EL PASO, TEXAS — When an El Paso police officer recently crossed the border to Ciudad Jurez, Mexico, to attend a funeral, he did something that could have caused an international incident.
He forgot he had left his three hunting rifles in the trunk.
Upon inspection at the Mexican checkpoint, the guns were found. Carrying guns into Mexico is illegal, and in most places a high degree of suspicion among law-enforcement officials on the border would have very likely meant big trouble for the officer and reverberations in Mexico City and Washington.
Last November, a US Border Patrol agent assigned to the Arizona border was fired after he pursued a suspect a few feet into Mexico.
"A year ago, they'd have locked our guy up, but in this case we got him back in 15 minutes - car, guns, and all," says El Paso Police Chief Russ Leach. "There are dividends when you extend a hand of friendship and cooperation across the [Rio Grande] river."
In a model of "friendship and cooperation" that has won the praise of Clinton administration drug czar Barry McCaffrey, the police in El Paso and Ciudad Jurez are working together at previously unheard-of levels. The highlights are more training and exposure to new law enforcement methods for Mexico, and better access to crime-fighting information for El Paso.
The result is better law enforcement in what is in reality a transnational city of 1.8 million people (600,000 on the US side). And it may even be a factor in the steady drop in crime over recent years in El Paso, the nation's 17th largest city.
"When I came here, I realized the key to success in this job would be working with Jurez," says Chief Leach, who arrived three years ago from his post as a captain in the Los Angeles Police Department. "We can't afford to be distant and suspicious like Washington and Mexico City. We get along because we have to."
That pragmatism reflects Leach's realization that simply focusing on El Paso would undoubtedly mean trouble ahead. As other US border cities have experienced spillover violence from Mexico's drug wars, El Paso has seen crime drop.
So far anyway, Jurez's violent drug gangs - immersed in a turf war since the death last August of Jurez cartel kingpin Amado Carrillo Fuentes - have not infiltrated gangs in El Paso, Leach says.
Last year El Paso counted 24 homicides, down from 30 in 1996 and 47 in 1993. With double the population, Ciudad Jurez registered about 10 times as many: 249 last year, up slightly from 246 in 1996.
Car theft also fell about 20 percent last year in El Paso, one improvement that Leach says can be directly linked to increased transborder cooperation.
"The information that now flows much more easily across the border about stolen vehicles or groups involved in this activity on both sides has had an impact," he says.
Cross-border assaults - most frequently by Mexicans attacking motorists or pedestrians along the border in El Paso and then fleeing back to safety in Jurez - have also plummeted as the two police forces adopted a radio communication system.
Crime doesn't stop at the border
"The criminals have always relied on the border to stop us," says El Paso border liaison police officer Jess Terrones, "but that's not the case any more."
The cooperation has flourished not only since Leach's appointment but especially with the arrival a little over two years ago of a new Jurez police director.
An accountant and business owner, Jos Luis Reygadas quickly eschewed the nationalistic hangups that had often discouraged the city's law-enforcement agencies from accepting help from its northern neighbor.
"Of course there have been bitter experiences and antagonism [between the two sides] in the past, but we have to advance beyond that and think of the future," says Mr. Reygadas. Increasingly, crime elements operate as if the border didn't exist, he says, so law enforcement must do the same.
One of Reygadas's first steps was to accept the offers for training and cooperation on innovative crime prevention programs coming from the north.
"When your own resources are limited, it would be silly not to take advantage of this help," he says. "We accept with great pleasure."
Every month Leach sends a list of upcoming training and human-development classes to Reygadas.
Jurez police have participated in classes on everything from proper use of weapons and self defense to community relations and personal communication skills.
The latter emphasis reflects the community-based policing that Leach has introduced. "The emphasis under Leach has been on neighborhood involvement, seeing crime and safety as not just a police problem but a citywide issue, and it appears he has extended that to cooperation with the other side of the border," says Andrew Giacomazzi, a criminal justice specialist at the University of Texas at El Paso.
That training and the guidance of Reygadas have gradually reoriented the Jurez police toward more preventive and community work - Jurez now has a bicycle police unit trained in El Paso - and better statistical information and intelligence gathering.
Also new is an innovative mixed-agency police group teaming city police with state and federal agents - a bold step for Mexico, where rivalries among agencies have abetted police corruption and served criminal elements.
"Our goal is to institutionalize some of these changes in the 10 months we have left" before elections bring a new mayor and police chief to office, Reygadas says.
'Keep it local, keep it simple'
Reygadas and Leach may be on opposite sides of the border, but when it comes to singing the praises of local cooperation, they are remarkably in harmony.
"International protocol is very complicated and can be very slow," says Reygadas diplomatically.
"You're better off keeping Washington and Mexico City out of things, because when you get into the diplomatic and political, all bets are off," says a less-guarded Leach. "I say keep it local, keep it simple."