Mexico’s rug war focuses on police corruption in Tijuana.
From the archives.
The Associated Press
Tijuana, Mexico — Behind every crime is a corrupt cop.
That’s Public Safety Secretary Julian Leyzaola’s mantra as he storms Tijuana with its most aggressive police reform to date, a mix of counterterrorism and community policing. If it works, it could be a model for other hotspots and a huge breakthrough in a drug war in Mexico that has taken more than 14,000 lives in the last three years.
But the job is as monumental as turning around Al Capone’s Chicago. Cops in this border city and many others nationwide now serve as the eyes and ears of drug lords. And those who fight the cartels — let alone those who lead that fight — often end up dead.
Leyzaola, 49, wanted to be in Tijuana. After 25 years in the army and stints running Baja California’s state prisons and police, he moved to the police department in 2007 to be at the center of the fight against organized crime. A year ago, he became head of the largest police force in Baja, where 90 percent of officers surveyed last year failed federal security checks.
Mexico Drug War Police Cleanup
In this Nov. 23, 2009 photo, Tijuana's Public Safety Chief Julian Leyzaola speaks with his police officers in Tijuana, Mexico. Leyzaola is leading the most aggressive police reform to date, a mix of counterterrorism and community policing. If it works, it would be a model for other hotspots and a huge breakthrough in a drug war that has taken more than 14,000 lives in Mexico since it was launched three years ago. (AP Photo/Guillermo Arias)
The Associated Press followed Leyzaola for eight months as he rallied troops, consoled officers’ widows and appealed to jaded residents for support. The AP joined commanders and officers on patrol, at target practice and in training classes.
“Listen well,” the retired military officer says with his trademark certitude. “No delinquent can survive without help from the authorities. If you do not clean up the police, you will never get rid of drug trafficking.”
Leyzaola’s march to recapture the city starts in early 2009 and expands to a new district every three months. The plan is to begin in quieter areas and end in 2011 in the east, the city’s most violent section, where Teodoro “El Teo” Garcia Simental wages a vicious campaign to take over Tijuana’s drug trade from the Arellano Felix family.
Leyzaola draws his strategy from many sources, including French counterterrorism operations in Algeria in the 1950s and Colombia’s war against its cartels in the ’90s. He has $7 million in federal money this year, part of the $300 million President Felipe Calderon is giving to clean up police nationwide.
They patrol small areas in new pickup trucks with radios less vulnerable to interference by drug traffickers. And they are reprimanded before their peers for every unanswered crime.
“If there are drug dealers, prostitutes, illegal immigrants, robberies, if anything happens … I’m going after that officer,” says Leyzaola, a former lieutenant colonel.
First up is downtown Tijuana.
In March, Felipe Gandara receives the order to show up for the downtown launch of Leyzaola’s aggressive community policing.
Gandara is one of about 400 Tijuana officers who passed the new training and background checks, and he begins by introducing himself at every bank, foreign-exchange business and restaurant.
“It’s important to lose your anonymity,” Leyzaola says. “I believe police abused their positions because no one knew who they were.”
The 37-year-old Gandara lost his longtime partner and close friend, Officer Luis Izquierdo, in the reorganization. Izquierdo had yet to go through background checks and was moved to another district.
But they both like Leyzaola’s approach.
“It was a complete change, a lot more responsibility,” Gandara says. “Every crime is your responsibility.”
Victor de la Cruz, the former Air Force officer appointed to oversee the launch, estimates a 40 percent increase in people reporting crimes in little more than a month.
The same month, Leyzaola continues his anti-corruption spree.
To date, about 130 officers have been jailed. About 250 others have been fired or pressured to resign.
When Leyzaola suspects cops are dirty, he puts them on patrol in the palm trees outside police headquarters — a job that humiliates most into quitting.
He also like confronting them personally — in his office, at their stations, even on patrol. He sometimes drives them himself to the army barracks, where they are held.
Ricardo Omar Medina, Leyzaola’s body guard of 18 months, receives a call late one March night to report at 8 a.m. for a new radio. When he arrives, his boss demands his vest, badge and other equipment.
“I’ve lost trust in you,” Leyzaola tells him.
According to court documents, one of the officers arrested said he got $500 a month from El Teo’s gang to keep streets clear of cops during murders and kidnappings. If he refused, his family would be killed. Another officer said he was paid $300 to $500 each time he released criminals at El Teo’s command.
Families of the officers come forward immediately to say their loved ones were tortured into false confessions — electrocuted genitals, near-suffocation, severe beatings.
“He couldn’t even speak, he just held my hand, trembling,” Cristina Zapien says after her first visit at an army base with her husband, Jaime Alberto Avila, a commander accused of taking $300 a month.
Leyzaola says he is not responsible for what happened to officers in army custody.
He says he played a wiretap to one woman who came to his office claiming her husband was tortured. A man on the tape is heard taking orders from a criminal to clear an area of patrol cars.
“Do you recognize the voice?” Leyzaola asked her.
“Yes,” she says, “I recognize the voice.”
The threats start on April 24, broadcast over Tijuana’s old police radios that drug traffickers routinely commandeer: If Leyzaola doesn’t resign, cops will die.
Three days later, Officer Izquierdo, Gandara’s former partner and mentor, is on the night shift, patrolling the San Diego border with three other cops.
He joined the force in 2002 for the money, after losing his job at an electronics factory. Tijuana pays police more than $13,000 a year, one of highest among Mexico’s local departments. Izquierdo promised his family the job was temporary, but he fell in love with it.
He wants to stay under Leyzaola’s reform and seems a good candidate. He has graduated high school, a new requirement for the police academy added this year, and he — like his top boss — is a fitness fanatic.
But his wife, Patricia Isaias, often tells him: “The only thing you’re going to get is a tombstone.”
That night, Izquierdo walks into a convenience store just as a caravan of black SUVs drives by. Men get out of the vehicles and pump him and three others with more than 200 bullets.
The police scanners hum with a “narcocorrido,” or a drug ballad. Three more officers go down in synchronized attacks across the city.
Gandara picks up the radio traffic and calls his wife.
“Luis is dead,” he says.
She calls Isaias to break the news: Seven officers killed in 45 minutes, including Izquierdo.
It is the department’s deadliest day.
The next day, Leyzaola stops the community policing, less than two months into the program. His officers are too exposed.
They turn to patrolling large areas in convoys of as many as six trucks. Every patrol vehicle gets an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle to boost their firepower against the assassins.
But Leyzaola pushes his other reforms.
He has introduced moving target practice to train police on assassination attempts. The artificial turf at his low-budget shooting range is held together with duct tape, and the “patrol car” for the exercise is two folding metal chairs. But it’s still a big improvement: As late as 2007, shooting practice was optional, and cops had to pay for their own bullets.
The department’s 2,000 officers get two-week courses on securing crime scenes, surveilling suspects and other basic policing techniques.
The tip comes in early June: Drug trafficker Filiberto Parra Ramos — wanted for killing two federal agents and for his role in one of Tijuana’s deadliest shootouts — is spotted in the Playas de Tijuana neighborhood. The army already is out looking.
Leyzaola, who sleeps with a pistol and a rifle and spends his nights on patrol “hunting” for criminals, joins the massive search.
After a false alarm, Parra is cornered at a shopping center near the airport. Leyzaola personally makes the arrest — nabbing one of El Teo’s top assassins without firing a single shot.
The hits ramp up in July.
The body of Officer Geronimo Calderon, pumped with bullets, is left with a note: “If you don’t resign, Leisaola (sic), I’m going to kill 5 x week.”
That night, a Tijuana cop survives an assassination attempt as he stands unarmed outside a grocery store. An officer dies in drive-by shooting the next day while guarding a Mexican Red Cross center, and a third is killed five days later in an ambush.
By September, funerals are part of Leyzaola’s routine.
The memorials look nothing like the display of pomp in the United States when an officer dies in the line of duty — no long motorcades transporting the casket or hundreds of officers attending from departments around the area. In Tijuana, there isn’t even money for $200 plaques to add their names to a City Hall police memorial.
Under a blazing midday sun, Leyzaola eulogizes three officers killed in another convenience store hit, this time in Playas de Tijuana, where seafood restaurants and apartment buildings line the Pacific shore.
“We say goodbye to three colleagues — honest colleagues, with unblemished records,” he tells the sparse crowd gathered outside police headquarters. “If there’s anyone who says otherwise, if there’s anyone who insinuates otherwise, they will have problems with the lieutenant colonel.”
When the three caskets are moved to City Hall, they draw curious onlookers, including Gabriel Perez.
“Three cops get killed and not even 100 people show up,” he says. “It’s sad.”
Leyzaola is also quietly campaigning to keep his job after his boss, Mayor Jorge Ramos, is forced out by term limits in December 2010. Leyzaola says senior officials in the Calderon administration assure him they will insist he stay under a new mayor. He tells the Constitutional Lawyers Association in one of his many civic talks that his plan needs five years.
“We’re really only in our first year,” he says. “In two years, Tijuana will see a real difference.”
After the September killings, Leyzaola moves his campaign to Playas de Tijuana three months earlier than scheduled.
The district gets new radios and 58 new Ford F250s. They had 14 patrol vehicles before.
The new commander, Rafael Dominguez, 39, comes from the Leyzaola mold. The son of a bricklayer in a small village in Veracruz, he had 21 years in the military but no police experience.
As he neared retirement, he called an old army buddy in the department to ask for a job.
“If not, I’m going to work for the other side,” he joked.
That led to an interview with Leyzaola, who impressed him with his military-like approach to police reform — clear, long-term goals and detailed short-term milestones.
By October, Dominguez is out patrolling with his officers, arresting vagrants and graffiti artists. He runs down a steep canyon called “Smuggler’s Gulch” one night and comes back out with six suspected smugglers.
The officers like the new approach. Old commanders ordered them to release suspects, often under threats that something bad would happen if they didn’t. But Dominguez tells his ranks to let him know if they are ever intimidated from making an arrest.
“I’ll do it,” he says. “I’ll be the one to show my face.”
All over the city, cops are scared. They routinely patrol with their rifles drawn.
Officer Mario Pena, who works in another district, stops wearing his uniform to work and alternates his routes home. He quits meeting officers for coffee on the job, stops socializing with them on weekends for fear they will be recognized and gunned down.
But he says the killings are a sign that Leyzaola is succeeding.
“We are finishing off the mafia,” he says.
El Teo has other plans:
By the end of September, the Mexican army gets another tip: U.S. authorities say a weapons purchase north of the border indicates a plot is afoot to kill Leyzaola.
The intelligence leads soldiers in October to a Tijuana shoe shop, where they arrest Edgar Zuniga, one of El Teo’s men. Zuniga leads them to a ranch on the eastern outskirts, where the plot is being hatched. Among other preparations, the assassins’ vehicles are being painted in camouflage to trick the career military man as they approach.
The plan calls for 12 men to approach Leyzaola in a fake military convoy as one takes him out with a .50-caliber rifle. The execution would be videotaped, set to a narcocorrido and posted on the Internet.
Soldiers surprise the planners Oct. 31 in a shootout at the ranch, arresting 13 suspects. They seize more than 3,400 bullets, plus the camouflaged vehicles.
The foiled hit had been personally ordered by El Teo — for the next day.
In Leyzaola’s first year as public safety secretary, 32 officers died, more than in the previous five years total. Dozens went to jail and the department shrunk from about 2,200 to 2,000 — forcing him to extend patrol shifts from eight to 12 hours.
His community policing plan is still on hold.
But Leyzaola already is looking to next year, telling officers he would 150 new hires, send 50 at a time to train with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and issue new bulletproof vests, each backed by a manufacturer’s $50 million guarantee.
Six more people are arrested in the assassination plot in November. Leyzaola is feeling confident enough to perhaps resume community policing early in 2010.
He avoids speculating on what would have happened if the plot had gone through.
He says, “God protects me.”
See also The Tijuana Police Chief.