Less than a month into his job as the top police official in Mexico's most violent city, Lt. Col. Julian Leyzaola is confronting the kind of abuse allegation that dogged his similar law-enforcement stint in Tijuana.
Human rights activists Monday demanded an outside investigation into the "enforced disappearance" of four civilian men March 26 in Ciudad Juarez, the northern border city with the highest drug-war death toll in the nation.
Witnesses told human rights investigators that they saw police round up the men, all in their 20s, in front of a market. Some of the purported police wore camouflage uniforms belonging to an elite unit that supplies bodyguards for Leyzaola and whose commander reports to him, said Gustavo de la Rosa, veteran activist and member of the state human rights commission.
Ciudad Juarez Mayor Hector Murguia ordered his staff to investigate. City police denied having the men in custody. The New York-based Human Rights Watch said the probe thus far has been "lackluster" and called for federal investigators to take charge of the case.
A spokesman for Leyzaola's department said it would cooperate in any investigation of the disappearances.
Murguia appointed Leyzaola as public security secretary overseeing all police in Ciudad Juarez on March 10. The flamboyant retired army officer had served in the same position in Tijuana, in the state of Baja California, for two years until 2010. There he was credited with helping to rein in skyrocketing murder rates and other drug-war violence and with rooting out corruption from police ranks.
But his successes came with a price: He was also accused of participating in and condoning torture, including the beating and near-asphyxiation of police officers he suspected of being on the traffickers' payroll and of other detainees accused of having killed cops.
And a secret U.S. diplomatic cable, recently divulged by WikiLeaks, cited reports that suggested Leyzaola crushed one drug gang in Tijuana by striking deals with its rivals.
The human rights groups are not accusing Leyzaola of having a direct role in the March 26 disappearances in Ciudad Juarez, the largest city in the state of Chihuahua, which sits across the border from El Paso. But past "credible" allegations of torture, arbitrary detention and other abuses made against Leyzaola raise questions about whether he can or will properly investigate the new cases, the groups said. His checkered history also casts doubt on the kind of leadership he can provide Juarez's troubled police forces and on his ability to bring about reform, said Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch.
"It is reprehensible for authorities in Baja California and Chihuahua to promote an official against whom there are credible accusations of torture," Vivanco said in a statement. "It sends precisely the wrong message to security forces: that violating human rights is the mark of a good officer."
Leyzaola, who has dismissed abuse allegations as efforts to smear him, has his work cut out for him in Ciudad Juarez, where more than 3,000 people were killed last year alone. A succession of military commanders and federal police deployments has failed to stem the bloodshed as rival drug cartels fight for territory and market share.