By Jim Vertuno and Juan Carlos LLorca
EL PASO — Angry El Paso leaders on Wednesday accused the University of Texas system chancellor of fostering a “climate of fear” by canceling a high-profile boxing event in a border city fighting to overcome assumptions it has been overrun by spillover violence from the drug war in Mexico.
City leaders were stunned when UT system Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said Tuesday the University of Texas-El Paso’s Sun Bowl stadium could not host a June 16 fight between World Boxing Council world middleweight champion Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. of Mexico and Andy Lee of Ireland. The UT system said Cigarroa made the decision based on a “higher than normal” risk assessment, but released no details.
The move prompted a wave of angry responses from El Paso officials who insist their city is safe. Despite ranking among the safest cities in the nation in terms of violent crime, El Paso officials have long complained the city gets falsely portrayed as a war zone.
“It stems from this general climate of fear being created by some … that the border is unsafe. This is the latest example of the kind of decisions that are going to do incalculable harm to border communities,” said state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, an El Paso Democrat.
Rodriguez and others demanded to know the details behind Cigarroa’s decision.
El Paso City Manager Joyce Wilson and El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen insisted Cigarroa show them a risk assessment report for the fight, and any others conducted for major events that have been held on system property for the last five years.
Last weekend, UT-El Paso’s Don Haskins Center basketball arena hosted a Showtime boxing card, and the Frank Erwin Center at the University of Texas in Austin is hosting ESPN’s Friday Night Fights this week.
The 51,500-seat Sun Bowl is home to the UT-El Paso Miners football team and the annual Sun Bowl game. It also hosted a major fight in 1998 when more than 40,000 watched Oscar De La Hoya.
The UT system said “this decision should not be generalized to other events at UT-El Paso or other UT institution facilities. If there was an elevated risk determination associated with any event hosted by the other 14 UT institutions, the same decision would have been made.”
A UT system spokesman said he could not discuss the El Paso fight risk assessment and that Cigarroa was not immediately available for comment.
Texas Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Katherine Cessinger said the DPS was not involved in developing the risk assessment. Ramiro Cordero, a spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol, said the agency has received no specific threats or intelligence indicating violence in El Paso related to the fight.
All of the state lawmakers who represent El Paso sent a letter to Cigarroa calling the decision “ill-informed, baseless and destructive” and urging him to reconsider.
Rodriguez said he spoke with Cigarroa on Tuesday and pressed him for details on the risk assessment, including whether law enforcement intelligence suggested the fight would be a dangerous event for the university and the city. Rodriguez said Cigarroa told him he had nothing specific.
“It is very difficult for me to accept,” Rodriguez said, noting that former President Bill Clinton visited El Paso on Tuesday without incident. “You just don’t make decisions based on ‘higher than normal’ risk without details.”
Cigarroa informed UT-El Paso officials of his decision one hour before a news conference to promote the fight. Bob Arum, president of the boxing promotions company Top Rank, said he’s ready to move the fight to San Antonio or Houston, but promised El Paso officials to wait another day to see if he and others can’t get Cigarroa to change his mind.
El Paso is a natural place to host a fight with a popular Mexican fighter like Chavez, Jr., Arum said.
“It’s a hot boxing town,” Arum said. “I’m totally befuddled. If there is a high security problem, tell us what it is.”
Arum said fights in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand and Mandalay casino resorts require spectators to go through metal detectors.
Sending 50,000 people at the Sun Bowl through metal detectors would be inconvenient and expensive, but “it’s doable,” Arum said.