JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) — On the day Cruz Perez Cuellar sat down with journalists to outline how he plans to run Juarez in the next three years, a local newspaper’s headline emphasized his greatest challenge.
“Ex-cop ran migrant smuggling gang!”
Crime and police corruption aren’t just a concern for the 1.5 million residents of this border city, but also for people in the United States who would like to see a reduction in the flow of illegal drugs and unauthorized migrants being sent off by transnational criminal organizations.
The latest operational update from U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows migrant encounters rose for a third consecutive month, to more than 180,000 in May and more than 530,000 in the past three months. Seizures of heroin, meth and the oft-deadly fentanyl continue to increase, with the latter already surpassing last year’s total haul by 56 percent.
South of the border, Juarez recorded 146 murders in May. That’s an average of 4.7 per day.
A Juarez native with family in El Paso, Texas, this city’s new mayor-elect is aware of how crime transcends borders. With the help of a powerful friend in Mexico City, he believes he can meet this challenge. In an exclusive interview Friday with Border Report and KTSM 9 News, he put forth a few possible solutions.
One is to flood this border city with closed-circuit television cameras atop buildings, bridges and street corners. The video feed will be monitored at the year-old CERI, a U.S.-style 911 dispatch and command center.
Local authorities say they’ve installed 600 such cameras already. But, as the 2020 murder of women’s rights activist Isabel Cabanillas in front of a building with a security camera showed, many don’t work.
Perez Cuellar, who takes over Juarez City Hall in September, said he’s going to find out how many cameras are operational and make sure 2,000 are in place by the time he leaves office.
“If you do not invest in technology, you’re not going to be successful. So, we are going to invest a lot of money so people can feel safe and come. We want the economy of Juarez to grow and we need our neighbors in El Paso to come,” he said.
Police corruption is another issue that can’t be put off. Several leaders of La Linea and other criminal organizations are former lawmen. And, as the newspaper headline alluded to, former cops are also getting into migrant smuggling now.
Perez Cuellar says his police officers can expect U.S.-style integrity checks and a Mexican mechanism known as “trust exams.” The latter includes anything from random drug tests and polygraph exams to a credit check and a home visit to make sure they’re not living in mansions or driving Lamborghinis, so to speak.
“We have to get the best candidates and train them well […] We will ensure, periodically, that they are still worthy of our trust,” he said.
Poverty, the root of the crime
The 2020 census established that Juarez is a wealthy city by Mexican standards. It has a strong middle-class and young engineers trained at local universities and at the University of Texas at El Paso. However, it also has more than 430,000 living in poverty.
One-third of the city is poorly lit neighborhoods where crime is rife and the drug cartels are pushing marijuana and crystal meth consumption. The escape plan there for many men and women is to take two to three buses a day to the U.S.-run assembly plants on the eastern part of the city.
Perez Cuellar, a Mexican senator from President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s MORENA Party, said he plans to “knock on AMLO’s door” many times to address the poverty and other social issues afflicting Juarez.
He wants money to light up streets so the men and women who work at the maquiladoras are not assailed at bus stops at dawn or shaken down when they come back to their homes at night.
“The working people of Juarez are the ones sustaining our economy. More than 60 percent of formal employment in the city is tied to the maquiladoras. We have to work for them because they work for us,” he said.
And while the U.S.-run plants have brought 330,000 jobs here, most of them are on the east side of the city, while low-income settlements continue to grow on the west.
Perez Cuellar said he’s about to start talks with officials and investors from southern New Mexico who want to expand operations or bring more maquiladoras to the Santa Teresa, N.M.-San Jeronimo, Mexico corridor.
“We want to talk to Santa Teresa. They have many economic plans for growth and we are going to be their allies. We are going to work together and anything we can do to make more business in Juarez, in El Paso, in Santa Teresa, we will do it,” he said. “We want more investments in our city and along the border. We have to work together. We have to see each other not as two countries or two cities, but as partners.”
The future Juarez mayor said he’ll monitor ongoing situations, such as the coronavirus pandemic, the possible lifting of the non-essential border land restrictions and other issues, in the next few months so he can be ready to address them come September.
The senator’s path to City Hall was a rocky one. He dropped out of the Chihuahua governor’s race after sitting Gov. Javier Corral linked him to alleged payoffs made by Cesar Duarte, the jailed former governor of the state, to various politicians.
But the voters of Juarez overwhelmingly elected him over the conservative National Action Party. That may have had to do with MORENA’s support among the working-class population of Juarez or with Perez’s name-recognition. He’s a two-time state chairman of PAN, a senator now representing MORENA and a perennial behind-the-scenes political player.
Asked about the mudslinging, Perez smiled and said, “that was the campaign. The election is over. It’s history. We want to have a good relationship with everybody.”