Julian Leyzaola, Tijuana's top police officer, restored some normality,… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Tijuana — Since he took over one of the most troubled police departments in Mexico, Julian Leyzaola has slapped the face of a corpse, led shoot-'em-ups on the street and ordered suspected crooked cops to stick close to his office in downtown Tijuana -- he wanted them as human shields.
"I told them, if they try to attack me in my office, you'll be right outside," Leyzaola said. "The first ones they kill will be you."
He's not being paranoid. Since he launched a crackdown on organized crime and police corruption two years ago, Leyzaola has survived at least four assassination plots, including the latest threat to blow up his headquarters. On police radio frequencies, crime bosses taunt Leyzaola, saying there's one easy way to stop the mayhem: Resign.
"Of course I won't," Leyzaola, who was a lieutenant colonel on leave from the army when he became Tijuana's secretary of public security, said in a recent interview. "If I quit under that type of pressure, I'll feel like a part of them, an accomplice of organized crime."
Leyzaola is credited by U.S. and Mexican officials with making gains in cleaning up the department, driving out many drug traffickers and, for much of this year, returning a semblance of normality to a crime-weary city.
But last week's surge in gang violence -- decapitations, dismemberments, hangings and shootouts that claimed the lives of more than 50 people -- showed the tenuousness of Leyzaola's gains.
And some say the security chief's offensive comes at a heavy price. Human rights activists accuse Leyzaola of involvement in the torture and beating of suspects, including suspected rogue officers.
Even the clean cops under him are anxious.
"I respect him," said one veteran officer, "but for him to succeed, we have to die."
Since Leyzaola's purge began, 43 police officers have been killed on the streets, most of them honest officers targeted by gangs. About 330 police officers have left the force, some fearing for their lives. And 130 officers have been arrested on corruption charges, some of them veterans personally detained by Leyzaola.
A Mexican police officer whose actions match his tough talk, Leyzaola in many ways is the model for the kind of law enforcement muscle the Mexican government needs to battle organized crime.
But critics see a little too much muscle: People arrested by Leyzaola's police officers have turned up bloodied and bruised in mug shots. And some officers suspected of corruption allege that he played a role in their torture this year.
When Mayor Jorge Ramos gave his state of the city address last month, a small group of protesters held up signs denouncing the public security secretary. But their boos were drowned out by loud applause from hundreds of people, including some widows of fallen police officers, who packed the glittery City Hall event.
To his supporters, Leyzaola, despite the controversies, is a worthy adversary of the gangs that have long controlled the city. He patrols the streets, wages gun battles and sneeringly calls criminals filthy and shiftless.
"We need an iron hand. Bravo!" read one e-mail comment in response to a recent newspaper article about Leyzaola.
Others take a more wary view. "Society doesn't care if he tortures," said Victor Clark Alfaro, director of Tijuana's Binational Center for Human Rights. "They just want results."
A long battle
Leyzaola, 49, battled drug traffickers long before arriving in Tijuana.
The son and grandson of military officers, he attended the Heroico Colegio Militar, Mexico's West Point, and spent many years raiding marijuana and poppy fields in rural operations that he said often led to shootouts with traffickers.
That confrontational approach didn't exist when Leyzaola was hired in 2007 to be the director of the Tijuana police department. A year later, Leyzaola was promoted to secretary of public security, which expanded his authority.
Many officers in the 2,100-member Tijuana police force had long functioned as an arm of the hometown Arellano Felix drug cartel, acting as lookouts, drivers and providing protection for traffickers on their criminal rounds across the city.
Police often avoided shootouts or pursuits, Leyzaola said. They also refused to sign the criminal complaints necessary to prosecute suspects. Leyzaola took to the streets daily with his bodyguards and engaged in high-speed chases and gun battles that sometimes ended in bloodshed. He also personally signed more than 200 criminal complaints, he said.
"Organized crime groups were the owners of the city," Leyzaola said. "They weren't used to someone defying their orders."
Officers who defy Leyzaola don't last long. Several high-ranking officers with alleged links to organized crime have been arrested, including the longtime police liaison to U.S. law enforcement, Javier Cardenas, who was a friend of the mayor.