The El Paso Times broke a story a few days ago detailing how the El Paso Texas Police Department’s drug lab has been decertified to test for certain drugs in criminal cases. That’s right; it is El Paso, Texas and not Cd. Juárez! For at least the last four years, Cd. Juárez has been embroiled in a life and death battle for its very survival against drug traffickers. Nationally and internationally, Cd. Juárez has been labeled the deadliest city in the world, while El Paso has been labeled the third-safest city in the nation.

And now it turns out that the El Paso Police Department can’t even keep its drug lab certified. The drug lab is crucial to prosecuting drug cases. According to the newspaper report, the city’s drug crime lab has been suspended from analyzing certain drugs because its personnel and process have been called into question. The accrediting organization that suspended the El Paso lab has only sanctioned one other lab in its history. And, according to the newspaper, city officials, including the mayor, were made aware of the lab’s deficiency by the newspaper and not by its own staff. The city manager is quoted by the paper as stating that she is “not upset” at only finding out of the serious failures of one of her departments one day before the paper, although the police chief knew of the probation since at least June 27.

The paper reports that one technician took 45 tries to finally confirm that a sample was actually cocaine, only making that determination on the last try. The report adds that the supposedly secure lab wasn’t secure at all. This is important for prosecutions as a chain of custody needs to be kept in order to ensure that the sample by which someone is convicted has not been tampered with.

The seriousness of this problem has been downplayed by the politicians of the city. Drug crime is central to the rampant drug war going on in the region and the city’s politicians seem to care nothing about their ability to determine whether a sample is actually an illegal substance or not?

This is ripe for conspiracy theorists. Why would it matter that a city’s drug lab is unsecure or that a technician can’t determine cocaine is cocaine until the very last try, 45 tries later. Why is this important? Imagine, for a moment, that a drug trafficker wants to manipulate drug tests. The drug trafficker gets to determine who goes to jail with a positive sample and who goes free with a negative one. Are the ingredients there for that scenario? We know that according to the accreditation agency a technician took 45 times to determine a sample is positive for cocaine. So why not test a sample until it gives the desired result? Better yet, since the chain of custody cannot be guaranteed why not just tamper with the samples?

A January 25, 2011 Congressional Report titled; “Southwest Border Violence: Issues in Identifying and Measuring Spillover Violence”, quoted The National Drug Threat Assessment, 2008 as summarizing that the “Southwest Border Region is the most significant national-level storage, transportation, and transshipment area for illicit drug shipments that are destined for drug markets throughout the United States”. El Paso is geographically at the center of the southwest border corridor and is directly across the border from Cd. Juárez. The report adds that “as much as 90% of the cocaine consumed in the United States” comes through the Mexican border.

On one-hand, El Paso is proclaimed the third-safest city in the nation, while its sister city; a walking distance from El Paso’s downtown, is labeled the deadliest in the world. Also, the US government has classified the southwest border as the most significant player of drug trafficking. Drugs are the nexus to both. What could El Paso have that Juárez doesn’t that keeps drug violence at bay?

It is easy to assume that corruption in Mexico is what keeps them apart. Hmmm, let’s look at that for a moment.

On August 30, 1999, then Assistant Chief of Police, George DeAngelis alleged that El Paso Police officer Luis Cortinas, a personal assistant to then El Paso Police Chief Carlos Leon, was involved with drug traffickers. The subsequent internal investigation by the department resulted in the re-assignment of Cortinas, without charges being filed and with DeAngelis calling the investigation a “whitewash“. Subsequently, DeAngelis settled with the city for $250,000, after DeAngelis had been accused of leaking confidential police information to the media.

According to court records, DeAngelis and another officer were setup in a police sting where then city attorney Stephanie Osburn passed along false information about another police investigation to both officers in the hope that it would appear in the media. DeAngelis sued and won his case. On one hand, DeAngelis alleges drug trafficking ties against one of the closest advisers to the police chief and DeAngelis is then setup in a sting trying to determine who leaked the information to the public resulting in the city having to pay DeAngelis $250,000. Although serious drug trafficking accusations were made, the only result was that the accuser was targeted for leaking police information while it appears that no serious investigation was ever made about the initial allegation.

Of course one incident does not make a case. So let’s look at two other recent incidents. In 2010, city council members; Beto O’Rourke, Steve Ortega and Susie Byrd attempted to pass a city resolution asking for a debate in legalizing drugs. The measure failed only because of pressure from the national leadership. Subsequent to that, in May 2010, Charlotte’s Furniture, an upscale El Paso furniture store owned by O’Rourke’s mother, plead guilty to not properly documenting over $630,000 in cash transactions to the government. Interestingly, in a plea agreement, the store pleads guilty and no individual is held accountable for the failure to report cash transactions.

Since when does a store handle large cash transactions without any human intervention? More importantly, the court documents show that the cash in question was kept in the store safe and that it came from a single family. Again, who keeps over half a million dollars in cash and why pay for furniture in cash to begin with? A plea agreement basically ends any serious investigation into the events surrounding the money.

The city, like any other city, is rampant with rumors of drug trafficking ties to locals and corruption at the highest levels. Whether true or exaggerations or somewhere in between what we are left to deal with are the facts.

1. The US/Mexico border is the focal point of illicit drugs entering the US.
2. El Paso is at the center of the southwest corridor.
3. El Paso is directly across Cd. Juárez, arguably one of the deadliest cities in the world.
4. El Paso City Government, led by Susie Byrd, Steve Ortega and Beto O’Rourke attempted to pass a resolution to study the legalization of drugs.
5. A member of two prominent local families with influential political ties, O’Rourke’s furniture business pleads guilty to not properly documenting over half a million dollars in cash.
6. Rampant rumors of drug trafficking infiltration of local police forces is alleged over years with a former assistant police chief publically demanding an investigation into the higher echelons only to be targeted and ultimately cleared of releasing information to the public alleging police corruption.
7. The El Paso Police Department’s drug lab is accused of incompetence and is only one of two labs that have ever been put on probation.
8. The city’s political leadership wasn’t even aware of the police department’s serious problems until it was brought to their attention by the media.

So the question that begs, no demands to be asked is why is El Paso exempt from the violence across the border? Is it really because the drug traffickers are truly afraid of the American justice system, or could it be, that they have a friendly city for their illicit trade?

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...

3 replies on “The Drug Capital of the World can’t even test the drugs!”

  1. Although I’m not willing to make the leap you are making you make some valid points. I think it is sheer incompetence like everything in El Paso. 😈

  2. Martin,

    This is indeed one of the finest things you have written. Everything you say is well documented and exactly on point.

    As a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, it is beyond my comprehension that city officials do not know or care that one of their departments (the PD crime lab) is operating at sub-standard levels, the one department that has the ability to put people in jail, charge them with crimes, set bonds (under DIMS) and throw away the key.

    City Rep. Steve Ortega, a purported lawyer, was quoted as saying that since he wasn’t told of the scandal earlier, it must mean it is no big deal. What kind of logic is that?

    El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza said that he plans to go forward despite the fact that the lab’s results cannot be trusted. His response should be that they are sending all results out to an independent lab and will be reevaluating the cases. He even puts the onus on defense attorneys.

    All this in a city that is a major corridor for drugs in the US. f the Juarez mayor and Da and police lab came out and made such outrageous statements what would we be saying?

Comments are closed.