When Laredo Turned the Tables on Crime
Justice International (2006), 22 (94), 29-31.
Pedro H. Albuquerque*
Laredo and Nuevo
Laredo have caught the attention of the nation lately due to a staggering
series of gang-related murders that have happened on the Mexican side of the
border. The recrudescence of crime in Nuevo Laredo has put Laredo under the
spotlight of the national and international media and revived the interest
of the population in issues such as the porous state of the border and
illegal immigration. The intense exposure surely cannot be considered good
publicity for Laredo, particularly given the tendency of the media to rely
on old and well-established stereotypes of southern U.S. border cities as
being crime havens at the fringes of civilization.
Ironically, Laredo’s crime rates have been,
for sometime, quite the opposite of conventional wisdom. Although Laredo was
once a city with relatively high crime rates, since 2000, this is no longer
the case, even when considering the most recent spillovers from organized
crime in Nuevo Laredo. This is because Laredo ranked among the American
cities that presented the most significant reductions in per capita
homicides in the country from 1991 to 2001, with a performance comparable to
the much-celebrated case of New York City under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and
its world-renowned zero tolerance policy.
Table 1, which partially reproduces numbers presented in an article by
Steven Levitt, author of the best-selling book Freakonomics: A Rogue
Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, clearly shows that
Laredo stands side-by-side with New York City as the two cities with the
largest reductions in homicide rates during the nineties, according to the FBI. In
Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner discuss in detail the
reasons behind these crime rate reductions, which were observed in almost
all cities in the country. Some cities however, such as Laredo, surpassed
all the expectations, turning the tables on crime and going from above
national median rates to below national median rates. This should not be
seen as a small feat.
For example, Laredo
had a peak homicide rate in 1992 of 16.4 per 100,000 population, high for
cities of equivalent size (100,000 to 250,000 residents), which had a peak
median homicide rate of 9.4 in 1994. The homicide rate in Laredo at that
time was comparable to cities with much larger population sizes (250,000 to
It is evident that Laredo was a violent
city in the beginning of the nineties. In contrast, the situation in 2001
was exactly the opposite: The homicide rate in Laredo fell to a much lower
4.4 per 100,000 population, while the median for cities of equivalent size
in the same year was 5.1. The same trends regarding homicide rates in Laredo
were also observed in all other categories of violent crime. In other words,
Laredo in 2001 could be considered a safe American city.
Some people have pointed out that, even though Laredo did a very good job
reducing violent crime rates, the same level of success did not reach
property crime rates. This is only partially true, as shown in Table 2.
According to the FBI, there were significant reductions in burglary rates
and motor vehicle theft rates in Laredo since 1991, showing that reductions
in violent crime were also mirrored by reductions in property crime. The
data on aggregate property crime is however muddled by the poor performance
of larceny-theft rates, which saw very small reductions during the same
Notice also that,
when compared with American cities of similar population size, the
performance of Laredo in 2001 puts it around the median rate for burglary
and motor vehicle theft. Again, according to those
two components of property crime rates, Laredo should be considered a safe
city. The larceny-theft rate however remains much above the median rate of
the comparison group. This is somewhat expected in a border city, where
opportunities for transactions with stolen goods are magnified by the
existence of a porous border. Laredo however could do a better job in this
category, considering the successful examples of El Paso and San Diego,
which have aggregate property crime rates below median rates for cities
with similar population sizes.
A question that naturally arises is: what
caused the significant reductions in crime rates in Laredo? The answer is
multifaceted and combines both national and local factors. Studies have
determined that, at the national level, factors such as the waning of the
crack epidemic, the increase in incarceration numbers, a tougher stance
regarding crime and punishment, and a growing number of law-enforcement
agents at all levels have helped to reduce crime. In Laredo, substantial
increases in the number of local police officers, complemented by even
larger increases in the number of federal law-enforcement agents,
particularly with the Border Patrol, surely led to magnified crime-reduction
effects. Modernization of the police forces, as Laredo developed and played
catch up with other Texan cities, may also have played a role.
Unfortunately for Laredo, and despite crime rate improvements due to
long-run trends and the buildup of law enforcement agencies in the region,
the reality is that, since 2001, Laredo is being affected negatively by the
deterioration of public order in its sister city, Nuevo Laredo, as shown in
Table 3. Laredo has seen significant increases in homicide rates since 2001,
which were not as shocking as the increases observed in Nuevo Laredo (which
now have reached new historic records), but yet are large enough to put
Laredo again above median rates for cities with equivalent population sizes.
The good news is that
the spike in homicides in Laredo has not been accompanied by significant
increases in other types of crimes, proving that this phenomenon is most
certainly a direct or indirect result of criminal activities in Nuevo
Laredo, which spill over the border. Local authorities in Laredo
anyway should not take the numbers in Table 3 lightly.
In conclusion, Laredo should be proud of its achievements regarding crime
reduction. However, if the city really wants to get rid of its national and
international reputation as a hub of crime and violence, it will need to
show that it can permanently keep crime rates at the low levels observed in
the beginning of the new millennium.
Professor of Economics, College of Business Administration, Texas A&M
International University. The author would like to thank Michael Patrick for
helpful comments. Existing errors are nevertheless the sole responsibility
of the author.
Albuquerque, PH (2007). “Shared Legacies, Disparate
Outcomes: Why American South Border Cities Turned the Tables on Crime and
Their Mexican Sisters Did Not.” Crime, Law and Social Change,
47 (2), 69-88.
Coronado, R and PM Orrenius (2003). “The Impact of
Illegal Immigration and Enforcement on Border Crime Rates.” Research
Department Working Paper 0303. Dallas: Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
Levitt, SD (2004). “Understanding Why Crime Fell in the
1990s: Four Factors that Explain the Decline and Six that Do Not.”
Journal of Economic Perspectives 18 (1): 163-190.
PM and R Coronado (2003). “Falling Crime and Rising Border Enforcement: Is
There a Connection?” Southwest Economy 3: 9-10.