Perry and Obama diverge on border

GOP frontrunner and Obama spar on safety of Mexico border

To the president of the United States, the 1,200 border miles that stretch from Brownsville to El Paso are either “among the safest in the nation.” But to the governor of Texas, the border is “not safe.”

In a speech this past spring to pitch comprehensive immigration reform, President Barack Obama declared southwest border cities relatively peaceful and peril-free.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, meanwhile, in both his capacity as his state’s tough-talking chief executive and now frontrunner among the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominees, ridiculed the assertion, calling Obama in a nationally televised debate this month an “abject liar.”

And while Obama touts the doubling of Border Patrol agents to more than 20,000, as well as a drop-off in immigration detentions and low crime rates along the border, as evidence that the area is secure, Perry disagrees, claiming that he has been forced to spend state money to secure a violence-ridden region.

Fact is, more resources are indeed being devoted to the Southwest border, and last year, you were more likely to be slain in Austin, Texas, considered among the safest large cities in the country, than in El Paso, Texas, across the river from one of the most dangerous cities in the hemisphere.

“Brownsville all the way to El Paso, we’re always getting the bum rap … just simply for being on the border,” said Gilberto Salinas, vice president of the Brownsville Economic Development Council, sighing at the perception that Mexican cartel operatives can easily cross the narrow Rio Grande and open fire near schools, supermarkets and town squares, as they do in Mexico.

“People still think that we’re walking around with six-shooters,” he continued, “that the U.S.-Mexico border is still the Wild Wild West.”

Instead, the border centers of Brownsville, Laredo and El Paso have recently recorded low homicide figures, even as populations of those cities ballooned.

According to crime statistics analyzed by the Express-News, El Paso, the safest, had less than one homicide per 100,000 residents last year. Laredo had 3.81, and Brownsville had four. All had homicide rates lower than Houston, San Antonio and Austin, which last year tallied a homicide rate of 4.8 for every 100,000 residents.

“I think the stats speak for themselves,” said Raul Salinas, Laredo’s mayor and a former FBI agent.

At the same time, the cities saw tremendous growth over the last decade: Laredo and Brownsville surged nearly 34 percent and 25 percent respectively, while El Paso grew by about 15 percent to 649, 121, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“It’s not a coincidence that we are on steroids when it comes to growth,” said Salinas of the Brownsville development council, citing a lengthy list of Fortune 500 companies that have moved to the area, bringing jobs to both sides of the border.

Rumors persist in rural areas near the border that drug traffickers are targeting and intimidating ranchers, but confirmable incidents are few and far between. Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, insists the government has “lost operational” control of rural areas.

Traffickers, meanwhile, continue to fund their criminal enterprises, he said, making it more dangerous for U.S. citizens in Mexico and allowing the cartels to expand their influence in Texas.

And they have become increasingly confrontational with law enforcement officials.

“When they’re confronted by law enforcement, they run,” McCraw said of the traffickers. “They throw spikes. They have blocking vehicles. And they have drug cartel boats on our side and they have cartel operatives on the other side of the river.”

Perry — who has cast himself as a border hawk — regularly decries what he has said is a lot of spillover violence into the U.S., citing examples that, it turns out, are rare.

A look at drug-related killings in border cities during the four years since Mexican President Felipe Calderon came to power shows no relation between a rise in homicides in Mexican municipalities and the number of killings in their U.S. sister cities.

“There’s a lot more awareness and the efforts are a lot better coordinated intelligence wise and operationally,” said Gilberto Navarro, an assistant police chief in Laredo.

Brownsville has seen incidents described as spillover, such as the September 2010 double homicide of two alleged cartel operatives less than a mile from a Border Patrol station and the shutdown the year before of the University of Texas-Brownsville campus after stray bullets from Mexico struck a building, an incident Perry mentions in his book, “Fed Up!”

But the city’s murder rate, anywhere from five to 10 slayings a year, is in line with other cities of its size, said Brownsville officials.

“But now, somebody gets shot, automatically everybody will say it’s cartel related or it’s border violence,” said Salinas, with the economic development council.

Shoring up the Southwest border remains a priority for the administration. The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees international bridges and the Border Patrol, has a budget of $57 billion for 2012, the largest since the agency’s creation in 2003.

And Texas regularly takes the bulk of the department’s Operation Stonegarden grant that provides funds to local law enforcement agencies along the border, $17.77 million of the $54.89 million spread over 18 states this year. The feds, too, have dispatched two drones to patrol the Texas-Mexico border, with a third on the way.

In addition, according to Perry’s office, Texas has spent $400 million in the last five years on border security, including grants for local law enforcement agencies and deploying Texas Rangers to the Rio Grande.

For years, Perry has used the border and illegal immigration as a campaign tactic. But during last week’s debate, he was on the defensive as the other GOP candidates attacked his record, in particular his statements that the border fence is not an effective way to stop smuggling.

All the rhetoric about the border has officials in El Paso fuming.

Bob Cook, president and CEO of El Paso’s Regional Economic Development Corporation (REDCO), said he called Perry’s head of economic development the day after the Sept. 7 debate to again share data about the safety of El Paso. Of the five homicides in that city last year, three were attributed to domestic violence and the remaining two were a murder-suicide.