Crime in Laredo, TX
When Laredo Turned the Tables on Crime
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 500,000 residents).
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 period.
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.
* Assistant 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.
Orrenius, PM and R Coronado (2003). “Falling Crime and Rising Border Enforcement: Is There a Connection?” Southwest Economy 3: 9-10.