Tijuana's Leyzaola Dilemma

By Vicente Calderon, Amy Isackson
November 19, 2010

The days of one of Tijuana’s top crime fighters may be numbered. Though Tijuana’s Police Chief has survived assassination plots, he may fall victim to Mexican politics.

(A collaboration between KPBS and Tijuanapress.com)

A military band plays as the Mexican Army General in charge of Tijuana pushes a button to burn 134 tons of marijuana. Its Mexico’s biggest drug seizure ever.

General Alfonso Duarte says the haul shows authorities’ crime-fighting strategy is working. “This hits hard at criminal groups’ operative and financial structures,” says Duarte, who credits Tijuana’s Municipal Police for the bust, “This isn’t the police of three years ago. Now it is a police that confronts criminals.”

The Mexican government once ranked Tijuana cops as the country’s worst. The city’s current police chief, Julian Leyzaola, is credited with turning things around. He took over three years ago, launched an anti-corruption crusade and fired hundreds of allegedly dirty officers. “We’ve given the city some positive results. Of course, there’s unfinished `business,” says Leyzaola.

The police chief’s work, along with other authorities, to rescue the city from the most violent period in its history has been hailed as a model for the rest of Mexico. In the process, Leyzaola has survived four assassination plots. But he may meet his end when Tijuana’s new mayor takes office December 1st.

Mayor Elect Carlos Bustamante and Leyzaola come from different political parties. It’s expected that Bustamante will fire all the old government functionaries. Though, Bustamante, hasn’t said if he’ll throw out Leyzaola.

Leyzaola’s boosters , including US authorities, have rallied around him. They fear Tijuana will regress if he leaves.

Community groups and the City of Tijuana have organized celebrations for Leyzaola, like this one, where hundreds of people from both sides of the border packed Tijuana’s Cultural Center and gave the Chief a standing ovation.

Mike Eckel is the FBI’s border liaison. He says US authorities have never trusted the Tijuana police like they do now. “We’ve had an outstanding relationship and success after success. He has gone to the front door and done things. He is on the front line, participating. He is a true leader,” says Eckel.

Rafael Carrillo Barron, a Tijuana businessman, says Leyzaola has transformed public safety. “In another time, criminals would be walking immune to any police. Today, they don’t dare show their face without the risk of being apprehended,” says Carrillo.

Not everyone loves Leyzaola, including dozens of his own officers. They and their families have marched through the streets to protest the chief’s tactics. They say he has crossed the line in his zeal to crackdown and accuse him of torture. “Around all my body. My face, my legs, I have a certificate that proves all the injuries that were committed from this person, Leyzaola,” says Jose Luis Hernandez Gálvez.

He’d worked as a Tijuana policeman for 15 years. Then, the chief accused him and three of his colleagues of robbing a high profile foreign visitor. Gálvez says he was fired and has lived in fear since. “I’m not living in my house. I am moving to different places. I am not driving my cars. Because I know if Leyzaola stops me…this guy is capable of anything,” says Gálvez.

Three dozen more officers and also civilians accuse Leyzaola of torture. The highest human rights court in the Western Hemisphere has taken up the case. Baja California’s Commission on Human Rights recommended the City of Tijuana fire Leyzaola. The current mayor ignored the recommendations, saying they were politically motivated.

Despite the accusations. Leyzaola’s law enforcement career is hardly doomed. Baja California’s Governor says he’ll hire him or help him get another government job. “I recognize Julian Leyzaola’s work.”

Eckel, with the FBI, says he has no reason to believe the torture charges. He says the city still needs Leyzaola. “There is more to do. And I know that he is going to pull this plan through,” says Eckel.

Leyzaola has made progress. But the calm in Tijuana is fragile. This year’s murder rate has already surpassed last year’s 650.

Mayor Elect Bustamante says he’ll announce his pick for police chief on Monday, four days before he’s sworn in.