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Tijuana’s top cop tough – and jobless

 Army Lt. Col. Julian Leyzaola looks on after being sworn in as public safety chief  in Tijuana, Mexico, in  2008.  (Associated Press)
Army Lt. Col. Julian Leyzaola looks on after being sworn in as public safety chief in Tijuana, Mexico, in 2008. (Associated Press)

Corruption fighter let go by new mayor

TIJUANA, Mexico – Julian Leyzaola tried with unprecedented zeal to end the grip of drug cartels on one of Mexico’s most notoriously corrupt police forces: In two years as top cop, he blanketed key parts of Tijuana with vetted officers, new patrol cars and military commanders, while purging hundreds of allegedly corrupt cops.

The retired army officer survived a drug-gang assassination campaign that killed dozens of his officers. He says he rejected an $80,000-a-week offer from an emissary of Mexico’s most-wanted drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Now he’s out of a job.

Mayor-Elect Carlos Bustamante said he will appoint Leyzaola’s closest aide, Gustavo Huerta, as public safety secretary when his term begins Tuesday. Huerta, 42, knows Tijuana and is positioned to build on recent successes, Bustamante’s spokeswoman said.

Leyzaola has been praised by President Felipe Calderon, U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual, U.S. law enforcement and Tijuana’s business elite for standing up to the cartels and bringing order in the face of the city’s worst drug violence.

Yet the state’s human rights ombudsman accuses Leyzaola of beating some people suspected of killing cops. Some officers he arrested for corruption have been let go for lack of evidence and say they were tortured in custody. Huerta was also named in one complaint filed by several officers.

Leyzaola says the allegations come from critics who don’t like his get-tough approach.

“The reality is that we needed extreme measures to restore order,” he told officers last September after the human rights report came out. “That’s what we did. It was necessary.”

Mexico’s local police forces are often bribed to be the eyes and ears of drug cartels, yet most police chiefs won’t attack the gangs, noting that organized crime is a federal responsibility. They tend instead to focus on traffic violations, car thefts, assaults and home invasions.

That hands-off approach favors the cartels, says Daniel Sabet, a visiting professor at Georgetown University who studies Mexico’s local police forces.

“You can’t just shrug your shoulders and say it’s not our jurisdiction,” he said.

Leyzaola, a chess aficionado who stays fit by playing handball, relished his pursuit of Tijuana’s drug lords, calling his targets cockroaches, scum and dirty fat pigs. He captured and interrogated them himself.

He began his march to recapture Tijuana in early 2009 by reforming police in a different district of the city every three months.

When he suspected cops were dirty, he tried to humiliate them into quitting. First he assigned them to patrol palm trees outside his office, and later had them bake in the sun on the new headquarters’ heliport.

“I have two up there right now,” he said with a smile behind his large desk. “Until they get vertigo.”


 

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