Julio Ledezma had been chief of police in La Junta, a town of 8,700 in northern Mexico, for barely three months when a pair of strangers paid him a visit.
They said an aide to the mayor had sent them, and they bore gifts: a briefcase stuffed with cash and a truck for Ledezma’s personal use.
In return, the new chief was to distract federal police at security checkpoints with fake calls for assistance. The diversion would allow drug traffickers to drive through the area without inspection.
Ledezma could refuse -- and be killed.
He could take the bribe -- and be owned by the Juarez cartel.
He chose to stall. He told the men he had to talk to his boss first. He approached civic leaders, trying to rally support. Word got back to the traffickers, and on Ledezma’s 45th birthday, six men with military rifles surrounded his home while he was out buying steaks and jalapenos for his birthday dinner.
The gunmen told his wife that they would find him and kill him, no matter where he went in Mexico. They waited about 20 minutes, then left.
When Ledezma returned, he realized that resistance was not an option. He drove to Juarez with his wife and their 15-year-old daughter and crossed the Bridge of the Americas into El Paso. There, they asked for political asylum.
Their request will probably be rejected, because asylum is reserved for people fleeing political oppression or ethnic discrimination. Police officers who stood up to drug cartels don’t necessarily qualify.
Indeed, the U.S. government is aggressively fighting Ledezma’s petition on the grounds that the threat that caused him to flee is inherent to police work, according to his lawyer, Eduardo Beckett. U.S. immigration officials said they could not comment because asylum cases are confidential.
As drug violence has worsened in Mexico, businesspeople, journalists and other professionals have been seeking refuge in the U.S. But few have as much at stake as law enforcement figures who defy the cartels.
No statistics are available on how many police officers have sought asylum in this country, but government sources and immigration attorneys suggest the number is increasing.
That is no surprise, because Mexican police have been “left out in the cold by the very institution they sought to protect,” said Bruce J. Einhorn, a retired immigration judge in Los Angeles who directs an asylum clinic at Pepperdine University School of Law.
Police officers seeking refuge in this country face an uncertain future. If their asylum applications are rejected, they can be deported to Mexico, to face near-certain retaliation from the cartels. To avoid such a fate, they can try to strike a deal with U.S. authorities to provide information about drug trafficking in Mexico. Or they can try to remain in this country illegally.
Their plight poses a quandary for U.S. officials, who are seeking to bolster honest Mexican police to curb the influence of the cartels.
“These cases are problematic,” said Kathleen Walker, an El Paso lawyer and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. “It’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.”
In recent months, judges have granted refuge to a few Mexicans fleeing drug-related violence, according to immigration lawyers. But none were police officers.
George Grayson, a professor of government at the College of William and Mary in Virginia and an expert on U.S.-Mexico relations, said that if immigration judges began to grant asylum liberally to people fleeing the cartels, “We’d have literally tens of thousands of police officers coming to the United States, not to mention some mayors, too.”
Cartels’ long reach
In some cases, disillusioned or terrified officers simply head for a border post and ask for asylum. They are held in detention facilities while waiting for their applications to be reviewed by asylum officers and a federal immigration court, a process that can take years. More often, Mexican police enter the country on visitor visas; they then have up to a year to apply for asylum. Such applicants typically remain free while awaiting a ruling.
Through immigration lawyers, interviews were arranged with Ledezma and two other Mexican police officers now in this country. Their accounts provide a glimpse of the drug cartels’ reach and brazenness.
One of the officers, a detective in Baja California, received a call seeking inside information about two jailed murder suspects linked to the cartels.
The 39-year-old detective, interviewed on condition that he would be identified only as Alvarez, said he suspected that a fellow officer had set him up for the bribery attempt.
Alvarez said he had been brash enough to ask how some of his colleagues could afford fancy clothes, new cars and expensive weapons on their $1,000-a-month salaries.
The anonymous caller wanted to know about interrogations of the two suspects. Alvarez had had the men moved from a jail cell to police headquarters so he could question them about a pair of killings he was investigating.
“He said, ‘You transferred some of my guys who work for me. And I want you to let me know every time you go to see them,’ ” Alvarez recalled.
No money was offered, but Alvarez knew how the traffickers worked. They paid $3,000 upfront, he said, and $2,000 more each time a cop tipped them to a raid or gave other information.
“I told him, ‘You should call someone else. I’m not that kind of person,’ ” Alvarez said. “He said, ‘You’re not going to listen to me? You’re not going to do it?’ ”
Two weeks later, Alvarez got another call. It was his daughter, reporting that armed men had been seen outside their home. Alvarez asked a supervisor for protection. The supervisor shrugged and said there was nothing he could do.
Alvarez fled with his family, entering the U.S. at San Ysidro on visitor visas. He is living in Southern California, working at a supermarket.
He said Mexican police need more support and better pay to resist the cartels. Otherwise, Alvarez said, “There won’t be any honest cops left.”
An officer in the border city of Juarez, who asked to be identified only as Jesus, was on vacation last spring when his supervisor and a fellow officer were shot to death in the same truck Jesus drove when on duty.
A cartel had targeted members of the city’s police force because many of them worked with the rival Juarez drug organization. The traffickers broadcast death threats over a stolen police radio.
In the weeks leading up to the killings, Jesus and fellow officers patrolled only in groups. He switched personal cars and never drove an official car home.
After the slayings, he reluctantly concluded that he had no future in Mexico law enforcement.
He is now living in Colorado, where he has applied for asylum.
“The reality is that I can’t trust anybody in Mexico,” Jesus said.
A case of do or die
Police work was in Julio Ledezma’s blood. His father was a police officer, and Ledezma was a mounted officer in Juarez before turning in his badge for something different: He moved 320 miles south and became a mariachi singer and vocal instructor in La Junta.
Nearly 15 years later, in 2007, reform fervor swept the area after President Felipe Calderon’s PAN party won regional elections. Ledezma said he was impressed with talk of reorganizing La Junta’s “deplorable” police department. A civic leader encouraged him to apply, and he became chief in November 2007.
His predecessor, he recalled, offered some advice: “Some people are going to visit you. My suggestion is you cooperate with them.”
Undeterred, Ledezma recruited and trained new officers and outfitted them with weapons and bulletproof vests. Then the two cartel representatives confronted him with their offer: Join us or die.
Playing for time, Ledezma told the men that he couldn’t accept without talking to the mayor’s chief of staff. One of the traffickers pulled out a cellphone and dialed the man’s number. He was connected on speakerphone.
The point was made: Ledezma could expect no help.
Ledezma regrets leaving behind friends, family and the life he had built in Mexico. He is living in the U.S. interior but asked that the location not be revealed, for safety reasons.
“It hurts to be here” he said. But crossing the border was his only option.
“They never forget,” he said of the men who threatened him. “Sooner or later they’ll catch you.”
This report is published in cooperation with the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, where Becker is a staff reporter.