El Paso and Juarez Securing the Sister Cities

National Security

Illustration by Gordon Studer​​​​​

El Paso and Juarez: Securing the Sister Cities

 A mere chain-link fence separates El Paso, Texas, from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico. But, symbolically, there is a vast chasm between the two. South of the fence lies Juarez, ranked from 2008 to 2010 as the most dangerous city in the world, with an average of nine murders per day at the height of the violence. Just inches away is El Paso, named the safest city in the United States for four years straight and rated the best place to raise a family in Texas. The contrast is even more shocking when the visitor realizes that, even with the fence, it’s hard to tell where El Paso ends and Juarez begins. The sun-drenched cityscape sprawls as far as the eye can see and is surrounded by mountains to the south and flat desert to the north.

Despite the dichotomy, each city relies on the other economically. The El Paso-Juarez region is home to factory operations of more than 70 Fortune 500 companies and claims the largest port of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border. The two cities have the largest bilingual, binational work force in the Western Hemisphere, and more than $1 billion of trade occurs in the region each day. Many of the 2.7 million people who live in the area work in the Juarez-based manufacturing plants (called maquiladoras), live in El Paso, and shop and dine in both cities. All of this activity around the border means that, even though crime is down, there are significant security concerns for the many corporations that conduct business in the area.

A Tradeoff in Crime

Violence in Juarez started to increase in 2008, when the Sinaloa drug cartel began pushing its way into the city. The fighting between Sinaloa and the existing Juarez Cartel, along with the economic downturn of 2008, pushed the city into a state of open warfare, according to Shane Dixon, regional security officer with the U.S. Consulate in Juarez.

The years of ruthless warfare in the streets changed the city. Everyone in the region went from home to work then straight home again. Local restaurants and small businesses closed their doors. Entire barrios, or neighborhoods, were abandoned. Larger companies saw huge turnover rates and had to boost their physical security measures just to keep their doors open.

Maquiladoras—Mexican assembly and manufacturing factories often owned by international companies—employ almost 180,000 workers in Juarez alone. The factories themselves were largely exempt from the violence, but faced challenges in keeping their employees safe outside of work. Most large maquiladoras began providing private buses to transport their employees to and from work, although those also became targets of the criminals.

At the height of the violence in 2010, more than 3,100 people were killed, and that’s merely the official body count. Some estimates place the number killed closer to 6,000. But since 2010, Juarez has seen a steady decline in homicides—497 murders were reported in 2013—and officials have become cautiously optimistic about the city’s future.

Some residents in Juarez believe that the waning turf battles between the gangs are contributing to the drop in violence. Others say that ridding the local police of corruption has been pivotal in making the streets safer. Dixon says that there’s no one answer to the decrease in crime, but collectively they are making a huge difference in Juarez.

“There has been this massive shift in the feelings of security with the population,” he explained during an ASIS International CSO Roundtable event in Juarez. “There’s not that fear. During the height of violence, there was this overhanging feeling of fear that was just palpable in the city.”

Dixon said the recent paradigm shift in Juarez makes it feel “almost like a normal city.” But that doesn’t mean the violence has disappeared. On May 26, eight people, including two prominent lawyers, were murdered in Juarez, making it the most violent day thus far in 2014. And although official numbers of murders and kidnappings have decreased, extortions and other less quantifiable crimes are on the rise.

Strength in Collaboration

Due to its location along the border with Juarez, the city of El Paso has no shortage of law enforcement and security officials on the streets. Not only is there a strong showing of local law enforcement, including the El Paso Police Department (EPPD), the local sheriff’s office, and a number of private security organizations, but federal agencies have a strong presence in the city as well. For example, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents work on both sides of the border and interact directly with El Paso’s local law enforcement.

Despite the hodgepodge of agencies and their varying roles and functions in the city, strong partnerships, cooperation, and communication among the organizations have made El Paso one of the safest cities in America. Jessie Ruelas, vice president of Sun City Security Services and board president of the Associated Security Services and Investigators of the State of Texas (ASSIST), says the private security industry works hand-in-hand with police and federal agents to stay abreast of local crime trends.

For example, criminals impersonating police officers to rob victims is a rising problem, Ruelas explained in his El Paso office. In this common ruse, criminals dress up as officers, pull over speeding cars, and tell the drivers they can pay their ticket then and there to avoid the courts.

Information about these crimes is disseminated throughout the agencies, allowing them to work together to fight the issue. Even during active investigations, multiple entities will work together to support each other, Ruelas explains. “As long as there is communication that’s clarified, and we know our boundaries and when to deter from crossing that line to where it doesn’t offend or tarnish an investigation, we help each other,” he says. “There is no dissension among the ranks here.”

The law enforcement entities also work closely with local and state leadership for a well-rounded approach to security in the city. For example, after private security companies told the local government about the problem with police impersonators, legislators worked with law enforcement agencies to write and pass legislation making it a felony to impersonate an officer, which has greatly reduced incidents.

Also unique to the city is the role of the private security sector in working with law enforcement and border agents. Ruelas says that private security officers are a crime deterrent and a tool used by the other agencies to help thwart criminals who smuggle contraband across the border, gather information for investigations, patrol the city at night, and respond to alarms.

Also, under the U.S. Department of Public Safety, certified security officers in El Paso are able to carry out some of the same duties as law enforcement officials, including conducting search and seizure operations, carrying firearms on the job, and detaining criminals.

Private security officers are sent to academies to become certified, and they often train with police and federal agents, Ruelas explains. And beyond assisting the other agencies, security officers tap in to the community to become “the eyes and ears of the police,” he notes.

ASSIST works with the local hotel and motel association, child advocacy centers, and other community outreach programs to better understand what’s happening in the community. Members go to local high schools to discuss community safety and crime trends and are key participants in neighborhood watch programs.

The citizens of El Paso are also an important part of the collaborative approach to safety and security, Ruelas emphasizes. Officials work closely with members of a community advisory board to understand residents’ concerns. EPPD also has a program that allows citizens to visit police academies or ride along in patrol cars to better understand how officers function on a day-to-day basis.

Ruelas acknowledges that this type of successful partnership among such a wide array of organizations is rare. He’s been in the private security business for 14 years, and he says he’s never seen such strong collaboration. A combination of new local leadership and the urgent need to keep El Paso safe during the height of the drug wars across the border facilitated communication and cooperation, he explains.

“Everyone must be respected and trusted in their roles here,” he says. “It’s not just an industry; we’re not making money here. We’re protecting lives. We’re serving our community; we’re serving people. That’s what we’re here to do.”

Business on the Border

Collaboration is a factor in corporate security across the border as well. Arturo Vazquez, regional security manager for General Electric, has seen the changes in the maquiladora industry and the city of Juarez as a whole over the past five years. As the head of the security council for the Maquiladora Association in Juarez (AMAC), Vazquez communicates with the association’s 170 member companies about the latest threats and security concerns. He also meets frequently with state and federal police departments to foster cooperation between the maquiladoras and law enforcement.

Vazquez says that the maquiladoras were never a direct target of the drug cartels, but from 2009 to 2011 companies suffered from the struggling economy, the fringe violence from the drug war, and opportunistic criminals.

“The police department focused their energy on trying to control the war among the cartels, so they didn’t have enough resources to pay attention to the lesser crimes,” Vazquez explains. “Some…criminals took advantage of that and they started extorting people through the phone and tried to kidnap people.”

Since then, laws have been passed in Chihuahua to deter organized crime—felons found guilty of kidnapping or extortion are handed a lifetime prison sentence. Vazquez says this has helped discourage that type of crime in Juarez.

“People are keeping a very close eye on what’s going on and they’re pushing the government to make sure that local, state, and federal police have patrols throughout the city just to make sure we don’t go back to those years [2009-2011],” Vazquez says.

Still, businesses in the region face a constantly evolving threat landscape, and Vazquez and AMAC emphasize preventive programs to stay ahead of the violence. And for maquiladoras in Juarez, security doesn’t end at the factory gates.

“Our corporate offices know that the best asset we have is our people,” Vazquez says. “They invest a lot of money making sure they’re going to be okay. We concentrate a lot of the security energy trying to protect them.”

During a tour of Johnson & Johnson’s Independencia plant, regional security manager Pete Ocegueda, CPP,  discussed the steps he and his security team take to protect employees both inside and outside of the facility. Johnson & Johnson has three factories in Juarez and hundreds of shift workers who come and go on a daily basis. 

“Our people feel safer here than they do at home. That, to me, says I’m doing my job, and it’s very important that they feel that way,” Ocegueda said.

A cinderblock wall, CCTV, and integrated access control systems provide a fortified perimeter at the Independencia factory, but Ocegueda emphasized the programs in place that alert employees to potential security concerns both at the facility and in their communities.

“When we started to build our security program in 2007, one of the issues was sharing security awareness with our employees,” says Kevin Donovan, vice president of global security for Johnson & Johnson. “We developed a broad program in English and Spanish, using television monitors to send out specific messages to our associates about what’s going on in their neighborhoods. We can protect them while they’re here, but trying to protect our employees in their own community is a significant challenge.”

Keeping the city’s maquiladora workers safe is a group effort. Ocegueda says he stays in close contact with AMAC, local chapters of ASIS International, law enforcement liaisons, and the U.S. Consulate to network, benchmark, and communicate with other security professionals. These relationships are necessary for finding solutions to security concerns, especially in an emergency.

When a Johnson & Johnson employee was the victim of an extortion call earlier this year, he immediately went to the company’s security liaison for help. According to Ocegueda, criminals called the employee’s home and told his 10-year-old son to leave the house or they’d kill his parents. They then contacted the employee at work, saying that they had kidnapped his son and that the boy would only be released if they were wired money. Sure enough, when relatives went to the house, the boy wasn’t there—because he had run away in fear. The law enforcement liaison worked with police, who found the boy hiding in a nearby park and brought him to the factory to be reunited with his family. 

Networking and liaisons don’t just come in handy only during a crisis; they help prevent crime as well. Twice a year, in April and November, maquiladora employees get bonuses under Mexican law, and with more money comes more crime. Vazquez says criminals know when factory workers get the extra cash and stake out shopping malls and ATMs looking for victims to rob.

To deter this, AMAC works with local law enforcement and maquiladoras to raise awareness of the issue. Police put in a lot of overtime patrolling the city during the weeks following the bonuses, Vazquez says, and maquiladoras give their employees tips to protect themselves.

“We tell them to go to banks to withdraw money, not ATMs, and to only withdraw the amount they need,” he says. “If they are mugged, we tell them not to resist and to just surrender to the criminals so they won’t get hurt. We’ll try to help them get their money back. A lot of times, banks have insurance on the money and can reimburse someone if they’re robbed, so we try to promote that.”

Creating a secure work environment takes cooperation from the entire company, not just the security division. Balancing company standards with rules that keep employees safe has been a challenge, but all security decisions are made in partnership with the company’s business leaders, Donovan explains.

“We want people on the road and out of here by 5:30 at night,” he says. “How do you do that when someone’s doing a project and you have to say, ‘you’ve got to go now’? It’s this constant challenge of how we do business, how we protect our site, and how we protect our associates. That dialogue is always ongoing.”

Shelley Stewart, executive director of power generator equipment manufacturer Cummins, said that it’s important to find a balance between corporate business leaders and local security managers. Cummins employs a layered security approach at its Juarez manufacturing plant that allows local security managers to collaborate with those in the corporate office to keep abreast of regional security trends.

“We reorganized and said the people in the region are really in charge,” Stewart explained at the Cummins maquiladora in Juarez. “We are holding them accountable for delivering security. They are the decision makers. What we do at corporate is provide all of the tools that they need to get their job done.”

Stewart said that this practice actually stemmed from a similar business process to analyze regional sales strategies based on feedback from local business directors. Today, Cummins conducts yearly meetings between corporate security employees and regional and local security managers to determine a regional security strategy. 

After five years of turmoil, security professionals in the region say they feel they are able to stay current on threats to facilities and the community. Donovan says that his security team has developed “a wait-and-see attitude,” but he thinks the next challenge will come when people feel too safe and won’t take as many precautions to protect themselves, which Donovan notes is a good problem to have.

Vazquez says the city’s ability to bounce back from its most dangerous years is a good sign: “Colombia had a very similar problem like we had here in Juarez, but it took them 10 years to recuperate from that. We did it in less than three.”

Things are looking up for Juarez. Homicide numbers continue to drop. Investors are returning. The economy is growing. Estimates from the Chihuahua State Economics Ministry show that, by the end of this year, investment by manufacturing companies in Juarez will top out at $750 million, creating more than 30,000 new jobs in the city.

Security officials, businesses, and the citizens who have lived in Juarez for generations are ready to shed the city’s macabre distinction of being the most dangerous city in the world and showcase the opportunity in the region.

“Juarez is not a violent city, but a city that is coming out of a dark place and doing a lot better,” Vazquez says. “Juarez used to be a city that didn’t sleep—there was nightlife going all night until the morning. During the bad years, that stopped a little bit. But now you go out on the weekend and you see the nightclubs, restaurants, and bars packed with people. Even the people from El Paso are coming back to Juarez to enjoy the nightlife.”