Violent crime continued to fall in the largest U.S. cities along the Southwest border last year even as neighboring Mexican crime groups clashed for control of the illegal drug and human smuggling trades.
Ten of the 13 largest cities in Texas, Arizona and California closest to the Mexico border recorded reductions in overall violent crime, according to the latest FBI's Uniform Crime Report. Eleven of the 13 also saw reductions in property crime, including burglary and car theft.
While the largest of the border cities San Diego and El Paso also reported declines, murders in each city jumped in 2011. Yet city officials cautioned that the rise in homicides could not be attributed to a spillover in violence from Mexico.
El Paso recorded 16 murders in 2011, up from just five in 2010, the fewest since 1964. This year, the number is up to 23 killings. But police Sgt. Chris Mears says the larger numbers are within range of the average for the past 20 years.
"None of these homicides are in any way spillover violence from Mexico," Mears says, adding that a number of the homicides have involved child abuse resulting in death.
San Diego County Sheriff Cmdr. David Myers says the rise in murder there Ã¢(euro) " from 29 in 2010 to 38 in 2011 Ã¢(euro) " was largely attributed to a "flurry" of domestic-related disputes. None of the deaths were linked to Mexican violence, though Myers says the cartels remain active in the region.
El Paso's proximity to one of the most violent cities in Mexico and world, Ciudad Juarez, prompted widespread fear last year that Mexican violence which claimed 3,400 lives in Juarez alone in 2010 was washing into U.S. border cities.
But a 2011 USA TODAY analysis of crime data reported by 1,600 law enforcement agencies in four border states found that violent crime rates on the U.S. side of the southwestern border have been falling for years.
The analysis concluded that U.S. cities near the border are statistically safer, on average, than others in their states. The new FBI numbers follow that same pattern.
Police Chief David Bejarano of Chula Vista, Calif., says the entire Southern California region is seeing a similar trend.
Overall crime is down in his city of 250,000, which sits 7 miles north of Tijuana. But murders increased from two in 2010 to six last year.
Still, Bejarano, a former police chief in San Diego, says none of the 2011 murders in the region was tied to drug cartels. Instead, he says, the area has simply seen a rise in domestic violence and "traditional gang feuds over turf."
While the Tijuana area was once one of the bloodiest regions in the cartel battles across the border, he says those battles have weakened in recent years.
Tucson was among the few cities where overall violent crime was up. Police Sgt. Maria Hawke says the increase was so slight the total number of violent crimes increased from 3,331 in 2010 to 3,440 last year that it was "not noticeable."
The 51 murders recorded last year was equal to 2010, although sexual assaults jumped from 158 to 204. Hawke says stricter requirements for reporting of such crimes may have contributed to the increase.