By Alan Gomez, Jack Gillum, and Kevin Johnson
The picture painted of America's southwestern border with Mexico is a bloody one, in which the drug violence decimating northern Mexico has spilled onto U.S. soil and turned the region into a war zone.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has warned of human skulls rolling through her state's deserts. Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, says violence on the U.S. side of the border is "out of control." Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., has suggested sending a military brigade to protect Americans.
"Of course there is spillover violence along the border," Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said during a recent congressional hearing. "It is not secure and it has never been more violent or dangerous than it is today. Anyone who lives down there will tell you that."
That's not actually the case, according to a USA TODAY analysis that draws upon more than a decade of detailed crime data reported by more than 1,600 local law enforcement agencies in four states, federal crime statistics and interviews along the border from California to Texas.
The analysis found that rates of violent crime along the U.S.-Mexico border have been falling for years — even before the U.S. security buildup that has included thousands of law enforcement officers and expansion of a massive fence along the border.
U.S. border cities were statistically safer on average than other cities in their states. Those border cities, big and small, have maintained lower crime rates than the national average, which itself has been falling.
The appearance of an out-of-control border region, though, has had wide-ranging effects — stalling efforts to pass a national immigration reform law, fueling stringent anti-immigration laws in Arizona and elsewhere, and increasing the amount of federal tax dollars going to build more fencing and add security personnel along the southwestern border.
The perception of rising violence is so engrained that 83% of Americans said they believe the rate of violence along the southwestern border is higher than national rates, according to a recent USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of 999 adults.
The findings "are contrary to conventional speculation that the border is an out-of-control place," said Steven Messner, a criminologist and sociology professor at the University at Albany-SUNY, who reviewed USA TODAY's analysis.
Some observers say the numbers don't reflect realities on the ground and give cover to a federal government that is not adequately protecting hundreds of border communities.
"Don't tell me that the violence isn't spilling over," said Pinal County (Ariz.) Sheriff Paul Babeu. "When you have American citizens who don't feel safe in their own home or free in their own country, this should be appalling to everyone."
Others read the numbers as proof the issue of "spillover violence" from Mexico is being exaggerated and used as an impetus for anti-immigration legislation and stepped-up federal and state funding to law enforcement agencies along the border.
"The data really spells out the irresponsibility of many of our elected leaders in their role in this immigration debate," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which backs a plan to legalize some of the 11 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S. "This is the ugliest version of the politics of fear that our country has seen for quite a while."
Mining the data
For this story, USA TODAY studied crime trends along the U.S.-Mexico border, using data reported to the FBI from city and county police agencies in the four border states — California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
It found that violent crime rates were on average lower in cities within 30, 50 and 100 miles of the border — the distances used to fit various definitions of the "border region." Statisticians interviewed by USA TODAY confirmed the results.
Because the data reported by the local agencies does not include kidnapping, the newspaper also had the FBI review its kidnapping investigations along the border.
Among the major findings:
•The murder rate for cities within 50 miles of the border was lower in nearly every year from 1998 to 2009, compared with the respective state average. For example, California had its lowest murder rate during that time period in 2009, when 5.3 people were murdered per 100,000 residents. In cities within 50 miles of the border, the highest murder rate over that time period occurred in 2003, when 4.6 people were murdered per 100,000 residents.
•The robbery rate for cities within 50 miles of the border was lower each year compared with the state average. In Texas over that time span, the robbery rate ranged from 145 to 173 per 100,000 people in the state, while the robbery rate throughout Texas' border region never rose above 100 per 100,000.
•Kidnapping cases investigated by the FBI along the border are on the decline. The bureau's Southwestern offices identified 62 cartel-related kidnapping cases on U.S. soil that involved cartels or illegal immigrants in 2009. That fell to 25 in 2010 and 10 so far in 2011.
When presented with USA TODAY's findings, a majority of law enforcement officials throughout the border region said the numbers accurately represent what they see.
"Over the last five years, whether you take a look at violent crime or property crime, we've seen a 30% decrease," said Chula Vista (Calif.) Police Chief David Bejarano, whose city is 7 miles from Tijuana.
In Arizona, the epicenter of the immigration debate since the state passed a tough immigration enforcement law last year, some police officials are frustrated by the rhetoric.
"Everything looks really good, which is why it's so distressing and frustrating to read about these reports about crime going up everywhere along the border, when I know for a fact that the numbers don't support those allegations," Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor said.
And in Texas, El Paso has seen sharp declines in violent crimes despite being in the shadow of Ciudad Juárez, one of the main battlegrounds of Mexico's drug wars where 3,400 people were murdered last year.
"I'm not trying to paint a picture here that nothing ever happens, because it does," El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen said. "But some have tried to suggest that El Paso is a violent city just because of its location.
Unfortunately, some people's misperceptions have become their reality."
Critics express doubts about the credibility of the FBI data, known as the Uniform Crime Reports, the government's only national repository for local crime data.
One concern is that many crimes go unreported, and the FBI reports don't include some of the money-making crimes used frequently by Mexican drug cartels: kidnapping and extortion.
"There's actually a private industry that negotiates ransoms with kidnappers," said San Diego Sheriff's Dept. Capt. David Myers, who heads the office's Border Crime Suppression Team. "There are actual people you can call who can negotiate that ransom for you if your loved ones have been kidnapped, without involving law enforcement."
But the available data indicate kidnappings are on the decline.
FBI Assistant Director Kevin Perkins, who heads the agency's criminal investigative division, said crime statistics reported by border communities and daily contacts with local officials do not show surges in such crimes as kidnapping and extortion.
"We don't see giant spikes in violence," Perkins said.
Others say crime reports don't reflect the measure of the crime along the border.
U.S. Rep. Francisco "Quico" Canseco, a Texas Republican, joined Miller and McCaul in proposing a bill that would require Homeland Security to track border-related crimes to better account for kidnappings, property-related crimes and simple acts of trespassing when farmers and ranchers encounter smugglers crossing their lands.
"There is spillover crime," Canseco said. "We need to be able to measure it."
Critics also point to high-profile killings in the border region as proof that the cartel violence is spilling over.
For example, on March 27, 2010, Arizona rancher Robert Krentz was murdered. The killing remains unsolved, but the case sparked outrage from advocates of increased immigration enforcement who suspect that the murder was committed by an illegal immigrant.
Echoes of the Wild West
Partly based on that case and others, the image of the U.S. side of the southwestern border as a lawless region reminiscent of the Wild West lives on.
San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore visited Washington in November to brief members of Congress and found himself battling misconceptions.
"A lot of it was anecdotal information that was not based on fact," he said.
Angela Kelley, vice president of the Center for American Progress, a group pushing for immigration reform legislation that would allow some illegal immigrants a way to become citizens, said the perceived connection between immigrants and crime makes it impossible for Congress to reach a rational solution for the country's broken immigration system.
"There's this conflation that some like to make between crime rates and immigrants, and throw in there guns and drugs and violence generally," Kelley said. "It's very toxic and it impacts the debate in such a substantial way that you can't have a responsible debate about what does work."
The toll of extra security
Starting with the administration of President George W. Bush, money flowing to the southwestern border has substantially increased.
In 2000, there were fewer than 9,000 Customs and Border Patrol agents and officers patrolling the border. By 2010, that number was nearly 23,000. Homeland Security has increased funding for border security and interior enforcement by more than $5 billion since 2006, with most of that going to the southwestern border.
Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, both Republicans from Arizona, have endorsed a 10-point plan that would deploy 3,000 National Guard troops, increase funding for local law enforcement agencies by $60 million and add more fencing.
"While our border with Mexico has always seen some level of illegal immigration, it has not seen the powerful threat of deadly violence that exists today due to Mexico's ongoing war against its drug cartels," McCain told a group of border sheriffs last year.
Others think the nation already has the appropriate level of security along the border and should shift some of the funding toward easing the gridlock that exists for those trying to get through the built-up border.
Crossing back and forth used to be simple, but the added layers of security and teams of Border Patrol officers inspecting vehicles and people coming into the country have caused hours-long delays for people legally entering the USA through the points of entry along the southwestern border, according to a report from the San Diego Association of Governments.
Those delays lead to slowed business production as freight trucks carrying goods to the U.S. are held up, and discourage many Mexicans from crossing into the USA to shop as they once did, according to the report. Put together, those delays cost California about $1 billion in revenue in 2007, the report found.
San Diego City Councilman David Alvarez said some of the money going to border security should instead be going to expanding the existing ports of entry and adding new ones to allow the state's already-hurting economy a chance to recover.
However, he said, the image of a lawless border makes it hard to even discuss the topic.
"When you've got the national rhetoric about illegal immigration, you can never get to a conversation about legal immigration," Alvarez said. "Effective border crossings and better regional economics don't sell newspapers."