Posted by William Finnegan
Last week, in Mexico, Lieutenant Colonel Julian Leyzaola Perez (retired) took one of the world’s worst jobs: police chief of Ciudad Juárez.
I wrote in October about Leyzaola’s flamboyant, controversial reign as Tijuana’s police chief. There he presided over a significant drop in public violence, directly challenging powerful drug lords, jailing and firing hundreds of cops whom he considered corrupt, and surviving four assassination attempts.
Municipal police chiefs in Mexico are not expected to—and normally don’t—challenge the drug traffickers who effectively rule the country. Leyzaola got great press, particularly in the U.S., and was praised by, among others, President Felipe Calderón and the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. He was most proud, he told me, of his anti-corruption campaign.
Unfortunately, there was extensive evidence that that campaign proceeded largely by torture, and not by investigation. Amnesty International found twenty-five police officers who have claimed credibly that they were seized and tortured by soldiers on Leyzaola’s orders. The Baja California state human-rights commission released a report detailing Leyzaola’s personal participation in torture and recommending that he be suspended. He was not.
Ciudad Juárez is in a desperate situation. Like Tijuana, it is a border town. Two major drug cartels are battling for supremacy in the Juárez “plaza.” The city is said to be the second most violent in the world, after Mogadishu.
Last year there were thirty-one hundred murders in Juárez. Another five hundred people have died this year already. (In El Paso, Texas, which is just across the border and roughly half the size of Juárez, there were five murders last year.) And so into this drug-gang war zone rides Julian Leyzaola.
His hiring has been blessed by President Calderón. Leyzaola released a statement saying that he has come to Juárez to do “ethical, serious and professional work.” Local human-rights groups, who have called him “the torturer-in-chief,” fear an escalation of the violence, with a new twist: police participation “in the style of the death squads in Brazil and Colombia.”
Good guys are hard to find in the Mexican drug war. An American diplomatic cable from 2009, released by WikiLeaks, reported that the Mexican Army “would like to see the Sinaloa cartel win” in Juárez.
Sinaloa is the most powerful organized crime group in Mexico. It is believed to control the Tijuana plaza without significant rivals today. Its hegemony in Juárez, however, is still being challenged by a group known as the Juárez cartel.
The same diplomatic cable reported that a former mayor of Juárez had admitted that “100 percent of the municipal police force was corrupt.” On Leyzaola’s second day on the job, he was welcomed to town by a message attached to a torture victim wrapped in a blanket. “This is your first gift,” the message said. It was signed, “the Sinaloa cartel.” The dark lord of Tijuana has his work cut out for him.