Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

Tijuana Top Cop who Fought Cartels is Out of a Job

Sunday, November 28, 2010 |

By Elliot Spagat
Associated Press

File - In this Dec. 2, 2008 file photo, Mexican Army Lt. Col. Julian Leyzaola, looks on after being sworn in as the new Public Safety Secretary in Tijuana, Mexico. Leyzaola was dismissed Friday, Nov. 26, 2010, after showing unprecedented zeal trying to end the grip of drug cartels on one of Mexico's most notoriously corrupt police forces.

Julian Leyzaola tried with unprecedented zeal to end the grip of drug cartels on one of Mexico's most notoriously corrupt police forces: In two years as top cop, he blanketed key parts of Tijuana with vetted officers, new patrol cars and military commanders, while purging hundreds of allegedly corrupt cops.
The retired army officer survived a drug-gang assassination campaign that killed dozens of his officers. He says he rejected an $80,000-a-week offer from an emissary of Mexico's most-wanted drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

Now he's out of a job.

Mayor-Elect Carlos Bustamante said he will appoint Leyzaola's closest aide, Gustavo Huerta, as public safety secretary when his term begins Tuesday. Huerta, 42, knows Tijuana and is positioned to build on recent successes, Bustamante's spokeswoman said.

Leyzaola has been praised by President Felipe Calderon, U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual, U.S. law enforcement and Tijuana's business elite for standing up to the cartels and bringing order in the face of the city's worst drug violence.

Yet the state's human rights ombudsman accuses Leyzaola of beating some people suspected of killing cops. Some officers he arrested for corruption have been let go for lack of evidence and say they were tortured in custody. Huerta was also named in one complaint filed by several officers.

Leyzaola says the allegations come from critics who don't like his get-tough approach.

"The reality is that we needed extreme measures to restore order," he told officers last September after the human rights report came out. "That's what we did. It was necessary."
Mexico's local police forces are often bribed to be the eyes and ears of drug cartels, yet most police chiefs won't attack the gangs, noting that organized crime is a federal responsibility. They tend instead to focus on traffic violations, car thefts, assaults and home invasions.

That hands-off approach favors the cartels, says Daniel Sabet, a visiting professor at Georgetown University who studies Mexico's local police forces.

"You can't just shrug your shoulders and say it's not our jurisdiction," he said. "If there's an organized crime guy with an AK-47, you have to make that arrest."

Leyzaola, a chess aficionado who stays fit by playing handball, relished his pursuit of Tijuana's drug lords, calling his targets cockroaches, scum and dirty fat pigs. He captured and interrogated them himself.

He began his march to recapture Tijuana in early 2009 by reforming police in a different district of the city every three months. First, a strike force made a slew of arrests. Then beat cops were replaced by officers who passed intensive background checks. Former military officers with no police experience took over as district commanders.

When he suspected cops were dirty, he tried to humiliate them into quitting. First he assigned them to patrol palm trees outside his office, and later had them bake in the sun on the new headquarters' heliport.

"I have two up there right now," he said with a smile behind his large desk. "Until they get vertigo."

In early January, federal authorities arrested Teodoro "El Teo" Garcia Simental—one of Leyzaola's "dirty fat pigs"—who allegedly was behind the cop-killing campaign and hung bodies from freeways and beheaded victims.

From the confessions of El Teo's top lieutenants in custody, Leyzaola learned that corruption was hitting close to home: a district police commander was taking $6,000 a month to tip El Teo to law enforcement presence. He was Leyzaola's close friend from military school.

They also said El Teo employed another district commander whom Leyzaolo tapped for special projects.

In March 2009, Jorge Sanchez was among 25 officers who were arrested on suspicion of working for El Teo. A 16-year veteran, he led the strike force that went into the first district targeted for makeover: downtown Tijuana. He reported directly to Leyzaola.

Sanchez remembers sitting with Leyzaola in the mayor's office to discuss security for a boxing match. As they wrapped up, Leyzaola said Gen. Alfonso Duarte Mugica, the army general in charge of Tijuana, wanted Sanchez to report to the military base because "someone is saying things about you."

From the back seat of Leyzaola's Ford Expedition, Sanchez insisted he was honest.

"You're going to have to be very strong," he remembers Leyzaola saying as they parted. "You need to be very firm in your statements."

To Sanchez, the message was clear: he was about to be tortured.

Sanchez says a plastic bag was placed over his mouth three times while his eyes were covered with tape, and he was punched in the stomach. Others claim they got electric shocks while in military custody.

He was among 13 officers who were released in August 2010—17 months after their arrest—when a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence. Now he wants his job back.

The police force has shrunk to about 2,000 officers from nearly 2,600 three years ago as officers who were fired or quit under pressure have yet to be replaced due to budget constraints.

Leyzaola has poured much of the money he gets into the six police districts that have received his makeover. At his last change-of-command ceremony this month, the southern Sanchez Taboada district got 53 new patrol cars; before, it had seven. A career military officer was put in charge, and the officers got new radios that are less susceptible to being intercepted by drug traffickers.

Only four officers have been assassinated on duty in the city this year, down from 29 last year.

Car thefts and other robberies are down sharply but there were 681 murders from January through October. That's up 40 percent from the same period last year but still shy of the record 843 deaths in all of 2008.

In an unusual public tribute, the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement agencies took the stage at Tijuana's gleaming cultural center in September to praise his accomplishments.

Since the election in July, Leyzaola has thought his days were numbered and didn't hide his disappointment at the prospect of losing his job. He said that he needed five years to turn around the force.

"If I don't stay, I hope that you continue to work with loyalty and honor," he recently told a group of officers. "I hope our mission doesn't change and that we don't return to ways of the past."

Associated Press writer Mariana Martinez contributed to this report.

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13 Borderland Beat Comments:

hasta la madre said...

I can't understand the gringos fascination with this man. If his police force has improved so much, and is such a world class agency, why for the third time, has CALEA denied Tijuana its accreditation?
Leyzaola's only major achievement was the apprehension of La Perra back in 2009. El Teo, Chiquilin and El Muletas were all arrested in B.C.S. by the PFP.
If Leyzaola was such a badass, why did El Teo escape at least twice when his municipal forces had him surrounded?
Que bueno que va pa fuera ese cabron, tenia muchos huevos pero aparte de andar golpeando cadaveres, que resultados mostro?

Anonymous said...

Well, I think they should have kept the guy on. I visit often to Tijuana and somehow it does feel safer. At least a tad.

Anonymous said...

hasta la madre, i live in mid-west of usa.... and i don't get all the facts...but i have a ? for you... do you think la barbie turn him self in or he was captured... some say that chapp-guzman was on his trail... that's why he turn himself in.... thanks... anthony

Anonymous said...

Barbie turned himself in for several reasons. The main reason is the Beltran Leyvas were after him. I don't think Chapo Guzman really cared for him so much as to send his crew of hitmen after him. La Barbie was in his well established territory where people hid him and protected him, central Mexico. La Barbien I think in my opinion like many provided intel for the following of Arturo his other brother and the rest who have fallen from Los Beltranes but he never had the intel to back stab anyone from the Sinaloa cartel...Atleast I don't think...He was never that close to any at the Sinaloa Cartel, He was Arturos Cronny at best..Never a leader but more of an outcast that Arturo respected..The rest of the Beltranes never really trusted him from what everyone said.

Anonymous said...

I would describe him as Tijuanas General Petraeus.

He took a seemingly impossible situation and got things turned around. Was he perfect? No. Did he get things done that no one else had? Yes.

He will be missed and should be recognized as one of the good guys. Maybe Ciudad Victoria or Juarez should bring him in.

Anonymous said...

He is in the way of the cartels.
Of course the government is going to fire him.
The biggest narcos are in Government on both sides.... USA and Mexico.

hasta la madre said...

Hey 8:58am, what exactly did he get done?

Anonymous said...

He got rid of the rift-raft. Fought corruption the only way it can be fought--fire with fire.

Mexico like the US wallow in too much "humanitarian rights" muck. Those are the people you need to watch out for--those are the ones on the side of the cartels. Even if by default.

They try to prevent strong-armed resistance. Result? The strong arms of the Cartels prevail. Might as well get rid of law enforcement/military if not allowed to do its job. And this does include, at times, holding someone's feet to the fire.

Anonymous said...

I think he should flee to the US. He will be a target for the cartels. Im sure they want him killed

Anonymous said...

IT IS SUCH A GOOD WEEK....TIJUANA WOKE UP BEAUTIFUL TODAY... IM SURE THIS IS BECAUSE OF NO MORE Leyzaola!!!!!! im just sad that it is because he was fired and not him being captured by el inge or teos people....teo and inge although they hated each other they teamed up to try to take Leyzaola out but that shythead kept getting away...im glad he is gone and cant wait to see LOS TUCANES DE TIJUANA play in TIJUANA once again!!!!!!!!!! thank god no more Leyzaola...que chingues a tu madreeee Leyzaola!!!!!!!! im just sad hes not dead liek he should be..he caused so many problems and even sent his own men to get tortured....although it wasnt the CAF that got him it is good news to finally see him check out :):):):):):):):):):):):):):):):):):):):)

Anonymous said...

Leyzaola only caused problems.. he caused all the damn wars and killings...take that money and keep it on the low that way theres no violence.....theres no way around it..you white boys in usa keep buying our bricks and keep making us rich jajajaja

Anonymous said...

I think this guy is a good cop and someone needs to give him a job in another hot zone. Let me preface that I have had this feeling before about Mexican officials to all the sudden find out they are involved in the drug cartels. Maybe this guy is for real.

Buela said...

Thanks for running this Buggs! I often think we focus too much on the gore and miss relevant stories. This one really tugged at my heart. He is the one and only honest, chief along the border I have heard of. They all are in bed with DTOs and this man was different.

There was a time I cared about human rights of all persons, even criminals, that was 35 yrs ago when I still had those rose color glasses, but I now feel people that commit such atrocities against others and or have knowledge valuable to the fight against evil, then I say fuck their civil rights, they give those up when they behead the first person, or torture the first poor soul...this man deserves the medal of honor...

my dos centavos

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