Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw

Andy Stone
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

I was down in New Mexico last week, visiting family. We were staying with my wife’s parents on their ranch in the mountains outside a small town in the far southwestern corner of the state.

It’s not much more than an hour’s drive south from the ranch to the border with Mexico, but I definitely wasn’t interested in making that short trip to visit our sunny neighbor to the south (as the tourist brochures used to say).

This close to Mexico, you hear more and more about what’s going on just across the border – and it’s pretty scary.

People here in the States may be running scared from the invading hordes of illegal immigrants. But people in Mexico are running for their lives.

In the Mexican towns along the U.S. border, the rule of law has collapsed.

A week before we got to New Mexico, police in El Paso, Texas, about three hours away, closed down a major city street because of a gun battle raging just across the border in Juarez. Stray bullets landed in El Paso – hot lead (to add a dramatic Wild West touch) doesn’t care about international travel restrictions.

For my wife, who spent her high school years in El Paso, this was more than just eerie, it was terrifying.

El Paso and Juarez are twin cities, separated by the border. (That’s geographic separation, of course. Beyond geography, those two cities are separated by much, much more.)

For her, growing up, Juarez was where kids went drinking on the weekends. They’d head across the border, drink themselves stupid, and then make their way home in the pre-dawn dark.

The only real danger was from the alcohol – and maybe from their parents if they got home too late or too drunk.

Now, with Mexico helpless in the grip of an all-out war between drug-smuggling cartels fighting to control their territories, Juarez has become one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

One weekend in August, according to the El Paso Times, 51 people were murdered in Juarez. Fifty-one people in one weekend, in a city of about 1.3 million.

That is truly terrifying.

And the news is filled with similar stories from all along the border – including, most recently, the horrifying story of 72 would-be emigrants found murdered in a small town about 100 miles south of the border and the murder, a few days later, of the man leading the investigation into that mass killing.

With all this in the news, people in southern New Mexico are understandably on edge about the potential for that violence to spill over the border and flood their state.

Those fears echo what we all heard from Arizona this year when that border state passed its controversial anti-immigration law.

As Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said, after signing that bill, “We cannot sacrifice our safety to the murderous greed of drug cartels. We cannot stand idly by as … kidnappings and violence compromise our quality of life.”

But then – and I am going to note my own surprise at having found this – those fears run right straight into the facts, which are very different.

In a nutshell, there has been very little – virtually no – spillover of that horrendous violence from Mexico into the United States. Not even into the border towns that, like El Paso, are virtual twins with their cross-border counterparts.

While Juarez had 51 murders in one weekend last month, El Paso had just 12 – in all of 2009. (That’s according to FBI crime statistics.) If you want a more direct comparison, Juarez had well over 2,600 murders in 2009.

Juarez has roughly twice the population of El Paso and had more than 200 times as many murders.

Admittedly, El Paso is one of the safer cities in the United States. (By way of comparison, Baltimore, with a slightly smaller population, had 234 murders in 2008.)

One of the safest cities in the United States is right across the border from one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

On the other hand, everybody knows that El Paso is a bizarrely peaceful city because of the high concentration of lithium in the municipal water supply (you knew that, didn’t you?). So let’s take a look at Phoenix, the biggest, meanest city in Arizona. (That’s the state where the governor is refusing to “stand idly by” while violent crime runs rampant).

Phoenix is definitely much nastier than El Paso. It has two and a half times the population and roughly 10 times as many murders. But still, even in that tough town, murders dropped by about 25 percent from 2008 to 2009 – from 167 to 122, according to the FBI. And violent crime overall dropped by almost 20 percent.

Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute (not exactly a squishy-soft liberal bunch) wrote in an article in the Washington Times (not a squishy-soft liberal publication), “According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Justice, the violent crime rate in Arizona in 2008 was the lowest it has been since 1971.”

Griswold also pointed out that compared to “similar-sized metro areas, such as Boston, Dallas, Detroit, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., Phoenix had the lowest violent crime rate in 2008.”

Hard as it may be to believe, immigrants – and most particularly illegal immigrants – seem to reduce crime.

As the Cato Institute’s Griswold sees it, “The large majority of immigrants who enter the United States, legally and illegally, come here to work and save and support their families. Once inside the country, they want to stay out of trouble and not jeopardize their opportunity to earn income in a our relatively free and open economy.”

Strange as it may seem, that terrible violence in our broken neighbor to the south is not spilling over the border.

Yes, there have been murders in this country tied to those drug gangs – and every murder is a tragedy – but we’re not being invaded by murderers.

And, no, I’m still not planning a vacation trip to sunny Juarez.

Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is