"You can't apply a strategy from a desk. You have to apply it in the street." - Julián Leyzaola, Chief of Police in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
JUST a few days into his new job as the police chief here in Mexico’s longtime murder capital, Julián Leyzaola said, he received a phone call from the boss of a crime syndicate named La Linea. Mr. Leyzaola had been threatened before, quite often, in his last job as the head of public security in Tijuana.
But this call was different. It came from a former police officer, who called the chief’s cellphone to suggest a partnership. “It’s Diego,” said the crime boss, José Antonio Acosta Hernández. “I’m at your service.”
Chief Leyzaola, 51, a trim former military officer with a flair for drama, smiled at the recollection. The call came in March. In July, he arrested El Diego and his main collaborators, including several police officers. “I don’t dialogue with delinquents,” he said.
But ever since that victory over La Linea, Chief Leyzaola — already Mexico’s most renowned and controversial policeman — has been under a spotlight that keeps getting hotter. Positive and negative developments have intertwined: violence has declined in Juárez, with murders down by around a third over the last year; at the same time, complaints of human rights abuses by the police have increased, including some against the chief himself; and now that La Linea is gone, one of its rivals, the Sinaloa cartel, has become more powerful.
This appears to be the Leyzaola package. A similar dynamic played out during his time in Tijuana from 2008 through 2010, and just as residents there are still trying to make sense of his approach, the people of Juárez are also now scratching their heads with cautious awe.
“We’re seeing the results we asked for,” said Federico Ziga, president of the Ciudad Juárez restaurant association. “Not everyone agrees on the cause, but the results are there.”
IN a wide-ranging interview at his office here, Chief Leyzaola said he had long aimed to destroy the “narco dream” by showing that the authorities could take away “their guns, their cars, their drugs, their money.” Like a boxer or wrestler, he treats his tough-guy image as a necessary tactic. In Tijuana, he punched a dead cartel gunman in the face as bystanders watched. There and here, he insists on calling criminals “mugrosos,” or slimeballs.
“You can’t apply a strategy from a desk,” he said, sitting behind a desk with just a few papers and a fruit smoothie. “You have to apply it in the street.”
Specifically, he says he has calmed Juárez by dividing the city into sectors and locking down troubled areas, starting with the central business district where La Linea was based. For months at a time, he said, he deployed the police to stop and question everyone going in and out of certain neighborhoods.
Critics contend that while the effort destroyed La Linea, an especially violent gang implicated in the 2010 massacre of teenagers at a house party and the killing of a United States Consulate worker, it has also led to unjustified arrests for anyone young or poor who looks like trouble.
“It’s a systemic violation of human rights,” said Gustavo de la Rosa, a Chihuahua State human rights investigator. “More than 5,000 illegal detentions were reported in the months of October and November.”
Chief Leyzaola has also been accused of personally beating prison inmates with a two-by-four after a riot at the local jail in July. An American who has since been released said he saw the chief hitting inmates.
More recently, two other prisoners accused the chief and seven other officers of killing a friend after the three men were arrested together in November.
Though his office did not respond to requests for comment on these specific beating and homicide allegations, Chief Leyzaola has not denied using arrests and “intense, harassing patrols” to break the link between petty criminals and organized crime. Young people, he said, must understand the consequences of claiming to be a big shot.
Many residents do not seem to mind. They had been complaining for years about local thugs taking advantage of anarchy and fear to extort their neighbors. Even human rights advocates like Mr. de la Rosa have acknowledged that there are “pervasive interests” determined to take down Chief Leyzaola, who survived his latest assassination attempt in June.
YET, his legal problems continue to pile up. Mr. Leyzaola is now scheduled to appear before a judge to address allegations tied to his time in Tijuana. A recent report from the Human Rights Commission there argued that he and several subordinates tortured four police officers suspected of corruption in 2010. An earlier report linked him to the deaths of five people accused of killing police officers in 2009.
He has denied those allegations, insisting that the claims are an effort to smear him. He also denies having anything to do with the case of four young men here in Juárez who were found dead in a tunnel a few weeks after witnesses saw them detained by the police on March 26.
“I had only 10 days on the job when this started,” he said. “What did we do in this case? I was the one who insisted that those responsible are punished.”
Chief Leyzaola (who failed to mention that only a few of the 15 officers accused in that case have been arrested) says he is mainly struggling with a young and ill-equipped police force. He has already fired about 200 officers, and he said more were likely to be purged. In addition to the challenge of recruiting — the department now has about 2,300 officers, he said, down from 3,000 a few years ago — he highlighted the challenge of training the ones he hires: “About 1,800 of the 2,300 officers have no more than two years of service.”
Many say they are inspired by their boss. Inside the police station lobby, they point proudly to a wall of newspaper clippings on arrests. Such strong morale is certainly a rarity in many Mexican police departments. But experts say that Chief Leyzaola has yet to grasp the limits of his show-how-tough-we-are approach.
“Policing is not about personalities — it’s about procedures and institutions,” said David A. Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. “When Leyzaola is gone, as he inevitably will be at some point, what will be left behind? That’s the key question.”
Transparent processes for investigations and promotions matter more than tough talk or even high profile arrests, experts say. And while crime is down in both Tijuana and Juárez, it is not clear how much this has to do with Chief Leyzaola. Mr. Shirk said it likely had more to do with cartel dynamics — a truce or shift in power, with one group gaining an overwhelming edge. Some Sinaloa cartel members on trial in the United States have said they tried to work with Mexican and American authorities so they could defeat La Linea.
Mr. de la Rosa added that the drop in crime might also just be exhaustion. Thousands of presumed cartel hired killers have died here over the past few years.
But no matter what the cause, or the fallout, Chief Leyzaola seems unlikely to play a role any different from what he knows.
“I’m a soldier; I’m a nationalist,” he said, leaning forward in his chair, as if addressing a television camera. “I have one objective: to fight delinquency.”