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Quiet border towns don’t live up to their notoriety

On the other side of the metal barrier that separates this town from its namesake in Mexico, there have already been more than 120 homicides this year, including the assassination of the assistant police chief.

In this sleepy town of 21,000, there hasn’t been a killing in three years.

“If you look at it statistically, if you look at the community as a whole, it’s very, very safe,” said Police Chief Jeffrey Kirkham.

Despite the drug war that has claimed thousands of lives in Mexico, communities along the U.S. side of the 2,000-mile southern border have shown virtually no increase in crime for several years.

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There are dozens of towns, counties and cities along the border and no single measure of crime along the whole frontier. But a review of crime statistics for the largest communities and interviews with law enforcement officials from Texas to California show that, despite a widespread perception that the violence in Mexico has spread north, U.S. border communities are fairly secure. Some have even become safer.

“It’s not spilling over to our side of the border,” said William Lansdowne, police chief in San Diego, where violent crime has dropped 8% in the last three years. “We police it really well.”

At a Senate hearing last month, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano — who, as Arizona governor, called for the deployment of National Guard troops to control the border — said the border was “as secure now as it has ever been.”

That’s not to say that border towns like Nogales are Mayberry RFD. The police tend to the same car accidents and domestic disputes as many small-town departments, but they also spend time chasing down 25-pound bales of marijuana that smugglers hoist over the border fence.

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Plenty of tension remains along the border as well. Highly armed Mexican drug cartels continue to smuggle narcotics through the vast desert, especially in lightly populated southern Arizona. There are occasional eruptions of violence, such as the slaying of a Border Patrol agent tracking illegal immigrants outside San Diego last year and the fatal shooting of an Arizona rancher in March, possibly by a drug smuggler.

The latter incident is often cited by supporters of Arizona’s controversial new anti-illegal immigration law. Opponents of the law say it could lead to widespread racial profiling, but Republican Gov. Jan Brewer voiced the views of many of the measure’s supporters when she signed it into law last month.

“We cannot delay while the destruction happening south of our international border creeps its way north,” she said.

At a recent forum in San Diego, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin said politicians and the media exaggerated the dangers along the border.

“I think people on the border are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the kind of political reaction that can generate a law like the Arizona law,” Bersin said. “People on the border are periodically the subject of media attention that focuses on a border that most of us instinctively know is not out of control.”

Laredo, Texas, has had two homicides this year, neither of which was related to the drug war across the border. Police spokesman Joe Baeza said the city had a hard time convincing people from outside the area of the relative calm.

“We get so many phone calls from people all over the country worried to come down here and do business because they think [the drug war] is happening on our side — and it’s not,” Baeza said. He added that Laredo saw a rise in violence earlier in the decade, but additional federal agents and smart policing stamped it out.

“The law enforcement community are really busting their backs to make sure that doesn’t happen on this side, and the proof is in the pudding,” Baeza said.

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The Mexican border metropolis of Ciudad Juarez now has a higher murder rate than Baghdad as drug cartels battle for turf. Its neighbor on the U.S. side, El Paso, has long been one of the nation’s safest big cities, with more than 600,000 people. Last year it was ranked second-safest behind Honolulu.

“Life in El Paso is good,” said police spokesman Michael Baranyay, citing the one homicide the city has logged this year. “I don’t think their issues over there are the same. They’re not trying to get territory over here, they’re trying to get territory over there.”

In Yuma County, on the southwestern edge of Arizona, smugglers used to shoot at sheriff’s deputies from across the Colorado River. But an influx of border patrol agents — there are now 18,500 on the entire border, more than ever before — chased crime away, said Capt. Eben Bratcher.

“It’s tapered off to close to nothing now,” he said.

There may be a cost to success, according to those who fight crime here.

“As the ports of entry and some of the other choke points have locked down, that’s raised the stakes,” said Lt. Jeff Palmer, head of the Pima County Sheriff’s Border Crime Unit, which patrols the deserts between Tucson and Mexico. “People are more willing to commit violent acts to get their materials across.”

That may be what’s happening in Cochise County, a swath of rugged desert in the southeastern corner of the state that has been a favorite path for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers since the federal government fortified the California border in the 1990s.

Robert Krentz, a devout Catholic known for giving food and water to migrants who crossed his ranch near the border, was found shot to death in March. Footprints from the scene led into Mexico.

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Crime statistics have been flat in Cochise County for a decade. But Carol Capas, a spokeswoman for the county sheriff’s office, said that obscured a rise in border violence.

Burglaries in the rural area where Krentz lived have nearly doubled in the last year. Nearby, one man was tied up at gunpoint when he went to help apparently stranded migrants. “The crime is spilling over,” she said. “I don’t know that we’re going to catch a break here.”

When Kirkham left law enforcement agencies in Phoenix’s suburbs to become chief in Nogales, his colleagues thought he was crazy and entering a war zone. Now Kirkham laughs. The dark side of immigration and drug trafficking is more visible near Phoenix, 180 miles north, where migrants are often held for ransom by smugglers.

“All those issues don’t hang by the border,” Kirkham said. The smugglers “want to get away from it as fast as possible.”

Indeed, the cartels have an interest in the peace and quiet of the U.S. side of the border — sometimes they use it as a safe zone for their operations. For several months, Kirkham said, his department monitored three suspected hit men from Mexico who stayed in a posh suburb just north of town, journeying back to Nogales’ southern neighbor, apparently to perform assassinations.

The men, who were eventually arrested in Mexico, were on their best behavior in the U.S., he said.

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Marosi in San Diego contributed to this report.


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