Evan Smith: Does the prospect of no longer being mayor of Laredo make you happy or unhappy?
Betty Flores: Neither one. I knew there was a beginning and an end. I worked as fast as I could, as hard as I could, and now I move on. I was a Laredoan when I started, and I’m a Laredoan when I leave. That’s the most important thing.
ES: Given what’s going on along the border right now, it has to be true that of all the mayors of your city in recent history, you’ve had the toughest go of it.
BF: It’s almost like, Be careful what you wish for. We’ve always wanted people to pay attention to the border, but some of the attention we’ve received has obviously not come in a good way because of the violence in Nuevo Laredo. For the most part, it does not define who we are. In fact, in my daily life it’s a very minute part of any discussion—even when I’m with the mayor of Nuevo Laredo. He and I just got back from Yuma, Arizona, promoting a rail bridge project we’re working on with the governor of Tamaulipas. We were together from seven in the morning until seven in the evening, and I don’t think we ever once talked about the violence.
ES: That’s amazing, because people outside Laredo would imagine it’s the number one thing on your mind, that it’s all you talk about during the workday and that you’re hyperaware of it off-hours because you have to get home and you have to go out to eat and go shopping. The perception, at least, is that it’s a war zone environment out there.
BF: And that’s the wrong perception. [Laredo and Nuevo Laredo are] a combined community of approximately a million people. If you compare our community to any other of its size, you’ll see that the crime rate and violence are really not so out of whack. However many deaths we’ve had in total, it’s really not a lot of people in a population like this one. So we come and go and do our daily business—
ES: Not affected by it.
BF: Not affected by it. More than 30,000 people cross the bridges every day. Do they focus on the violence? Perhaps if they read the headlines, because it’s always on the front page. Perhaps if they’re going to go across the river from the U.S. side in the evening. We used to have trouble keeping our kids home because, obviously, the curfews for drinking in Nuevo Laredo were a lot more lenient. They’d sneak across. Now they’re not going across on their own beause they’re afraid. But does every family think about it when they leave the house? No. Does it affect our lives at every moment? No. We’re not consumed by it.
ES: So who or what is to blame then for the wrong perception? Is it the jackals in the media, who are overhyping what’s going on down there? Is it the political system?
BF: The problem is that we’re never in the news, and when we are, it’s only bad news. And so people start this frenzy of “Oh, my God. Oh, my God”—all these things are happening, and they’re happening to a police chief, and they’re happening to a journalist. You know, my police chief here is my best citizen. And so when you think about a police chief in Mexico being killed, you relate it to your own experience. You don’t think that maybe the police chief was involved in something he shouldn’t have been. You don’t talk about the journalist perhaps not being on the right side. You don’t talk about all those people who have been killed who were probably part of the problem.
ES: That’s a pretty serious allegation. The death of the police chief in Nuevo Laredo was a significant news event. The death of the editor from El Mañana was pretty serious. Are you saying that we’re not getting complete information about what went on in those two cases?
BF: I believe that you’re not. And I believe that because people are afraid to talk, I don’t think you’ll ever get the right information. This is another country—sometimes we forget. On the U.S. side, we document, we investigate, we incarcerate. We have a system. Mexico probably has better laws on the books than we do, but their problem is law enforcement. It’s pretty much not there. Mexico has lived with lax law enforcement because there was no violent crime. It was no big deal. But now they’ve come to the very hard reality that you do need to punish your criminals and you do need to enforce your laws because otherwise you will have lawlessness.
ES: It’s a little late to start now.
BF: They’ve sent in the federales; they’ve sent in the army; they’ve sent in all these people who are not really trained—or perhaps there aren’t enough of them. But they’re too late. The bad guys are well equipped. They’re mean and nasty.
ES: Which is why, as you say, people are afraid to speak up. Why aren’t you afraid to speak up? Why are you not afraid for your own safety?
BF: Because I live in the United States of America. Because Laredo has a good system of law enforcement. Because my police officers understand that in order to keep our community safe, we have to work a little harder. Because the bad guys are not all living in Nuevo Laredo. They’re everywhere. They’re everywhere in these United States, and they’re everywhere in Mexico. The drug business, as you know, has been around for a while. For us on the border, the drug dealer was our first terrorist.
ES: Long before 9/11.
BF: And we didn’t do anything about it. We kept postponing intervention programs; we kept postponing prevention programs. We’d say, “You know, that was a cutesy program. Let’s do away with it.