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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.”