JUAREZ -- In a country where impressionable youth and corrupt authorities revere the power of drug traffickers, Julian Leyzaola thinks of all criminals as equal: For him, they all have to go down.
A retired lieutenant colonel of the Mexican army, Leyzaola was sworn in as the chief of Juárez's municipal police in March. In that role, he has taken on the enormous challenge of reining in crime in one of the most violent cities in Mexico.
It is a daunting job, but he comes with experience. Leyzaola gained international prominence for helping reduce violence in Tijuana, cleaning up the city's police force and openly challenging drug organizations.
However, human-rights organizations have accused him of being directly involved in the torture of officers and other individuals to obtain confessions.
Leyzaola, the son and grandson of military officers, can switch from an aggressive and confrontational style to the calm, analytical demeanor of a military strategist. To stay safe in a city that has had about 8,000 killings in the past three years, Leyzaola eats and sleeps at police headquarters and carries a loaded Beretta.
Leyzaola recently spoke with several U.S. reporters, including two from the El Paso Times, about the similarities between Tijuana and Juárez, the human-rights accusations against him and his plans for regaining control of the city.
Q You've been in charge of the city's police department for three months. What kind of police force did you find upon your arrival?
A. I've found a police force with very low morale, infiltrated by criminals and anxious to recover its spaces, its prestige and the respect of the citizens. Definitely with bad police officers on the inside, it requires an internal cleansing that has already started quite aggressively.
I believe some 160 officers have left the force. Most of them have quit, some I have fired, and others have been indicted. I believe that those who have quit have done so because they no longer find the adequate conditions to honor their prior commitments and prefer to leave before they are caught.
But I think the agency is able to cleanse itself. If it's true that we have officers that come with dark intentions, it's also true that not the entire corporation is like that. We have to keep in mind that police officers are natives of this city. They are the most interested in seeing this city recover its stability.
Q How does Juárez compare to Tijuana?
A. Juárez and Tijuana have their similarities. They are both border cities that attract large populations from the center and south of the country.
But their internal problems are completely different. In Tijuana, the problematic was very complex. The organized crime situation was very well developed and evolved. They had separate divisions to handle kidnappings, executions, human trafficking, drug trafficking and extortion. Let's just say the criminal structure was very diversified over there.
Here in Juárez, it's like they are barely beginning. It's true that we have a very strong organized crime problem, but I don't think that organized crime is specialized in drug trafficking. It's specialized in other areas like extortions and car thefts. I think these two activities are the main problems in this city. Kidnappings also occur, but not with the frequency of other crimes occur.
Q Former members of the Juárez cartel have described similar divisions of labor as the ones you described in Tijuana (Published in a book titled "El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin"). Aren't the high numbers of killings and other major crimes a consequence of the presence of organized crime in the city?
A. No, that precisely demonstrates that instead of organized crime, it's disorganized crime.
Q Can you tell us about the current balance of power between the different criminal organizations in the city? Last week, for instance, messages in Parral announced a possible association between La Linea and Los Zetas.
A. I think they have the liberty to associate or disassociate with who ever they want. I'm not particularly interested whether they are together or not. In the end, we have to defeat them.
Q Los Zetas have a particularly bloody modus operandi, more so than any other criminal group. How can it affect the region?
A. I'm going to discern a bit. I don't share the idea that Los Zetas or any other criminal organization is more violent or sadistic than another. I don't know why Los Zetas are so feared. In the end they're just criminals. They're not different from the rest just because they call themselves Zetas.
Am I supposed to tremble when the Zetas are mentioned or what? I think it is them who should tremble when they talk about the authorities.
I'll tell you one thing, and this is a fact: No criminal organization, no matter how violent or aggressive it may be, is going to flourish if it doesn't have the support of the authorities. No matter who it is. If they don't, they are definitely destined to fail.
Q What's your take on the decrease in the number of killings and other major crimes in the last three months?
A. It's true there have been some improvements. Crime has gone down some, but I believe it's too soon to celebrate or to boast any concrete achievement. I believe these are push-and-pull situations. I suddenly took away the support of the police from criminals and they recoiled, but they are going to want to recover the ground they've lost.
That's why I still don't like to talk about good things, about successful results, because it's too soon. Maybe we can talk about something more concrete in six months. Then we would be able to say that the results are scientifically supported.
Q Recently, the municipal police carried out a number of operations to seize counterfeit products in downtown. Why have you focused in this area of the city and in this particular crime?
A. I'll give you a very clear example. I see crime in Juárez as a climbing plant. If I cut the branches of that plant, I may cause some damage, but I'll actually be strengthening it because I'll open space and they'll grow more.
It is clear to me that the stem of that plant is in the downtown area. Patrol cars were prohibited from entering that zone because it was the territory of organized crime. Everything was anarchy and chaos in that sector.
One could find anything there. Drugs were sold like tortillas, and lines were made to buy them.
I know that slot machines and the sale of counterfeit discs in downtown are businesses of organized crime. If I know where the stem is, then I'll go and cut it. The branches will dry out on their own.
You'll notice it. (Later this month) I'm going to split the downtown police beat into sectors. We're going to assign police officers every three to five blocks.
With this we will remove the police force's anonymity because every citizen in that area will know the police officers.
Q City government officials have mentioned upcoming large-scale operations to combat crime in the city. Are your operations in downtown part of that?
A. It's a program to recover spaces and it's the axis of our security program. One of the military arts principles to establish control is that if you can't be strong everywhere, concentrate your forces where you can make decisions.
I can't recover the city on one single strike, so I'm going to concentrate my forces in small spaces.
Then I'll go to another, and then another, until I recover the entire city.
Q When will downtown be safe like it was before the violence began and recover the economic vibrancy it had, thanks to tourism?
A. I would like that to happen right now, but according to our security program, we're talking about maybe mid-next year.
Q To recover spaces, don't you also have to regain the citizens' trust? Right now that is missing.
A. Yes, it's one of the areas where we have to work harder. Citizens' trust in the authorities is not won with speeches or words; it is won with concrete actions.
I'm talking about a year and a half before we're able to recover that trust. In the end, security is a sensation and it's very subjective, because I can talk about statistics and that crime is descending, but if the citizen doesn't feel safe, how is that good for me? What's the point of saying it?
Q Several human-rights organizations have issued reports stating there are credible claims that in Tijuana you were involved in torture to extract confessions. You've responded before by saying these reports were efforts to undermine your reputation. Isn't it far-fetched to say that internationally respected human-rights groups were involved in an attack campaign against you?
A. I don't doubt of the good will and good intentions of human-rights organizations. I'm skeptical of the people they interviewed.
Also, the reality is that these organizations base their reports exclusively on the testimony of the complainants. These people say I took them out of their houses and that I tortured them, and (the organizations) automatically assumed it's true, because 24 of them said it. But did they see who those people were?
They base themselves on what those people said, but there is no scientific investigation.
Q So the accusations of torture are not true?
A. At least not by me. Not by my hands.
Q How do you balance the particular law enforcement needs of Juárez with retaining respect for human rights?
A. I think we all have to respect human rights. I think it is important to keep an eye on the actions of the police or any authority by a citizen organization, and to observe and verify complaints. Such an organism does need to exist but I also know that criminals try to protect themselves using this very resource.
The only thing I'll say is that a criminal is a criminal. Some of them call themselves human, which I doubt considering the aberrations some of them commit, like chopping up women or locking them up and torturing them for days. And they still demand that their rights are respected? I believe that the punishment of criminals has to be in the in direct proportion to the harm they caused.
Q What about torture?
A. Torture shouldn't be permitted, of course. If authorities are involved in torture, they are no different from criminals.
Q What's your relationship with state authorities and the federal police like?
A. With the state, we have an excellent relationship, there's a lot of collaboration and coordination. With the army it's the same thing.
With the federal police, there is no coordination. They have their work programs and we are starting our own, but there is no coordination.
Q For some time before you arrived, the federal police was in charge of preventive police work in the city, and before they leave they must transfer their responsibilities to the municipal police. Won't that lack of collaboration affect the transition?
A. In the end, they have to leave. Their current responsibilities are actually my responsibilities, not theirs. And it's not an aggression. They gradually have to reduce their number of officers in the city. Whether they want to do it in collaboration with us or they want to do it alone, it's their decision.
Q Tell us about the death threats you've received and the measures you take to protect yourself.
A. It's normal. Threats are a way for criminal organizations to test the psychological resistance of the authorities.
I never underestimate a threat. I take them all seriously. But I'm professional in what I do, and there are passive and active measures I take to keep myself safe.
I'm never in the same place at the same time. I never repeat routes.
You will never see me eating out in a restaurant. Never. I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner in this very place.
When I send my men home, I lock myself up at headquarters. You will never see me alone in the streets.
I know what I came here for, my responsibilities and the risks. And one of my responsibilities is to keep myself alive to continue with the job.
Q Why did you take this job and what's your motivation?
A. It's idealism. When I entered the military college, for four years they got into my head that we were destined to transform the country, to make a difference. And they made me believe it.
Then I returned to the Superior School of War, and for three years they reiterated the same idea.
They made me egomaniacal, because I thought I could achieve something as big as transforming a country.
And since that time, 35 years have gone by.
And you know what the worst part is?
I still believe it.