Courts & Crime

Is Mexico's drug violence spilling over into Texas?

AUSTIN, Texas — From his office window, El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen has a clear view of Ciudad Juarez, El Paso's blood-drenched sister city just across the Rio Grande in northern Mexico.

The carnage that has claimed 4,700 lives over the past two years has been confined primarily to Juarez. But Allen is taking no chances. He recently obtained approval to buy 1,145 M4 rifles -- civilian versions of the military weapons used by U.S. combat troops — to put his officers on equal footing with the heavily armed criminals in Mexico's drug gangs.

The drug war across the river is "so dadgum close that it has to be a concern to the law enforcement community here," Allen said. "You have to speculate that it could come here. That's a reality."

"Spillover violence," as it's now officially labeled, is a much-feared Mexican import that nobody wants. But law enforcement officials, municipal leaders, political figures and diplomats disagree on whether it is already showing up in Texas — and to what extent. It has also emerged as an issue in the governor's race between Republican incumbent Rick Perry and Democratic challenger Bill White.

Responding last week to the slaying of a U.S. Consulate worker and two others in Juarez, Perry ramped up law enforcement operations along the border by activating a year-old contingency plan to deal with spillover violence. Several border-area mayors said Perry took the action without consulting them, and White suggested that Perry may be overstating the dangers for political gain.

"Exaggerating border violence can undermine economic development efforts of border communities, and that hurts Texas," White, a former three-term mayor of Houston, said in criticizing Perry's "secret" contingency plan.

But Perry said his action was necessary because the federal government has resisted his calls to strengthen border security.

"How many Americans will have to die before our federal government takes serious action along the Texas-Mexico border?" Perry asked in activating the plan.

The killing of the consulate worker and her husband last weekend brought new urgency to the law enforcement crisis in Mexico, raising concerns among some officials that the government of Mexican President Felipe Calderon may be waging a losing battle with the drug lords.

A delegation from the Obama administration will meet with Mexican officials this week to discuss the situation, including flaws in a 3-year-old $1.3 billion aid package that the United States granted the Mexican government to help fight the drug cartels.

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