President Donald Trump has long vilified the U.S.-Mexico border as a lawless region beleaguered by violent drug cartels and criminal immigrants, staging a rally in February to single out the city of El Paso as a beneficiary of border security while pushing for funds to build his multibillion-dollar border wall.
Trump claimed ahead of that rally that El Paso was one of the country’s most dangerous cities until the erection of the barrier that walled the community off from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. At the El Paso speech, Trump accused unauthorized migrants of committing “murders, murders, killings, murders,” contending that “if we had proper border security, including a very powerful wall, we wouldn’t have to work so hard and it would be a lot safer and a lot better.”
“Illegal immigration hurts all Americans, including millions of legal immigrants, by driving down wages, draining public resources and claiming countless innocent lives,” Trump said. “You see what’s going on, folks. They give you all these phony stats.”
But Trump’s hellish image of the border exists only in his mind, the city’s leaders have long contended. In fact, El Paso has long counted itself as one of the safest in the country, witnessing a steady decline in violence that began in the early 1990s — more than a decade before the construction of the local border fence in 2008, but around the time the city adopted a community policing model. Local leaders credit that policy for achieving a homicide rate that has hovered below 3 homicides per 100,000 for several years ― about half the national average.
Alleged shooter Patrick Cruisius appeared to shatter that record Saturday, opening fire in a Walmart with a semi-automatic rifle. At least 22 people died in the shooting, while others remain hospitalized with gunshot wounds.
That death toll is one fewer than the total number of people to die of murder or negligent manslaughter for the entirety of last year, according to statistics released in January by the El Paso Police Department. More people died in El Paso as a result of Saturday’s mass shooting than in any single year since 1996, with the exception of 2018.
The El Paso Police Department did not immediately answer a phone call requesting updated homicide statistics. But if trends over the last two decades continue to hold, 2019 will become by far the city’s most violent since the early 1990s.
Those numbers turn the portrait that Trump has painted about the border on its head. While the president has falsely portrayed the region as a cauldron of cartel violence and has demonized Mexicans for that nonexistent catastrophe, El Paso’s homicide rate will likely double this year — seemingly because one 21-year-old white American launched a personal war against Hispanics, using words that echo Trump’s. At least eight of those killed were Mexican nationals.
While the president has falsely portrayed the region as a cauldron of cartel violence and has demonized Mexicans for that nonexistent catastrophe, El Paso’s homicide rate will likely double this year — seemingly because one 21-year-old white American launched a personal war against Hispanics, using words that echo Trump’s.
Crusius, who was detained pending a domestic terrorism investigation, may have issued a manifesto ahead of the shooting in which he claimed to act in “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas” ― invoking Trump’s hostile portrayal of Latin American migrants at the president’s El Paso rally. Crusius apparently targeted El Paso because the city, like most border communities, is overwhelmingly Hispanic. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
“This truly is a safe city,” El Paso County Commissioner Carlos Leon told HuffPost. “When I first heard this, I said, ‘This is not an El Pasoan. I know El Paso’s character. I know El Paso’s culture.’ Of course, it turned out to be a domestic terrorist coming from Dallas.”
Even as Trump conceded that the shooter was likely motivated by white supremacist ideology, the president linked the shooting apparently targeting Hispanic Americans and Mexican migrants to immigration, calling for Congress to pass gun reform legislation championed by Democrats in exchange for a tightening of border security measures that Trump has demanded since announcing his presidential campaign four years ago.
Leon, who was born in El Paso and helped implement community policing over a three-decade career in local law enforcement, said Trump’s false portrayal of his city as a haven for violent criminals prior to the construction of a border wall helped drive the attack.
“Trump has said so many things that maybe have emboldened people to do these kinds of heinous acts,” Leon said. “I doubt in my mind if this individual would have ever considered coming to El Paso and committing these atrocities had it not been for the constant rhetoric that the president has been spewing.”
Richard Pineda, a professor of media studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, said he also immediately assumed that the shooter came from outside the city. And like Leon, he said Trump bore responsibility for marking his hometown as a target by holding the February rally, which observers widely viewed as the launch of the president’s reelection campaign.
“This is probably one of the first times that I have felt fearful in my life growing up in El Paso,” Pineda told HuffPost. “The idea that [the shooter] spelled out exactly who he wanted to target and that the people he wanted to target look like me and look like my family is one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve experienced growing up in a beautiful place.”
I doubt in my mind if this individual would have ever considered coming to El Paso and committing these atrocities had it not been for the constant rhetoric that the president has been spewing.
El Paso County Commissioner Carlos Leon
At the same time, Pineda said he hoped the tragedy would reinforce the values that turned El Paso into a target.
“Difference is what makes this community such a great place,” Pineda said. “We’re bilingual. We’re bicultural. Anyone who grows up here and spends any time in El Paso celebrates difference and it’s a point of pride, not a point of antagonism.”
Other prominent leaders from the city have cast blame on Trump for emboldening the alleged shooter.
Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who represents El Paso, said Trump should cancel a planned visit to the city in light of his history of hostility toward the town.
“From my perspective, he is not welcome here. He should not come here while we are in mourning,” Escobar said Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “I would encourage the president’s staff members to have him do a little self-reflection. I would encourage them to show him his own words and his actions at the rallies.”
El Paso native Beto O’Rourke, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, also urged Trump to stay away in comments to reporter Eleanor Dearman.
“He’s helped to produce the suffering that we are experiencing right now,” O’Rourke said. “This community needs to heal.”