El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles is the top law enforcement official in one of America's safest big cities: El Paso has seen just one murder this year. Yet just across the city's and the nation's border, in Juárez, more than 6,000 people have been murdered since 2008.
Wiles — who was El Paso's police chief before he was elected sheriff, expanding his jurisdiction to the entire county, in 2009 — took a few minutes last week to talk with the Tribune about what keeps his city so safe, how his job has changed amid the violence in Mexico, and what an immigration law like Arizona's might mean in a place like El Paso.
TT: El Paso has had just one murder in the first six months of this year. That’s not just remarkably low in comparison to what’s going on across the border from you in Juárez — it’s remarkably low for any big city in America. Why is there such low murder rate in El Paso?
WILES: Depending on who you talk to, you’re going to get a lot of different responses about that, because I don’t think anybody really knows the reason or reasons for that, and I suspect, too, that it involves many different factors. ... Between 15 and 25 are your typical high-crime age prone years, and you look at your population for how many people you have in that age range, and ... we haven’t seen an explosion of people in that age range. [Also], because we’re a large military community, a lot of people in that age are actually overseas involved in fighting a war right now in Iraq and Afghanistan. So they’re kind of tied up doing other things.
Some other factors are, in El Paso you have a large number of law enforcement agencies because we are a border community, and I think we are very lucky in that respect. We have all kinds of federal agencies, state, county, local, and we work very well together. We communicate very well together.
Another reason, I think, is that we have this issue of the ability of people who are going to commit major crimes to do it in a foreign country. We know, and we’ve had instances. The last one that actually you could wrap your hands around was the one in Horizon, where the guy was kidnapped [in El Paso] and then murdered in Mexico. I think we have had instances like that, where people might have been connected to the cartel and kidnapped, but we would never know it because they commute back and forth between these two cities, and they happen to disappear and then they get found over in Juárez, and nobody knows what happened to them other than they’re dead in a foreign country.
TT: How has the job of sheriff changed as the violence in Mexico has escalated?
WILES: A couple things have changed. One is we don’t have the working relationships we used to have with our Mexican counterparts. When I was the chief of police, I would from time to time go to Juárez on duty with certain of my staff members and attend certain events over there with the chief of Juárez and other state officials. I even got a tour of one of their video-monitoring facilities they had just installed a few years ago. I would go to D.A.R.E. programs in their schools and watch the kids graduate. I mean, we had a very good working relationship and were able to share information, [about] gang members and sex offenders and auto thefts, things that truly affected both of our communities. ...
Now, of course, I wouldn’t go over there at all. I mean, it’s too dangerous. You never know who the target’s going to be, so that working relationship is pretty much gone as far as the face-to-face stuff. Now that communication typically occurs through the federal level.
The second thing that’s changed, I think, is we are now much more cognizant of what’s going on over there. I get at least one briefing a day from a deputy I have assigned to EPIC [El Paso Intelligence Center] to let me know what’s going on, and sometimes more than one — it just depends on what’s going on. Like when that bombing was going on, I think I got three or four updates on that. And we have to know now. We have to know what’s happening because we have to understand who’s involved, who’s the victim, who’s the attacker, and is there any connection here to El Paso and what should we be looking for? Because we try to stay one step ahead, especially in regard to preventing incidents from occurring over here in our jurisdiction.
TT: People, particularly politicians, talk a lot about spillover violence on the border. What do you consider spillover? Is that something that’s happening now? Has it always happened, or is it something that’s happening more now?
Audio Interview: El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles
WILES: Spillover is kind of a difficult word to define in the context that they’re using it along the border here, because the way I envision it is that it’s always happened. We’ve always had to deal with issues from Mexico. The drug smuggling — that’s been going on since I got into law enforcement in 1982. We were dealing with drug smuggling through the El Paso corridor. It wasn’t as bad as it is today, but certainly it was there. Human trafficking — I think that’s a spillover, and we’ve had to deal with that ever since I can recall, where smugglers are transporting people over here. Sometimes they’re, you know, kept into forced labor and things of that nature. We have underage kids from Mexico working in sexually oriented businesses that are being held against their will. That’s spillover to me. Then we have issues relating to illegal immigrants themselves who become victims of specific state offenses — they’re robbed, they’re raped, we’ve even had homicides. I think that’s spillover.
But, I guess, since this is being used more and more to talk about the violence that’s occurring over there now, we’ve still always had it to some degree. I also suspect, as I mentioned previously, that because it’s much easier for them to commit their crimes in Juárez and get away with it, that there are many times where people are actually kidnapped, transported across there — and I’m talking about people related to the drug trade. They’re kidnapped and they’re taken across the bridge, and they end up dead and people really can’t say where it all began because these are individuals who typically travel between the two countries, and you don’t know. ...
We’ve always had to deal with issues that are coming across the border to one degree or another, but we certainly have not had a spillover of the level of violence that is occurring over there.
WILES: I don’t know all the information that the president’s getting that would necessitate hiring more Border Patrol agents, more customs people and putting additional National Guard troops, because, while they typically are engaged in activities that are intelligence gathering and more of a support role, I’m not sure what they would do here and what assistance they would provide.
You know, I certainly wouldn’t turn it down if the president wants to send National Guard troops out here to assist us in gathering information and supporting our ability to keep our community safe. I just wonder, though, if the resources aren’t misdirected. It seems to me that when you look at El Paso and how safe we are, … the things that we have to deal with day-to-day — keeping in mind that El Paso is a relatively poor community — are many times related to the border, and we’re having to pull our officers out of the field to address those issues. And the burden falls solely on the backs of local taxpayers.
Because we’re here on the border, we’re helping out the federal government. And they do throw grant money at us every once in a while, but that grant money is for specific things, and it runs out, and there’s no long-term vision to how these problems should be addressed. What I would like to see from the federal government — instead of throwing troops, throwing more border patrol, throwing more immigration, throwing us grant money — [are] some solutions to the problems we’re having. Help address that through proper funding and see it through to a conclusion.
I have no idea where those troops are going, but if some of them came here to El Paso, I’m not sure what the net effect would be. It might make people feel safer, and I’m good with that...
TT: A couple of Texas lawmakers have promised to file immigration legislation similar to that controversial measure that they passed in Arizona earlier this year. What do you think would be the practical effect of a law like that in a city like El Paso?
WILES: I don’t think it has one. And I’m not even convinced that the law in Arizona has a practical effect. I think it was done more to draw attention to the frustrations that the citizens in Arizona felt regarding the federal government’s failure to properly secure the border. I think that’s what the Arizona law does: It just kind of reiterates what their authority has always been. The law in Arizona was mainly a message that kind of caused a stir, and it worked well, actually. I mean, it really caused a lot of much-needed debate on this issue, and hopefully we’ll see some movement at the federal level.