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Boxing match puts El Paso on the defensive

The bout between boxers Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Andy Lee may draw Mexican drug cartel members to El Paso, but residents insist the city will be safe.

June 14, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
  • Boxer Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. meets fans in El Paso. He will defend his title against Irish challenger Andy Lee on Saturday at the Sun Bowl stadium, where alcohol will be banned during the fight.
Boxer Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. meets fans in El Paso. He will defend his title… (Ruben R Ramirez, El Paso…)

EL PASO — The fight is on to defend the reputation of America's safest city — this time, through boxing.

Last year, publications christened the desert city of 650,000 near the Mexico and New Mexico borders the safest municipality of its size in the country. Then this spring, the University of Texas chancellor called off a championship boxing match to be held at El Paso's Sun Bowl stadium, citing security concerns.

UT System Chancellor Francisco Gonzalez Cigarroa cited security concerns after a federal assessment showed the boxing match posed a higher than normal security risk, with members of Mexican drug cartels expected to attend.

Observers speculated the problem was boxer Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., the undefeated World Boxing Council middleweight champion, son of the legendary Mexican boxer.

Chavez's girlfriend had a baby with the late son of notorious Sinaloa drug cartel leader Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman. Violence has surged in recent years in El Paso's southern neighbor in Mexico, Ciudad Juarez, dubbed "the murder capital of the world."

Cities along the U.S. border have long struggled with a bad rap, despite crime rates lower than those of metro areas of similar size elsewhere in the country. But El Pasoans particularly resent being confused with their sister city, especially by authorities in the Texas capital nearly 600 miles away.

They united in outrage against the chancellor, forcing him to back down in April and allow the fight to proceed this Saturday, although Cigarroa succeeded in banning alcohol at the event.

There were 16 homicides in El Paso last year, according to police, on par with the annual average during the last decade.

Ciudad Juarez, which has about twice the population of El Paso, had more than 2,000 homicides last year and saw crime soar in recent years after federal troops were sent in to battle drug cartels in 2008.

"We like to fight, just not like that," said J.L. Rocha, 43, an El Paso pipe fitter smoking outside Yvan's Offsides Bar & Grill last week, a boxing fan hangout where the elder Chavez's photo and signed gloves are mounted on the back wall.

El Paso is home to a boxing hall of fame, a downtown boxing mural and a large boxing fan base that claims a few hometown stars, notably featherweight Antonio Escalante, who was born in Cuidad Juarez. El Paso is about 81% Latino, according to the latest census, so there's also a fair amount of ethnic pride in watching Chavez defend his title against Irish challenger Andy Lee.

"This is a Mexican hero," said David Mansfield, 42, an orthopedic surgeon and native El Pasoan having drinks with friends at the Hope and Anchor bar on North Mesa Street last week.

Residents and civic organizations have mobilized to boost the fight crowd even more, buying blocks of tickets, trumpeting the event in the El Paso Times newspaper and vowing to fill the Sun Bowl.

"This is not about the boxing match; it's about El Paso," Mayor John Cook said during a recent news conference to promote the fight. "This is about our opportunity to be in the national spotlight, to show the world what El Paso is made of."

There have been occasional incidents of violence spilling over from Ciudad Juarez into Texas, including a bullet fired in Mexico that wounded a woman walking with a child in downtown El Paso in February.

But Asher Feinberg, 37, who moved back to his native El Paso seven years ago with his wife from Manhattan Beach, said safety had never been a worry for his family.

"I was much more concerned about getting on the 405 than I am about walking in downtown El Paso or living near the border," said Feinberg, a financial advisor and father of two who serves on the Sun Bowl board. "You're in more danger living in downtown L.A. than downtown El Paso, but there's that perception."

Carlos Hernandez, 33, a boxing fan and nursing student at the University of Texas at El Paso, said he planned to attend Saturday's fight and was not worried about security.

"I went to a fight the other day and nothing happened," Hernandez said as he sat smoking on the patio of Kinley's House Coffee & Teas near campus, oblivious to the triple-digit desert heat. "This is the safest city in the country. What the rest of the country sees is it's by Juarez, a war zone."

Hernandez, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, acknowledges that El Paso has changed in recent years as violence has increased in Ciudad Juarez. Thousands have fled to El Paso, not just Juarez residents, or "Juarenses," but also those from the surrounding state of Chihuahua. Locals have even nicknamed the new arrivals, combining "fronteristas," or border residents, with Chihuahua to create "fronchis."

The new arrivals have fueled new business, such as the Crisostomo burrito stand and the Don Quintin nightclub, and have driven up housing prices but not violence, Hernandez said.

He thinks the attempt to cancel the fight has less to do with security than outsiders' attitude toward his left-leaning, majority-minority city at the outer reaches of the state. The ban on alcohol seemed particularly absurd, he said, because the boxing match promoter is sponsored by the Mexican beer company Tecate.

"What, we speak Spanish so we're going to get out of control because we drink alcohol?" Hernandez said. "We should be able to drink and have a good time."

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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