highs in the desert usually much hotter than the recorded highs in Tucson.

The increase in deaths doesn't track with the Border Patrol's apprehensions, which are down for the sixth straight year. Agents in the Tucson Sector made 184,000 apprehensions from Oct. 1 through June 30, compared with 185,500 at the same time last fiscal year, said Border Patrol spokesman Omar Candelaria. The agency didn't have figures through July available yet.

The Border Patrol believes these numbers show fewer people are crossing, Candelaria said. With 3,200 permanent agents and 400 more here temporarily from other sectors, the agency has more areas under control than before, he said.

Many experts believe the massive buildup of agents, fences and technology along Arizona's stretch of U.S.-Mexico border has forced illegal immigrants into walking longer distances in more treacherous terrain.

"People are being pushed into more and more isolated areas," Rodriguez said.

Candelaria agrees that illegal immigrants are crossing in more remote areas because of the increased presence. "The smugglers are trying to find the places where we are not at," he said.

But the blame should be on the smugglers, not the Border Patrol, he said.

"To lay the blame on the Border Patrol for this is just not right," Candelaria said. "What we are doing is to protect the nation. The smugglers are the ones taking them to these far-out areas and not preparing them."

The Border Patrol - with 48 agents assigned to its search, trauma and rescue team and 200 others who are trained EMTs - has rescued 390 illegal border crossers in the Tucson Sector from Oct. 1 to June 30. That's up from the 300 rescued through the same time period the year before.

With one of the hottest months over and rain more frequent, the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office hopes the death toll will slow, although there have already been two bodies brought in during the first two days of August.

"It will slow down," Parks said. "I can't imagine it getting any worse."

On StarNet: Search an online database of people who have died attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, at

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

El Paso murders, crime rate overall fall

El Paso Times
August 3, 2010
by Daniel Borunda

EL PASO -- About 1,700 homicides have occurred in Juárez this year. El Paso has had one.

Despite the rampant bloodshed in Mexico, the overall crime rate in El Paso has decreased slightly this year.

The drop in murders comes as the El Paso City Council mulls raising taxes or furloughing police officers. Neighborhood Watch groups this evening will get together for block parties as part of the anti-crime National Night Out.

Police officials said crime is down 1 percent citywide with decreases in the number of murders, burglaries, auto thefts and vehicle break-ins. Assaults are up 4 percent and robberies have remained the same.

One homicide this year is unusual even for a city that normally has few slayings. El Paso, estimated population of 751,000, had seven homicides at this time last year. The year ended with 13 homicides.
"It almost defies explanation," said Jack Levin, one of the nation's best known criminologists. "I can't think of another city in the U.S., another large city, that has only had one homicide. It's absolutely outstanding."

Homicides in recent years have been declining nationally with the aging of the baby boomer generation, said Levin, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston.

Levin, in a telephone interview, said cities with large Latino immigrant populations, such as El Paso, San Diego and San Jose, Calif., tend to have low crime rates.

"Immigrants -- whether from Mexico, Italy, or Poland -- have often left family and friends to have a new life and begin anew," Levin said. "They are very success oriented, middle class. They simply have a very low crime rate."
But Levin said that while the immigrant factor helps explain El Paso's low crime numbers, it doesn't explain why murders would plummet one year to the next.

"I've actually said to the reporters in other cities, 'If you want to be safe from murder, move to El Paso,' " Levin said.

However, Levin cautioned, killings tend to occur in clusters and the rest of the year could be different.

Detective Mike Baranyay, an El Paso police spokesman, said the credit for the drop in crime goes to police working with residents who are willing to report suspicious activity.

"The community, I believe, is really taking an active role in keeping their community safe," Baranyay said.

Tina Gianes, president of the Neighborhood Watch Association of El Paso, said most of the complaints she hears are about cars speeding on residential streets or shady door-to-door salesmen.

Gianes said one of the reasons El Paso has a reputation as a safe city is because crime is kept from escalating because residents will report suspicious activity.

"I think more people are getting involved. They are not afraid to speakup," she said.
The contrast is Juárez. The city of 1.3 million has been described as the murder capital of Mexico and one of the most dangerous cities in the world. A two-year war between the Sinaloa and Juárez drug cartels has escalated to the use of car bombs, explosives and frequent attacks on police.

Levin said the drug violence in Mexico has its roots in extreme poverty, powerful organized crime gangs and a "tremendous amount of corruption."

The violence in Juárez is the backdrop as the city of El Paso struggles with its budget and a contract dispute with the police union that could lead to higher property taxes, the canceling of a police academy class or furloughs for police officers.

The El Paso police union last week voted against reopening contract negotiations.

The city wanted to delay a 2 percent cost of living raise that is due Sept. 1. The city has made $3.5 million in cuts to its budget and is looking to cut $1 million more.

A crime is committed in El Paso every 16.1 minutes, according to a "crime clock" in the police budget presentation using data from last year. A murder occurred every 28 days.

Ron Martin, president of the El Paso Municipal Police Officers Association, said taking officers off the street will affect services.

"If you are already stretched thin, how are you going to furlough officers and not affect response times?" Martin said.

Some members of the City Council have argued that further budget cuts to other public services are not feasible.

"City Council can say whatever they want," Martin said. "They are not the ones who reduce crime. It is the police officers. Crime has been reduced because officers are out there every day."

Levin, the criminologist, said other cities face the same dilemma.

"El Paso may save money by reducing the size of the police force, perhaps reducing programs for children, but in the long term it will be very costly," Levin said.

"Part of the reason the crime rate is low is El Paso has been willing to spend the money to keep youngsters busy and supervised and keeping police on the streets," Levin said. "You can pay now or you can pay later. But one way or another, you pay."