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By Meghan Ashford-Grooms September 1, 2010

AG Greg Abbott says El Paso highway was closed because of bullets flying across border

Asked last week whether he would support an Arizona-style immigration law in Texas, Attorney General Greg Abbott pivoted to a theme popular among state leaders recently: the threat to public safety of violence along the Texas-Mexico border.

"The challenges that we are seeing on the border are unprecedented," Abbott said during a Thursday interview with the Texas Tribune. "The challenges to the health, safety and welfare of Texans are greater than they've ever been."

Among the examples Abbott gave was "the closure of a highway in El Paso for a time period because of safety issues because of bullets flying across the border."

We wondered whether Abbott, a Republican who is being challenged by Democratic nominee Barbara Ann Radnofsky this fall, got that right. Did bullets really cross the border, causing the highway to be closed?

One thing is certain: Border violence has been on the minds of Texas officials as the war between Mexican drug cartels continues to rage. El Paso, the state's sixth-largest city, adjoins Juárez, a city the Associated Press has described as "ground zero in Mexico's relentless drug war."

In an Aug. 24 dispatch, the AP said that "wildly aimed gunfire has become common in Juárez, a sprawling city of shanty neighborhoods that once boomed with manufacturing plants."

Last month, we rated Half True a statement by Gov. Rick Perry that bullets from Mexico had hit El Paso's city hall and bombs had exploded in that city. He was right about the bullets, which struck city hall on June 29, but was off on the bomb (although a car bomb was set off in Juárez in July).

And in March, we found Barely True U.S. Sen. John Cornyn's statement that spillover violence was "real and escalating."

President Barack Obama, who fielded a letter from Perry urging more troops along the border during an Austin visit last month, returned to Texas on Tuesday to speak to soldiers at Fort Bliss in El Paso before he gave a national address from the Oval Office to mark the end of the United States' combat mission in Iraq.

But back to those flying bullets. In response to our inquiry, the attorney general's office sent us an AP report describing an Aug. 21 incident. We contacted the El Paso Police Department, and spokesman Darrel Petry told us that just before 6 p.m. that day, Border Patrol agents heard gunfire in western Juárez.

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The AP has described the shooting as a "30-minute firefight between gunmen and local and federal police." The El Paso Times has reported that a man in his 20s was killed in Juárez and that three Juárez police officers were wounded in the incident.

Petry told us that at the request of the Border Patrol, the El Paso Police Department shut down Paisano Drive between Santa Fe Street and Executive Center Boulevard, a stretch of about 3.5 miles. Paisano, also known as U.S. 85, runs through downtown El Paso and along the Rio Grande.

Petry said the road, which he described as four lanes with stop signs and stoplights, was closed for about 30 minutes. Petry, who told us that he has worked at the police department since 1982, said he could not remember another time that an El Paso street had been closed because of gunfire in Mexico.

According to an Aug. 24 El Paso Times article, a building at the University of Texas at El Paso was struck by a bullet that police suspect was fired during the incident across the border. An Aug. 22 press release from the university said that there were no injuries and that the "bullet struck the south door of Bell Hall, went through the glass panel in the door and was found embedded in an office door frame."

During an Aug. 23 news conference that we watched online, the president of the university, Diana Natalicio, said campus police found the bullet hole during a routine patrol the morning after the gunfight. "We are living next door to a city that is carrying on with gunfights on a fairly regular basis," Natalicio said. She said she thought that the increase in violence in Juárez had hurt El Paso's image, which she described as safe.

So, were there any other suspected bullet crossings from the Aug. 21 gunbattle in Juárez?

An El Paso police statement released the next day said that officers who helped close Paisano "did not report seeing any bullets cross the border" but that police had received a report that a bullet may have hit a vehicle in El Paso. Petry told us that police had not confirmed that report.

Also, an Aug. 25 El Paso Times article reported that employees of the Rescue Mission of El Paso, a homeless shelter on Paisano Drive, said one of its buildings had been hit by a bullet.

According to an Aug. 31 story on the Times' website, U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, said he and Obama talked about the "rollercoaster violence along the border" and about the bullets that hit El Paso City Hall and UTEP during the ride to Texas on Air Force One.

So, where does that leave Abbott's statement? Gunfire in Mexico did spur El Paso authorities to close a section of U.S. 85, an action that a police spokesman said was unprecedented. One bullet was found in a Texas university building, and other reports, though unconfirmed as yet, indicate more "bullets were flying across the border," as Abbott said.

We rate his statement True.

Our Sources

Texas Tribune, "A conversation with AG Greg Abbott," Aug. 26, 2010

Associated Press, "Drug war sends bullets whizzing across the border," Aug. 24, 2010

PolitiFact Texas, "Rick Perry says violence from Mexico reaching El Paso, with bullets flying and bombs exploding," Aug. 5, 2010

PolitiFact Texas, "Cornyn says spillover violence in Texas is real and escalating," March 27, 2010

Gov. Rick Perry, letter to President Barack Obama, Aug. 9, 2010

E-mail correspondence with Jerry Strickland, spokesman, attorney general's office, Aug. 26

Interview with Darrel Petry, public information office, El Paso Police Department, Aug. 26, 2010

El Paso Times, "Police account of Juarez gunman disputed," Aug. 25, 2010

El Paso Times, "Students at UTEP unfazed by stray bullet," Aug. 24, 2010

Interview with Arleene Barrios, public information officer, University of Texas at El Paso, Aug. 26, 2010

University of Texas at El Paso, news release, "UTEP police investigate round that strikes building," Aug. 22, 2010

KFOX-TV, news conference with president of University of Texas at El Paso, Aug. 23, 2010

El Paso Police Department, news release, "Shots fired near the border," Aug. 22, 2010

El Paso Times, "Obama thanks Fort Bliss soldiers, talks with Reyes about border security," Aug. 31, 2010

Interview with Mike Baranyay, public information officer, El Paso Police Department, Aug. 31, 2010

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AG Greg Abbott says El Paso highway was closed because of bullets flying across border

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