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Successful Tijuana security chief's job at risk

Julian Leyzaola has chased out major drug traffickers, purged his force of corrupt cops, and helped set the stage for the return of investment and tourism. But he may fall victim to partisan politics.

By Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times

4:29 PM PDT, August 26, 2010

Reporting from Tijuana

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He is the rare Mexican lawman feared by organized crime. Tijuana's secretary of public security has chased out major drug traffickers, purged his force of corrupt cops, and helped set the stage for the return of investment and tourism.

It may not be enough to save his job. Instead, Julian Leyzaola may fall victim to partisan politics.

The uncertainty over his future illustrates the limits of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's ability to manage the nearly 4-year-old offensive he launched against drug cartels. Calderon has dispatched nearly 80,000 troops and federal police agents across the country, but local politicians control state and municipal police agencies.

Tijuana Mayor-elect Carlos Bustamante is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and will replace an administration of the rival National Action Party — which hired Leyzaola. It is a longstanding tradition of Mexican politics for an incoming administration, especially from a rival party, to bring in its own team, and Bustamante's reluctance so far to fully address the issue signals to some that a change is in the works.

Bustamante, who takes office in December, hasn't said yet whether he plans to keep Leyzaola, a former military officer, as head of the 2,000-member police force.

"It is the decision I will take the greatest care making, and I don't want to make a mistake," Bustamante, a wealthy businessman, said in an interview at TijuanaPress.com

As winners of last month's local elections take office across Mexico, new local police officials may reassess relationships with state and federal counterparts. The changes could hardly make matters worse in besieged regions such as the northern states of Nuevo Leon and Chihuahua. Some local police may simply reshuffle protection arrangements with drug trafficking groups.

But there are risks of sliding back in areas such as Baja California, where local and federal forces present a unified front in dealing with organized crime.

"The federal government has difficulty coordinating with local governments," said Angelica Duran Martinez , a doctoral candidate at Brown University who studies drug trafficking issues. "And it's a very fluid political situation ... which makes it even more difficult to coordinate in terms of law enforcement."

Leyzaola is credited with much of Tijuana's turnaround.

"There are occasionally miracles in Mexico — the Virgin of Guadalupe and a law enforcement effort in Tijuana that has been effective," said George W. Grayson, an expert on Mexico's drug war at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

Civic and business groups, as well as U.S. law enforcement officials, are backing Leyzaola. Without him, they fear, the police force could revert to its traditional role as little more than a corruption-ridden arm of organized crime.

When Leyzaola was promoted to public security secretary in 2008 after one year as the police director, many cops worked as drivers, lookouts, informants and bodyguards for the hometown Arellano Felix drug cartel. Leyzaola's reforms resulted in the departure, firing or arrest of more than 460 officers. Another 45 cops died during a two-year war with crime bosses who were eventually run out of the city and captured.

Leyzaola, who was a lieutenant colonel in the Mexican army, has his detractors. He has been accused of taking part in the torture and beatings of cops suspected of corruption, triggering investigations by human rights groups. But he is perceived to be incorruptible. And aggressive tactics such as engaging in gun battles and personally handcuffing crime bosses have earned him broad support and national recognition.

The possible change of security chief in Tijuana couldn't come at a more crucial time. With local gangs withering, outside drug cartels may invade, trying to fill the power vacuum. Maintaining a strong police presence is seen as essential to prevent Tijuana from becoming a battle ground border city like Ciudad Juarez.

Though he has been sought for other high-level posts across Mexico, Leyzaola says he needs another three years to root out corruption and instill a culture of honesty and professionalism in the Tijuana police.

"I get frustrated because time is short … but things don't change overnight," Leyzaola said in an interview. If a new security chief is appointed, "he doesn't have the right to come and destroy everything that has been accomplished … nor the right to dishonor the blood of 45 officers who died in combat here."

Many people fear what would happen if Bustamante follows the example of the last PRI administration led by former Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon, who ran Tijuana from 2004 to 2007. Rampant corruption led to the rise of vicious drug bosses. Relations between municipal police and agents of the state, which was governed by the rival National Action Party, were so hostile that confrontations almost escalated into gun battles. State police were so fearful of municipal cops that they didn't sleep overnight in the city.

Such relations are more typical of many of the hot spots in Mexico's drug war, and some analysts say Bustamante will try to avoid the mistakes of the past. .

Bustamante, who was born in a San Diego suburb and graduated from the University of San Diego, is the owner of Tijuana's tallest office towers and has strong ties to business leaders on both sides of the border. That gives him a personal stake in the region's future, the analysts say.

The relative tranquillity recently has breathed new life into the city's downtown, where a burgeoning nightclub scene and new restaurants are drawing crowds that long avoided the area. In October, civic leaders will host a conference showcasing the city's business and cultural offerings. Scheduled speakers at the gathering include former Vice President Al Gore, Mexican multibillionaire Carlos Slim and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales.

Such a high-profile event would have been unthinkable just two years ago, and Bustamante will be under tremendous pressure to maintain a firm law-and-order stance.

"There is a growing consensus in the business establishment that the city needs to move beyond its reputation of violence and lawlessness, and have a common front in restoring Tijuana's image," said David Shirk, the director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.

richard.marosi@latimes.com