EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) - El Paso mayor John F. Cook was in his office when bullets from a raging cartel gun battle in neighboring Ciudad Juarez struck city hall, smashing a window and knocking a picture off the wall in an assistant’s office.
“The last time we had that in El Paso was a hundred years ago in the Mexico Revolution,” Cook said, pointing to a shopping mall a few hundred yards away in Mexico where recently the machine guns rasped again on the city’s doorstep, felling a Mexican federal policeman.
The U.S.-Mexican sister cities have a long and storied relationship marked by violence down the years, although their fortunes have never been so starkly divergent as at the close of this year, one in which corruption and a failing justice system hit Mexico hard.
Last month El Paso, a sprawling southwest Texas city of 700,000 residents, was named the safest city of its size in the United States for the first time, and it is on track to close out 2010 with just five murders.
But just over the shallow concrete trench of the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juarez, more than 3,000 people have been tortured, shot and blasted to death in gang warfare this year, clinching its grim reputation as the world’s most dangerous city.
The shocking contrast is one of the most puzzling aspects of security on the U.S.- Mexico border, where the fear of drug anarchy spilling over from Mexico makes Americans and their politicians fretful.
When Cook meets colleagues from other cities, they ask how El Paso has ridden out the chaos in the industrial powerhouse on its doorstep, noting just a handful of killings that include a murder suicide and a killing at a bar at around closing time — routine crimes for any U.S. city.
“People say, ‘how can that be? There’s got to be a mistake,’” says Cook.
More than 30,000 people have been slaughtered across Mexico since President Felipe Calderon took office four years ago and vowed to crush the powerful cartels, even as Mexico’s justice system came under fire for shoddy police work, corruption in the courts and the ease of jailbreaks.
Ciudad Juarez began its slide into the abyss in early 2008 when the Sinaloa cartel, led by Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, took on Juarez cartel rivals over turf, littering the city of low-wage export assembly plants with its daily toll of gunshot victims and mutilated corpses. Few crimes are ever solved.
El Paso police say that chaos is kept at bay at the border by a hefty presence of U.S. federal police and investigative agencies in the city, who work closely with state and local police to solve crimes and bring prosecutions.
“Law enforcement and the judicial system north of the border is more efficient (than in Mexico), people are held accountable for their crimes” here, said Darrel Petry of the El Paso Police Department, by way of explanation.
Crime watchers say keeping a low profile in El Paso also suits the business-minded cartels who use the isolated Texas city as an entry point for tons of marijuana, cocaine and other drugs bound for a U.S. markets worth $30-$50 billion a year by some estimates.
“To kill people in El Paso is bad for business, and to kill them in Juarez is business,” said author Charles Bowden, whose book “Murder City” chronicles the slaughter in Juarez.
On the rare occasions that the cartels take care of business in the El Paso area, they do it with chilling efficiency, as one case last year illustrated.
In September 2009, three gunmen snatched Sergio Saucedo from his home in Horizon City, in El Paso County, binding him with duct tape and hauling him into the back of a sport utility vehicle as his wife and a group of school children looked on.
His mutilated corpse turned up days later in Ciudad Juarez, with its hands cut off — in what investigators believe was a brutal cartel punishment for stealing a drug load.
During the Mexican Revolution in 1911, stray bullets reportedly killed five people in El Paso and wounded 15, some while they watched the fighting in Ciudad Juarez from city roof tops.
Aside from a few rounds that have struck city hall and a building at the University of Texas at El Paso campus this year, violence has not spilled over the border’s concrete and steel fences, although residents face mortal danger when they step across the river into Ciudad Juarez.
At least 37 Americans have died violently in the sister city since January. Among the dead were UTEP business school students Manuel Acosta and Eder Diaz — Americans who lived in Ciudad Juarez — gunned down in a hail of 36 bullets when they returned there after classes last month.
And in a harrowing crime in March, U.S. Consulate employee Lesley Enriquez and her husband Arthur Redelfs, who worked at the El Paso jail, were strafed as they drove home after attending a children’s party south of the border, leaving their orphaned daughter unharmed but terrified in the back of the car.
As residents struggled to come to terms with the killings, it fell to Gomecindo Lopez, a commander at the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, to attend Lesley’s autopsy and break news to her family that the couple were expecting a child.
“That was one of the toughest things I had to do ... They asked me ‘was she pregnant?’ I said ‘yes, and it was a boy,’” Lopez said.
For a moment, as he speaks, it seems that raw grief is the spillover that swamps both cities.
“It’s terrible. It’s just one family, and there are thousands, thousands like that.”
Editing by Jerry Norton