EL PASO, Texas, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- The safety of El Paso, Texas, has become a standard talking point for the Trump administration in its quest to spend $5.7 billion for a wall along the border with Mexico.
"El Paso, Texas, went from one of the most unsafe parts or cities in the United States to one of the safest cities in the United States as soon as they put up the wall," Trump said last week. "They built a wall and fencing apparatus that blocked people. So they went from one of the most dangerous cities to one of the safest cities, all within a very short period of time."
El Paso does have comparatively low crime -- as do many border cities, which are prospering economically. But the dip in crime predates the "wall" and much of the drug smuggling across the border is done by U.S. citizens crossing at legal points of entry.
Before the 'wall': theft, gangs
Longtime El Paso residents say crime has always been low.
"As far back as I can remember, El Paso has always been a safe city," said Maureen Franco, chief federal public defender in the Western District of Texas, where she has practiced for 30 years.
"I moved here in 1989 from Waco where I went to Baylor for law school. Waco had far higher crime and problems than El Paso. I went to the University of Texas for my undergraduate degree and Austin had far higher crime than El Paso did," Franco said in an interview at her downtown office.
"It was a very porous border back then, too. There was a lot of travel from El Paso to Juarez. You didn't need any documentation to come back into the United States pre-9/11."
Most of the city's crime was property crime -- "smash and grab" burglaries -- and gang-related incidents involving local, American-born kids, not undocumented immigrants.
Border security began to change, Franco said, not because of a wall, but because in 1993 Border Patrol Sector Chief Silvestre Reyes came up with the idea of Operation Hold the Line. The strategy involved placing Border Patrol agents in vehicles every 50 yards along the stretch of border between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
As a result, unlawful crossings of mostly day laborers and maids from Juarez came to a halt in downtown El Paso. Either people crossed in the desert and opted to stay in the United States, or they found a way to obtain a visa or U.S. residency to enter one of El Paso's ports of entry.
Desert 'backpackers' rare
Hold the Line also changed how illegal drugs came across the border, Franco said.
"The vast majority of drug cases I used to see when I first got here were what we used to call backpackers," Franco said, "guys crossing in the desert with a backpack of drugs."
But with agents every 50 yards, and technological advances in border security, Franco said backpackers are rare.
"Most drug smugglers are U.S. citizens," Franco said. "They are men and women, mostly under 30, and running around with the wrong crowd. They also smuggle people, and other contraband. They can be residents of Juarez and El Paso. It's still a fairly porous border since most people have family on both sides."
U.S. citizens -- moving across the four international bridges -- are involved in every crime the wall is trying to prevent, she said.
At the New York trial of Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, a key witness testified that the Sinaloa Cartel specifically recruited U.S. citizens in El Paso to smuggle drugs across the border at ports of entry.
El Paso's "wall" -- an 18-foot-tall steel fence -- was built in 2008 to replace a shorter, flimsier chain-link fence known as the "tortilla curtain" because people could just lift a section to get under it.
Last year, under an executive order from Trump, construction began on a new steel bollard wall to replace the 2008 fencing. At a news conference, El Paso's Border Patrol Chief Aaron Hull said the upgrade was needed to "enforce the rule of law and the safety of residents on both sides of the border."
Franco said it's a waste; that patrols and technology work better than a physical barrier.
"I don't think the wall has turned El Paso into a safe place," she said. "If there is anything that people complain about with regard to crime, it is the same refrain as it was in 1989: people breaking into your car. It's just different what they are taking. It used to be radios, now it's iPads."
According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, in 2017 there were 21 murders in El Paso County, putting its homicide rate at 2.5 per 100,000 inhabitants. The rate of violent crime was 356.3 per 100,000 people -- lower than the national rate of 382.9. El Paso's population was 847,071 in 2017.
Violent crimes, as reported by El Paso's Police Department to the FBI for the Uniform Crime Report, began falling in 1997, with their steeper decline settling in around 2002. The crime decline predates El Paso's border wall construction, which began in 2006 and ended in 2008.
During that period, crime went up. In 2007 there were 2,574 violent crimes reported to the city's police and in 2008 there were 2,825. Violent crime has mostly stayed at under 3,000 incidents for the past 11 years.
Border cities prospering
Lower crime is a characteristic of many border cities, said Everard Meade, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, California.
"Border cities are younger," he said. "They haven't been around long enough to have these intractable, multigenerational problems of violence that places like Baltimore, or St. Louis or Detroit have."
Unemployment figures are low, too, for border cities, in what Meade referred to as the era of North American integration beginning in the late 1960s.
"They've been growing. They've seen an expansion of the middle class. They have seen the arrival of new industries and they have got a bunch of new infrastructure, like the expansion of the university campuses. If you look at what University of Texas at El Paso was 20 years ago and now, it is unrecognizable."
Last week, UTEP received the prestigious R1 status, placing it on the top tier of U.S. universities in terms of research.
That prosperity contributes to safety, more than a barrier, Meade said.
"The border wall in El Paso just overlaps with the overall decline of crime in the United States that began in the early 1990s and has continued more or less unabated to the present."