US, Mexico Unite to Take Bite out of Crime

Article excerpt

When an El Paso police officer recently crossed the border to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to attend a funeral, he did something that could have caused an international incident.

He forgot he had left his three hunting rifles in the trunk.

Upon inspection at the Mexican checkpoint, the guns were found. Carrying guns into Mexico is illegal, and in most places a high degree of suspicion among law-enforcement officials on the border would have very likely meant big trouble for the officer and reverberations in Mexico City and Washington. Last November, a US Border Patrol agent assigned to the Arizona border was fired after he pursued a suspect a few feet into Mexico. "A year ago, they'd have locked our guy up, but in this case we got him back in 15 minutes - car, guns, and all," says El Paso Police Chief Russ Leach. "There are dividends when you extend a hand of friendship and cooperation across the {Rio Grande} river." In a model of "friendship and cooperation" that has won the praise of Clinton administration drug czar Barry McCaffrey, the police in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez are working together at previously unheard-of levels. The highlights are more training and exposure to new law enforcement methods for Mexico, and better access to crime-fighting information for El Paso. The result is better law enforcement in what is in reality a transnational city of 1.8 million people (600,000 on the US side). And it may even be a factor in the steady drop in crime over recent years in El Paso, the nation's 17th largest city. "When I came here, I realized the key to success in this job would be working with Juarez," says Chief Leach, who arrived three years ago from his post as a captain in the Los Angeles Police Department. "We can't afford to be distant and suspicious like Washington and Mexico City. We get along because we have to." Pragmatic policing That pragmatism reflects Leach's realization that simply focusing on El Paso would undoubtedly mean trouble ahead. As other US border cities have experienced spillover violence from Mexico's drug wars, El Paso has seen crime drop. So far anyway, Juarez's violent drug gangs - immersed in a turf war since the death last August of Juarez cartel kingpin Amado Carrillo Fuentes - have not infiltrated gangs in El Paso, Leach says. Last year El Paso counted 24 homicides, down from 30 in 1996 and 47 in 1993. With double the population, Ciudad Juarez registered about 10 times as many: 249 last year, up slightly from 246 in 1996. Car theft also fell about 20 percent last year in El Paso, one improvement that Leach says can be directly linked to increased transborder cooperation. "The information that now flows much more easily across the border about stolen vehicles or groups involved in this activity on both sides has had an impact," he says. Cross-border assaults - most frequently by Mexicans attacking motorists or pedestrians along the border in El Paso and then fleeing back to safety in Juarez - have also plummeted as the two police forces adopted a radio communication system. …