“A police officer can’t work if he’s suspicious of his partner who’s at his side,” Leyzaola said in a recent National Public Radio interview. “He’s never going to be able to do his job of arresting important criminals because he worries his partner might betray him.”
As part of the nearly $105 million a year that Tijuana spends on public security — one-third of the city’s budget — new patrol vehicles now come stocked with AR-15 semiautomatic rifles and officers receive improved tactical training, a change from late 2007, when target practice was optional and officers had to provide their own ammunition, according to the New Yorker.
The response to Leyzaola’s crusade was immense. The Los Angeles Times reported in December 2009 that thugs would tap into police radio frequencies and threaten Leyzaola and his officers by name while playing narcocorridos. Often, taunted officers turned up dead. In April 2009, gunmen shot down seven officers in 45 minutes. Three months later, El Teo left a note on the body of slain officer Gerónimo Calderón threatening to kill five a week if Leyzaola did not resign. That year, 32 cops were killed, more than the previous five years combined.
“Of course I won’t [resign],” Leyzaola said in the Los Angeles Times story. “If I quit under that type of pressure, I’ll feel like a part of them, an accomplice of organized crime.”
According to the New Yorker, El Teo “commissioned several exact replicas of the vehicles used by the Army, with a plan to ambush Leyzaola, videotape the assassination, and then post the video on the internet with a narcocorrido soundtrack. This scheme was foiled by a last-minute raid, conducted on a tip that originated from U.S. law enforcement, on a ranch on the city’s outskirts.”
Leyzaola, described in one Associated Press story as a chess aficionado with a knack for handball, has since eluded at least four assassination attempts. He moved onto a military base away from his family and relocated his office to a bunkerlike tower in the Zona Rio district. He proudly claims to have rejected an $80,000-a-week offer from a former army colleague on behalf of Sinaloan drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. He told the L.A. Times and the New Yorker that he delivered the conspirator at gunpoint to the attorney general’s office in Mexico City.
In October 2009, U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual said Tijuana’s progress in public security was an example that should be copied.
“There’s a massive reduction in violence,” Pascual said. “There’s a great increase in the number of arrests of narco-traffickers. And increasingly what we see is that the people of Tijuana are taking back the streets.”
President Calderón applauded Tijuana’s antidrug efforts in a 2009 visit. Mayor Jerry Sanders also praised the city’s improvement, and Tijuana newspaper Zeta named Leyzaola (along with the army general then in charge of Tijuana, Alfonso Duarte) Man of the Year for 2009.
But a surge in gang violence in December 2009, which saw the brutal murder and public display of more than 50 people, attested to the contrary. According to the New Yorker, two of Leyzaola’s bodyguards were arrested by state police while cavorting with a group of El Teo’s men in Ensenada. More cracks appeared in the façade of victory after the capture of El Teo last January. Confessions from El Teo’s top lieutenants in custody revealed that two district police commanders were on El Teo’s payroll. One of them, Leyzaola’s close friend from military school, was said in an Associated Press story to be taking $6000 monthly to alert El Teo of police presence.
“Where the elite live and have their offices, where the middle and upper class go to fancy restaurants, there is diminished violence,” says Victor Clark of the Binational Center for Human Rights, one of the oldest human rights groups in Mexico. Clark also teaches Latin American studies part-time at SDSU. “But the story is different for the rest of the city.”
More than 740 people have been killed by drug-related violence this year, Clark said in a November 23 phone call from his office near city hall in the metropolitan Rio Tijuana district. He says gruesome display murders are less frequent and most violence occurs in the poor outlying residential districts. Tijuana could see a record number of drug-related murders this year, he says, if the current trend of two per day persists.
“We are going to end this year with a figure very close to 2008,” he said.
The bulk of Clark’s human rights work focuses on protecting the 400 or so migrants who arrive in Tijuana daily after being deported from the United States. Clark says that municipal police will arrest over 100 of them under the pretext that they lack identification, and they will be jailed for up to 36 hours because they lack the money to pay a fine.
The municipal police “want to give the impression that they are fighting delinquency,” Clark says, “but, in reality, many of the people they are arresting downtown are migrants, not delinquents.”
Other criticism of Leyzaola’s ambitious campaign came in August 2009, when the Baja California state human rights commission released a report detailing the detention and torture of five police officers suspected of corruption. Allegations included Leyzaola personally almost asphyxiating one of the victims by putting a plastic bag over his head and beating him. The state human rights commissioner recommended that Leyzaola be suspended and investigated. The request was rejected.
On November 5, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission in Washington, D.C., heard the testimony of 36 victims who made accusations of prolonged beatings and electric shocks applied to their feet and genitals in order to get them to sign confessions admitting to connections with organized crime. They alleged that they were prodded for names of corrupt officers and forced to sign lists of names that they were not allowed to read. A military doctor revived them when they passed out. Detained officers were allegedly told that if they died, their bodies would be thrown on the side of a highway to look like cartel hits.