"Murders Up, but El Paso Still Safe, Lawmakers Say" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
EL PASO — After four years running as the safest city of its size in the nation, El Paso will close out 2014 with an 80 percent increase in murders.
But the jump from 11 murders in 2013 to 20 so far this year doesn't mean the city is unsafe, analysts insist, and law enforcement officers say spillover crime from Mexico is not to blame.
The increase is consistent with recent trends, said U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, one of a group of border Democrats that has for years fought back against claims that Texas border cities are unsafe because of violence in Mexico.
“We’re in between as low as five [in 2010], which is remarkable, and as high as 23 [in 2012] in the last four years,” he said. “This [increase] should and does catch our attention. It’s concerning but it’s not alarming.”
O’Rourke often touts the “safest city” title in interviews and congressional hearings on border security and immigration. (The designation is determined annually by CQ Press, which analyzes crime data provided to the FBI.) The increase in murders shouldn't stain El Paso’s image, he said, because major crimes that the FBI designates as “Part 1 crimes,” including rape, aggravated assault, robbery and major theft, are down in El Paso by 6 percent.
Last month, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said his district and the Rio Grande Valley are safer than most U.S. cities.
“The murder rate is actually higher in Washington, D.C. where I work, than in my hometown of Laredo, Texas or other cities on the border like McAllen,” he said in a statement. “These statistics should help to dispel some of the misinformation about the border region that hurts our local economy and makes it harder to hire doctors and encourage investment.”
O’Rourke declined to speculate whether the increase would be used to paint the border in a bad light, especially during the current controversies over immigration and border security. But he said perceptions of the region are hardly steeped in truth.
“It’s rare that critics of the border, or those who engage in fear mongering over the border, ever deal with facts,” he said.
A spokesman with the El Paso Police Department said none of the murder cases have been tied to organized crime from Mexico. Some were acts of domestic violence, including a recent murder-suicide on the city’s east side. There have also been homicides this year tied to soldiers from Fort Bliss, the city’s U.S. Army base, and random gang violence.
O’Rourke conceded that on paper, the 80 percent increase appears dramatic. But the fact that El Paso still has one of the lowest murder rates for a city of more than 800,000 people is encouraging.
Victor Manjarrez, the associate director of the National Center for Border Security and Immigration at the University of Texas at El Paso, said crime statistics change everywhere, and El Paso isn't any different.
“You’re going to see an ebb and flow. Like it or not, we live in a major city,” he said. “I think what you’re starting to see is that the demographics are starting to change in El Paso. I wouldn’t tie what’s happening in Mexico to El Paso.”
El Paso County’s population increased to about 827,700 in 2013 from 800,600 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
As El Paso grapples with the increase, its sister city across the Rio Grande, Ciudad Juárez, could celebrate its lowest homicide rate in years. As of Dec. 13, there were 424 murders there. In 2013 there were 535.
Though still high by most accounts, the figures represent a dramatic dip from the death tolls when Ciudad Juárez was in the throes of cartel-related violence. In 2010, the same year El Paso had five murders, Ciudad Juárez had more than 3,500, according to press reports and government statistics compiled by Molly Molloy, a researcher at New Mexico State University who runs Fronteralist.org.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at El Paso has been a corporate sponsor of the Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.