Leyzaola goes after ‘filthy, shiftless’ foes
San Diego Union Tribune
Tijuana’s public safety secretary, Lt. Col. Julian Leyzaola Perez, has a five-year plan to gain control of the city.
Julian Leyzaola Perez
Born: Culiacán, Sinaloa
Military career: Lieutenant colonel with 25 years on active duty; on leave since 2000
Civilian career: Public security posts in state government in Oaxaca; head of state police academy, director of state penitentiaries, head of State Preventive Police in Baja California; top operational commander with Tijuana Police Department; currently Tijuana’s secretary of public safety
Family: Married, three children, two grandchildren
TIJUANA —They’ve gunned down his officers; left him taunting, handwritten messages at crime scenes; and more than once plotted his assassination.
But Tijuana’s hard-driving secretary of public safety says he’s not going away. He says that would be giving in to the criminal groups that torture, kidnap, kill and corrupt as they fight for control of the region’s drug-trafficking trade and lucrative smuggling routes to the United States. When the subject comes up, the derisive term he favors is los mugrosos y los holgazanes — Spanish for “the filthy and the shiftless.”
“If I pay attention to them and leave, then I’m their collaborator,” Leyzaola said during a recent interview. He has a five-year plan to increase police training, improve equipment and gain control of the city, and he hopes to carry it out.
For security reasons, he no longer operates out of the small, bustling police headquarters on Calle Ocho downtown. Instead, he receives visitors in an office building that police use a few blocks away in the city’s Rio Zone. When he moves around the city, it’s only under heavy guard.
“The criminals think they’re businessmen, but we have to make them realize they’re delinquents, that they have to hide, and not drive around the city in caravans of eight or 10 vehicles showing their weapons,” Leyzaola said. “Before, they controlled authorities, and as a person, as a society, as a public servant, I can’t allow that.”
On leave from the Mexican armed forces, he’s the first military officer to head the 2,100-officer municipal department, the largest police agency in Baja California.
Some care little for his brash manner and tough talk, saying it only serves to infuriate dangerous adversaries and that his officers end up paying the price. But others praise him for daring to bring about change: In a city where it has sometimes been difficult to distinguish the cops from the criminals, Leyzaola has taken pains to point out the difference.
“Julian Leyzaola is playing a very important role, which is confronting crime,” said Roberto Quijano, a corporate attorney who heads the Tijuana branch of the national business group, Coparmex, and an observer of crime trends. “It is costing many lives, but he is doing a good job and being recognized for it.”
To avert attacks, police have been ordered to patrol in groups, and in recent weeks have been moving through the city in squads of three to five pickups. By Leyzaola’s tally, 42 officers have been gunned down in the line of duty in the past two years.
“It wasn’t this way before, because they were cooperating with the criminals, and now they’re facing them as police,” Leyzaola said. “I call them heroes, because they know the risks they’re up against, and yet they still come to work, step into their patrol vehicles and attend to citizens.”
State investigators say the tally is higher — 56 Tijuana municipal officers killed in the past two years — and that the causes aren’t so clear-cut. They say up to 45 percent of the deaths could be linked to the officer’s suspicious activity.
But some were indisputably killed for doing their jobs. And others were shot because they were wearing police uniforms — killings allegedly ordered by suspected drug-gang leader Teodoro García Simental to pressure Leyzaola to step down.
With civilian police agencies across Mexico weakened by decades of internal corruption, the military has assumed a central role in confronting drug-trafficking groups under Mexican President Felipe Calderón. Increasingly, military officers such as Leyzaola have been tapped for leadership positions in civilian law enforcement agencies across Mexico.
He said his close relationship with military authorities has been crucial in his current job: “We have total, total coordination. Without their support, we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish anything here.”
A trim, athletic 49-year-old, Leyzaola is the son and grandson of military officers, becoming a soldier at 16 when he enrolled in the Heroico Colegio Militar, Mexico’s West Point. He now lives apart from his family and sleeps at the military base in Tijuana for security reasons.
Leyzaola isn’t new to civilian law enforcement: Previous positions include heading Baja California’s prison system and the state’s police force. But never before has he drawn so much public scrutiny.
A widely viewed YouTube video shows Leyzaola detaining a violent drug suspect named José Filiberto Parra Ramos this year in the parking lot of a Tijuana shopping center.
Unaware that journalists were watching one Saturday in October, he punched the body of a suspect who had been killed in a confrontation with police officers. It was an act of frustration, he later explained, because he had just learned that an officer shot in the incident had died.
Last month, Leyzaola made headlines again when he said the members of Los Tucanes de Tijuana, a popular musical group, should be investigated for links to drug traffickers because of their songs that celebrate violent exploits.
Leyzaola’s staunchest civilian supporter is Tijuana Mayor Jorge Ramos, who appointed Leyzaola to the department’s No. 2 spot when he began his term two years ago. In December 2008, as drug-related violence rose to unprecedented levels, Ramos promoted Leyzaola to the top position, secretary of public safety, replacing Alberto Capella, an attorney and anti-crime activist.
“This was not a job for a civilian,” Ramos said. “We needed someone who would win the trust of the population, but most of all of military authorities.”
Under Capella and now with Leyzaola, the department has undergone an unprecedented purging, with the dismissal or resignation of 470 officers. Of those, 120 are behind bars, including at least a dozen high-ranking commanders accused of collaborating with organized crime.
Ramos said Tijuana spends close to $105 million a year on public safety — one-third of the city’s budget. Police salaries have been increased, and a starting officer receives nearly $1,200 a month, which Ramos said is the highest for a municipal department in Mexico.
Still, the results of the city’s crime-fighting efforts remain difficult to quantify.
State government figures show that crime has gone down, 12 percent in Tijuana in the first nine months of this year compared with the same period in 2008. But an analysis by Coparmex, the business group, shows overall crime in Tijuana down 7 percent from last year, and thefts and robberies have risen. Homicides have dropped from a record 844 last year to 530 so far this year, about half of them attributed to organized crime, according to the Baja California Attorney General’s Office.
While lauding the city’s efforts, Quijano, the Coparmex president, said, “The general impression is that there’s still a lot to be done.” He said the city feels far safer than it did a year ago, and that residents are once again venturing out to movies and restaurants. But Quijano and others say Tijuana’s crime trends are part of a regional problem that depends not just on Tijuana police but on measures such as crime-prevention programs, drug-abuse-prevention measures and coordination among agencies, including those in the United States.
In Mexico, municipal police serve as patrol officers in charge of maintaining public order; they don’t investigate crimes, but are often the first on the scene once a crime has occurred. For drug-trafficking groups, corrupt municipal police have been important allies by allowing them to commit crimes with impunity.
An officer with seven years on the force said he has noticed a difference when he detains criminals.
“When we catch someone, there is a legal process that follows,” the officer said. “Before, when you made an arrest, if the suspect worked for someone powerful, we’d let him go.”
He and other officers interviewed for this story asked not to be identified because they fear repercussions if they speak out. One high-ranking commander acknowledged that his working conditions have changed, saying, “We needed a cleansing of the most corrupt officers.”
The commander, who has 15 years on the force, said it was once common practice to receive orders from superiors to stay away from certain areas or ignore calls for assistance, which allowed criminals to conduct business. “I felt angry, but I couldn’t do anything,” said the officer, adding that the practice has come to a stop.
Still, not everyone is applauding. One patrolman said he feels trapped because he’s afraid to go out on patrol, but more afraid of the suspicions he would arouse if he tried to leave the force. And families of at least two dozen detained officers say the officers were tortured by military authorities seeking to extract confessions, accusing Leyzaola of turning them in without a judicial order and being present during the interrogations. Leyzaola has denied participation in any acts of torture.
With the support of human- rights groups, the families have spoken out before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C. Raúl Ramírez Baena, a former Baja California human-rights ombudsman, said Leyzaola should be suspended while civilian authorities investigate the complaints.
“He is the only one who has taken a decided stance against organized crime; we recognize that,” said Ramírez, who now heads a small group called Citizens Committee for Human Rights of the Northwest. “But you can’t fight crime by committing another crime.”
Leyzaola said that much work needs to be done in the months ahead, including improving equipment and training, and hiring officers. The city is working with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to send 50 Tijuana officers at a time for three-month training programs.
Leyzaola said he’s moving forward using a strategy that involves gaining control of one sector of the city at a time.
“I knew from the beginning that recovering the city would not be easy, I knew from the beginning that we’d have to confront them,” Leyzaola said. “In wars, there are deaths, and this is war.”
In the year since Lt. Col. Julian Leyzaola Perez became Tijuana’s top cop, drug traffickers have gone to great measures to force him out.