From his 10th-floor office in the El Paso City Hall building, Mayor John Cook can see the Rio Grande — the only thing separating his city, one of the safest in the nation, from Juárez, one of the most dangerous in the world. Last week, Cook sat down with the Tribune to talk about how the drug war raging in Juárez affects El Paso: how the national media paints a distorted portrait of his hometown, whether violence is really spilling over and what he thinks of how state and national leaders are addressing the problem of border security.
Cook said he first got a bad taste in his mouth about the media's portrayal of his city when Geraldo Rivera came to town about a year and a half ago. Even as the war between the drug cartels and the Mexican government rages, with dozens of deaths each week, El Paso is consistently ranked among the safest cities of its size in the nation. Reports in the national media, he said, make it tough to get that message across.
Cook disagrees with Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw; Gov. Rick Perry; state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso; and others who say the violence from Mexico's drug wars is spilling over into El Paso. There are the occassional — though rare — cartel-related kidnappings and murders in El Paso. But that's nothing new, Cook said.
There's no question the violence in Juárez is escalating. Cook still crosses into the city every couple of weeks to visit with Juárez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz, but he doesn't visit as often, and he has advised El Pasoans not to venture south if they don't have to.
As Cook has shifted his message on Juárez, the rhetoric from Perry and other state and national leaders about border violence has also hardened. After the shooting in Juarez of three people with ties to the U.S. consulate, Perry implemented a contingency spillover plan and sent more helicopters and police to the border. Perry has been calling for the Obama administration to send National Guard troops and unmanned drones to the Texas border, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson ordered National Guard troops to the border in his state. While Cook said he wouldn't "second-guess" Perry's plans, he doesn't like the idea of soldiers on the border.
Despite at least 4,800 deaths in Juárez since 2008, including about 600 so far this year, and no end in sight to the violence, Cook said the solution is not militarization of the border. The long-term fix, he explained, is U.S. help to end the decades-old culture of corruption in Mexico and to create opportunities for education and work so that thousands in that country don't rely on the drug trade to lift themselves from poverty.