Border divides 2 cities, violence from civility

EL PASO, Texas — El Paso and its neighbor across the Rio Grande, Ciudad Juarez, are like reverse photographic images of each other.

One is a model of civic order, the other an urban war zone just a few hundred yards away across the Mexican border.

In Juarez, people have been lined up against a wall and shot to death. Victims' limbs have been cut off. Bodies have been left to rot in the torrid streets or buried in shallow desert graves. Gun battles break out in broad daylight, with children and other innocents caught in the crossfire. Residents are afraid to leave their homes.

In El Paso, Friday nights in the fall are dedicated to high school football, and a Christmas tree lighting and holiday parade downtown draw thousands on a chilly December night.

A grisly war involving Mexico's ruthless drug cartels has killed as many as 4,000 of Juarez's nearly 1.5 million people over the past two years, making it one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

El Paso, with a population of more than 600,000, has had fewer than 30 murders in that same period and was recently named America's second-safest city of its size, behind Honolulu, by Congressional Quarterly.

How has El Paso managed to escape the mayhem going on across the border? The chief explanation, according to experts on the drug trade, is that the traffickers have kept their base of operations on the Mexican side and do very little business in El Paso itself.

Many people in El Paso are grateful and brag about the low crime rate in this corner of far West Texas.

"We've had this designation... since the beginning of the new millennium," City Council member Steve Ortega said. "It's been a long-standing sense of pride that now is even more remarkable, given what's taken place in Ciudad Juarez."

While El Paso residents enjoy the Friday night lights and holiday outings, their Mexican neighbors live under siege.

"Here in Juarez, I'm in my house and hear shots every day and I hear ambulances and I wonder who just died," said Humberto Rico, who works at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez and marched with thousands of others in a recent protest against the bloodshed. "This is every day. We are all scared. We don't leave the house — not me or my children — not to eat or to go to the movies because there are shots all the time."