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Pitt fans warned to stay in the U.S.

Kevin Gorman
| Monday, Dec. 29, 2008

EL PASO, Texas -- Bernie Olivas has long believed one attribute that distinguishes the Brut Sun Bowl from other bowl games is a location offering the best of American and Mexican cultures.

As a first-generation Mexican-American, the executive director of the Sun Bowl Association has used the proximity between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez -- separated only by the Rio Grande River -- as a selling point to college football fans following their favorite teams.

"I always tell people that when you come to El Paso, you get a 'twin-nation vacation.' It is two different worlds, two different countries," Olivas said.

This year, the differences are so stark that visitors are advised to stay on the American side of the border.

The Sun Bowl ended a longstanding tradition of taking parties from participating teams across the border, citing safety concerns from the alarming homicide rate in Ciudad Juarez. That means the Pitt Panthers, who play Oregon State in the 75th Sun Bowl on Wednesday, and many fans are staying stateside while on their first Pitt bowl trip in four years.

Ciudad Juarez has devolved into a war zone between rival cartels battling to control drug trafficking along border towns. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reportedly seized more than 84 tons of marijuana, 774 pounds of cocaine and $2.8 million in cash in the most recent fiscal year.

The number of homicides for 2008 is approaching 1,600 and, in October, the Department of State issued an alert for citizens traveling and living in Mexico, noting "the situation in Ciudad Juarez is of special concern."

"It saddens me because the people who travel from out of town have an economic impact on the city of Juarez, as well, and they're not getting an opportunity to experience two cultures on the border," Olivas said. "Right now, I don't think the environment for us is safe to take people over there."

Formerly known as El Paso del Norte, Juarez (population: 1.5 million) joins El Paso (estimated pop: 735,000) to comprise one of the largest bi-national metropolitan areas in the world. The disparity between the two cities, however, couldn't be greater. Where Juarez is victim to widespread violence, El Paso has a crime rate below the national average.

It was rated this year as the third-safest U.S. city with a population of 500,000 or more -- and 132nd overall -- by Morgan Quitno/CQ Press. Pittsburgh ranked 61st among cities and 325th overall.

The murder rate in Juarez has become a hot topic, as daylight shootings are reported regularly. In December, 150 homicides were reported, with two men being shot 25 times while sitting inside a vehicle at 6 p.m. Friday.

The killings scare local residents looking to cross the border.

Mariana Vega, 21, works at Mambo JK in the retail market district on El Paso Street, just three blocks from the border crossing. She lives in El Paso but occasionally visits her maternal grandmother in Juarez.

"The problem isn't just in Juarez. It's all of Mexico, the whole country," Vega said. "It's kind of strange. It's almost like, in one year, everything changed in Juarez. It was a good city. Now, it's crazy. When you go to Juarez, you need to watch around you because you never know what can happen. They just shoot people."

El Paso Times sports reporter Bret Bloomquist said he regularly visits Juarez without fearing for his safety. He has a season pass for the Indios professional soccer club and frequents the Kentucky Club on Juarez Avenue, famous for inventing the margarita and where Marilyn Monroe once bought a round after her quickie divorce from Arthur Miller.

"I always joke that, 'If you don't buy drugs or sell drugs, you'll be fine.' I've never seen any of the violence," said Bloomquist, who lives in El Paso. "This is a safe town. It doesn't trickle across the river at all."

The El Paso Convention and Visitors Bureau sent an alert telling tourists who visit Juarez to travel in groups, stay in designated areas and have proper documentation. A passport or birth certificate is required for re-entry. Officials encourage tourists to return stateside before dark.

"The only thing that keeps me from going to Juarez more often," said El Paso native Javier Sanchez, "are the long lines coming back."

The El Paso Times wrote that "the once-vibrant downtown nightclub and tourist district -- the cultural corazon of Juarez -- usually jammed with people this time of year, is now hauntingly silent." It's not only because of the widespread violence, but the brashness and brutality of the killings.

"They're doing something Mexican drug cartels never did before, decapitating people and going after family members," said Sanchez, 58, who lived in Juarez for 15 years. "They're doing it Colombian-style. They don't give a damn if you're innocent. They don't care any more. They're fearless. They have lost all respect for the government.

"People are afraid to go to Juarez."