Depending on whom you ask, Julián Leyzaola is either a hero or a beast. Controversy surrounding Tijuana’s secretary of public security made headlines in December 2009, when accusations surfaced in the San Diego News Network, on KPBS-FM, and in the Los Angeles Times that the retired lieutenant colonel had taken his purification of Tijuana’s infamously corrupt police force too far. At a November 2009 human rights convention in Washington, D.C., 36 former municipal police officers accused Leyzaola and his men of torture, including beatings, suffocation, and electrical shocks to the feet and genitals, administered in order to procure confessions and names of defectors.
The New Yorker ran journalist William Finnegan’s take on Leyzaola, “In the Name of the Law,” last October. Finnegan’s research included ranging the mountains with the Mexican migrant-aid group Grupo Beta; interviewing deportees, smugglers, immigrants, and immigration officials; and “generally trying to see the U.S. immigration issue from the Mexican side.
“Many of the people who had been tortured in the police anti-corruption campaign led by Lt. Col. Leyzaola, or who had spoken out against the torture, were in hiding,” Finnegan writes in a November 19 email. “So I had to find those people, which took a while, and then persuade them to talk to me, and to trust me with their very painful stories. That was a slow, delicate process. I had to travel to central Mexico to find two women [Blanca Mesina and Silvia Vázquez] who had publicly denounced Leyzaola and had afterward been harassed and received death threats and been forced to flee Tijuana. They had gone into hiding in central Mexico with their children.”
Finnegan’s story was not the first to break the controversy surrounding Leyzaola’s term, but it was the most compelling. Having interviewed the man himself in his downtown Tijuana office, Finnegan painted a picture of Leyzaola that was both honorable and ominous. Described as “trim and athletic, with a strong, slightly lupine face,” Leyzaola worked from a building that carried the August stink of the neighboring slaughterhouse. An old samurai sword sat on a bookcase behind the 49-year-old’s desk. The “new stud duck in town,” as Finnegan described him in his early days, told reporters that El Teo, one of Tijuana’s top drug bosses, acted “like a woman” after being arrested.
Alternately described as “Tijuana’s top badass” and “a very sick individual,” Leyzaola worked closely with police chief Gustavo Huerta for two years hunting down Tijuana’s narcos with unprecedented fervor. The pair’s achievements garnered applause from President Felipe Calderón, U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual, the Border Patrol, the FBI, former mayor Jorge Ramos, and prominent Tijuana business owners.
When Carlos Bustamante took office as mayor of Tijuana on December 1, he named police chief Huerta to follow Leyzaola, who had been appointed by the rival party, as secretary of public security. Leyzaola’s term expired at the close of November. The appointment of Huerta, a 42-year-old retired army captain, “guarantees that there will be continuity in the work that we have seen in Tijuana,” said Bustamante.
Only two years into his proposed five-year purification plan, Leyzaola had urged Bustamante to “at least put [in] another military person, someone who speaks the same language as me.”
Leyzaola had been promoted from director of the Tijuana police department to security secretary in December 2008 in the midst of the worst wave of drug-related violence Tijuana had seen since President Calderón declared war on drug-trafficking organizations two years earlier. Deputy chief of police Margarito Saldaña was among the city’s 844 casualties attributed to narco violence, 500 of which occurred in the three months prior to Leyzaola’s promotion.
Beheadings and public displays of murder victims became more common as factions of the splintered Arellano Félix organization fought for ownership of the key border territory. Drug kingpin Teodoro “El Teo” García had over 300 rivals dissolved in barrels of acid by his “stew maker” Santiago Meza and reportedly had cages all over Baja California to hold his multitudes of kidnap victims. Victims of gruesome murders appeared in the streets daily. Thousands who could afford it moved their families to San Diego.
A soldier since the age of 16, when he enrolled in the Heróico Colegio Militar, Mexico’s West Point, Leyzaola devised a five-year plan to turn Tijuana around. The task has been likened to bringing order to Al Capone’s Chicago. His strategy focuses on cleaning up the city one district at a time. A strike force moves into an area and makes several arrests. Officers who have undergone background checks (80 percent reportedly failed the mandatory polygraph tests) replace beat cops. Former military officers with no regional police experience take over as district commanders.
The militarization is part of a nationwide effort to dismantle drug-trafficking groups by deploying 50,000 army troops to work with municipal police departments. Police chiefs often do little to combat drug gangs; organized drug trafficking is a federal responsibility.
Leyzaola’s hard-nosed crusade as detailed in stories from the Los Angeles Times and the New Yorker included shoot-outs and high-speed pursuits in his armored SUV while out “hunting” for narcos, publicly calling drug lords “cockroaches” and “cowards,” instructing his bodyguards to go after gangsters rather than protect him, and even punching the face of a dead cartel gunman at a crime scene where one of Leyzaola’s men was killed.
He told the media, “If the cartels understand only the language of violence, then we are going to have to speak in their language and annihilate them.”
He kept the police force in line by personally confronting suspected traitors, humiliating them, and giving police a pay raise. Salaries were increased to nearly $1200 a month, the highest of any municipal department in the country. Officers suspected of corruption were assigned to patrol the palm trees outside Leyzaola’s office.
“I told them, if they try to attack me in my office, you’ll be right outside,” Leyzaola said in a Los Angeles Times story dated December 20, 2009. “The first ones they kill will be you.”
Over 600 officers, or roughly 20 percent of the police force, ultimately resigned, and around 200 now face criminal charges.