Tijuana’s security chief needs all of it he can get

Since he took over one of the most troubled police departments in Mexico, Julian Leyzaola has slapped the face of a corpse, led shoot-'em-ups on the street and ordered suspected crooked cops to stick close to his office in downtown Tijuana -- he wanted them as human shields.

“I told them, if they try to attack me in my office, you’ll be right outside,” Leyzaola said. “The first ones they kill will be you.”

He’s not being paranoid. Since he launched a crackdown on organized crime and police corruption two years ago, Leyzaola has survived at least four assassination plots, including the latest threat to blow up his headquarters. On police radio frequencies, crime bosses taunt Leyzaola, saying there’s one easy way to stop the mayhem: Resign.

“Of course I won’t,” Leyzaola, who was a lieutenant colonel on leave from the army when he became Tijuana’s secretary of public security, said in a recent interview. “If I quit under that type of pressure, I’ll feel like a part of them, an accomplice of organized crime.”

Leyzaola is credited by U.S. and Mexican officials with making gains in cleaning up the department, driving out many drug traffickers and, for much of this year, returning a semblance of normality to a crime-weary city.

But last week’s surge in gang violence -- decapitations, dismemberments, hangings and shootouts that claimed the lives of more than 50 people -- showed the tenuousness of Leyzaola’s gains.

And some say the security chief’s offensive comes at a heavy price. Human rights activists accuse Leyzaola of involvement in the torture and beating of suspects, including suspected rogue officers.

Even the clean cops under him are anxious.

“I respect him,” said one veteran officer, “but for him to succeed, we have to die.”

Since Leyzaola’s purge began, 43 police officers have been killed on the streets, most of them honest officers targeted by gangs. About 330 police officers have left the force, some fearing for their lives. And 130 officers have been arrested on corruption charges, some of them veterans personally detained by Leyzaola.

A Mexican police officer whose actions match his tough talk, Leyzaola in many ways is the model for the kind of law enforcement muscle the Mexican government needs to battle organized crime.

But critics see a little too much muscle: People arrested by Leyzaola’s police officers have turned up bloodied and bruised in mug shots. And some officers suspected of corruption allege that he played a role in their torture this year.

When Mayor Jorge Ramos gave his state of the city address last month, a small group of protesters held up signs denouncing the public security secretary. But their boos were drowned out by loud applause from hundreds of people, including some widows of fallen police officers, who packed the glittery City Hall event.

To his supporters, Leyzaola, despite the controversies, is a worthy adversary of the gangs that have long controlled the city. He patrols the streets, wages gun battles and sneeringly calls criminals filthy and shiftless.

“We need an iron hand. Bravo!” read one e-mail comment in response to a recent newspaper article about Leyzaola.

Others take a more wary view. “Society doesn’t care if he tortures,” said Victor Clark Alfaro, director of Tijuana’s Binational Center for Human Rights. “They just want results.”

A long battle

Leyzaola, 49, battled drug traffickers long before arriving in Tijuana.

The son and grandson of military officers, he attended the Heroico Colegio Militar, Mexico’s West Point, and spent many years raiding marijuana and poppy fields in rural operations that he said often led to shootouts with traffickers.

That confrontational approach didn’t exist when Leyzaola was hired in 2007 to be the director of the Tijuana police department. A year later, Leyzaola was promoted to secretary of public security, which expanded his authority.

Many officers in the 2,100-member Tijuana police force had long functioned as an arm of the hometown Arellano Felix drug cartel, acting as lookouts, drivers and providing protection for traffickers on their criminal rounds across the city.

Police often avoided shootouts or pursuits, Leyzaola said. They also refused to sign the criminal complaints necessary to prosecute suspects. Leyzaola took to the streets daily with his bodyguards and engaged in high-speed chases and gun battles that sometimes ended in bloodshed. He also personally signed more than 200 criminal complaints, he said.

“Organized crime groups were the owners of the city,” Leyzaola said. “They weren’t used to someone defying their orders.”

Officers who defy Leyzaola don’t last long. Several high-ranking officers with alleged links to organized crime have been arrested, including the longtime police liaison to U.S. law enforcement, Javier Cardenas, who was a friend of the mayor.

Leyzaola said that when a former military officer came to his office and offered him a large bribe from a major organized crime group, he pulled his weapon and personally delivered him to authorities in Mexico City.

The anti-corruption message has reached the rank and file.

The veteran officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said many police officers no longer pad their salaries by working for trafficking groups, and the big cars and nice homes that the most corrupt officers once enjoyed are a thing of the past.

“A lot of us used to work for them. But now a lot of cops are scared of going to jail, or losing their jobs,” said the officer.

Leyzaola is different from most police officers, he said. “He’s military, old school. He wakes up every day and salutes the . . . flag,” he said. “We’re regular civilians.”

Targeting police

Organized crime has lashed back. One of Mexico’s most wanted crime bosses, Teodoro Garcia Simental, is believed to be the force behind a relentless campaign of threats and killings of officers aimed at getting rid of Leyzaola.

In April, gunmen shot down seven officers in 45 minutes. After the shooting of another police officer in July, Garcia threatened to kill five officers a week. At least 15 have died since then.

Gunmen so far have failed to get a shot at Leyzaola, who travels in an armored SUV surrounded by 15 bodyguards. But they have hatched several plots. The most serious was foiled last month, when more than 20 suspected gunmen were arrested just before planning to ambush Leyzaola in fake military vehicles.

When Leyzaola got word of the plan to blow up his headquarters, he switched offices to a bunker-like tower in Tijuana’s Zona Rio neighborhood, where a large security detail employing sandbag barriers prevents unauthorized cars from parking under the building.

“He’s a marked man. They want Leyzaola gone because he’s effective. He takes this seriously, unlike a lot of these jackass cops,” said one U.S. law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to comment.

Leyzaola seems unfazed by the siege-like conditions. A slim man with thick eyebrows, he listens to soft rock music stations and jogs every morning in the park-like grounds of the Morelos military base, where he lives. He says he is just doing the job he was hired to do and has no political ambitions.

“I don’t feel pressure,” he added.

But he has shown flashes of anger. At a funeral for three police officers last year, he lashed out at journalists for taking photographs of grieving family members.

Last month, reporters witnessed his most troubling outburst. After arriving at the scene of a shootout, Leyzaola was informed that one officer who had saved a woman from the crossfire had died.

He walked up to an ambulance gurney holding a dead suspect, pulled back the sheet, and struck the corpse across the face.

“Why did you die? You should have stayed alive,” said Leyzaola, recalling his thoughts at the time. “Not even death is a worthy punishment for what you did.”

The most serious allegations against Leyzaola stem from a roundup in March of officers suspected of corruption. They were taken to the Morelos base, where 25 of them said they were tortured, according to a report by Amnesty International and testimony given to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington.

Several police officers said Leyzaola had personally delivered them to the base, shackled and blindfolded. Two of them said they recognized Leyzaola’s voice while they were being beaten, according to the reports. The torture allegedly included electric shocks applied to their feet and genitals.

Francisco Sanchez, the head of a local human rights group, said authorities’ crackdown on organized crime is necessary, but so is respect for the rule of law and human rights.

“It’s unclear if he actively participated in the torture, but the evidence suggests that he doesn’t respect the law and should be investigated,” Sanchez said.

Leyzaola denies any involvement, saying he merely arrests suspects and delivers them to the army base, where federal authorities take custody. He said he has no intention of backing down in the struggle against the drug bosses.

“If you attack me, I’ll retaliate,” Leyzaola said.

“If you attack again, I’ll retaliate with greater force. And if you attack me again, I’ll keep retaliating, again and again and again.”