OJINAGA, Chihuahua — It’s not something you see every day. A member of the United States Congress enters Mexico on the border, not by flying to Mexico City and directly back to Washington, D.C.
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican from Texas, is also a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security.
So his visit to the border town of Ojinaga, in a gritty slice of the state of Chihuahua, stands out within the negative narrative that says, “Don’t go to borderland Mexico.”
“I spent nine years as an undercover officer in the CIA,” Hurd said. “So I’ve been in some pretty rough places. Ojinaga’s not one of them.”
In the last 18 months, there have been less than a dozen reported murders in Ojinaga, a town of 30,000 people.
Hurd wants to leverage his connections at the State Department that he says were forged as a CIA agent. He wants the State Department to reconsider its recent warning concern in traveling here.
“My basic back-of-the-envelope math is that Ojinaga is pretty safe,” he said.
“But I need to sit and talk with the professionals that are looking at this and see how they made their decision, and see how we can influence that so that the State Department’s advisory is actually reflective of the situation here,” Hurd said.
Ojinaga matters because it’s a principal entry point for Mexican beef used by the U.S. fast-food industry. Helping to move that Mexican livestock into the U.S., the USDA has reversed what it said was a security-based decision banning its inspectors from checking U.S.-bound livestock in Ojinaga. That decision is helping to move Mexican livestock into the U.S. faster and at lower cost.
Ojinaga is also strategically located opposite Presidio, the gateway to a vast expanse of west Texas.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has unveiled plans to create a manufacturing and logistics hub here to serve northern Mexico. That in turn matters for U.S. oil and gas companies looking to use Ojinaga as a base to work in Mexico’s recently opened domestic energy market.
Ojinaga Mayor Miguel Carreón is a member of Mexico’s ruling party, the PRI. He and Chihuahua State Governor César Horacio Duarte, a longtime PRI operative in northern Mexico, helped Peña Nieto craft his economic stimulus plan for northern Mexico.
Carreón concedes that Chihuahua is a violent state. But citing statistics, he said his town is not and that the state as a whole is seeing a reduction in crime.
“Last month across the state, we had the lowest number of serious crimes like murder in several years,” Carreón said, implying that the State Department might not be aware of that.
However, many Mexicans don’t believe major crime is going down. But there’s conflict over how the statistics are compiled and over the definition of what qualifies as an organized crime-related murder.
From the Los Angeles Times, Sept. 2, 2015, reporting on violence in Mexico:
Homicides in July went up by 17% from the same month last year, according to the latest government figures. Armed confrontations between criminal groups and the armed forces are common, and the army and police continue to be implicated in human rights violations such as extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture.
Mexico’s federal government says that organized kidnapping is still a persistent problem. Many Mexicans will tell visitors the threat of kidnapping is a serious concern in parts of Mexico, including other parts of Chihuahua state.
That said, Carreón and Hurd agreed to work to change Washington’s view of Ojinaga. But both men concluded that change is never quick.
“Washington, D.C., doesn’t move at the speed of light, which is unfortunate,” Hurd told Carreón.
Carreón interjected,”I understand what you saying,” concluding the same often holds true in Mexican politics.
“What you need in San Diego is very different than what you need in Presidio,” Hurd said, explaining there is room for nuance in border security policy in certain areas.
The State Department rejects any notion that Ojinaga is safe, which paves the way for some interesting conversations when Hurd returns to Washington, D.C.
In an email to the Fronteras Desk, a State Department spokesperson wrote that Ojinaga is on the travel advisory because of ”threats to safety and security posed by organized criminal groups.”