Pubdate: Sun, 20 Dec 2009
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2009 Los Angeles Times
Page: Front Page, continued on page A25
Author: Richard Marosi, Reporting from Tijuana
Bookmark: (Mexico Under Siege (Series))

Mexico Under Siege


The Officer Lives With Threats and Plots, Plus Allegations of Abuses.

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.

Leyzaola said that when a former military officer came to his office 
and offered him a large bribe from a major organized crime group, he 
pulled his weapon and personally delivered him to authorities in Mexico City.

The anti-corruption message has reached the rank and file.

The veteran officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security 
reasons, said many police officers no longer pad their salaries by 
working for trafficking groups, and the big cars and nice homes that 
the most corrupt officers once enjoyed are a thing of the past.

"A lot of us used to work for them. But now a lot of cops are scared 
of going to jail, or losing their jobs," said the officer.

Leyzaola is different from most police officers, he said. "He's 
military, old school. He wakes up every day and salutes the . . . 
flag," he said. "We're regular civilians."

Targeting Police

Organized crime has lashed back. One of Mexico's most wanted crime 
bosses, Teodoro Garcia Simental, is believed to be the force behind a 
relentless campaign of threats and killings of officers aimed at 
getting rid of Leyzaola.

In April, gunmen shot down seven officers in 45 minutes. After the 
shooting of another police officer in July, Garcia threatened to kill 
five officers a week. At least 15 have died since then.

Gunmen so far have failed to get a shot at Leyzaola, who travels in 
an armored SUV surrounded by 15 bodyguards. But they have hatched 
several plots. The most serious was foiled last month, when more than 
20 suspected gunmen were arrested just before planning to ambush 
Leyzaola in fake military vehicles.

When Leyzaola got word of the plan to blow up his headquarters, he 
switched offices to a bunker-like tower in Tijuana's Zona Rio 
neighborhood, where a large security detail employing sandbag 
barriers prevents unauthorized cars from parking under the building.

"He's a marked man. They want Leyzaola gone because he's effective. 
He takes this seriously, unlike a lot of these jackass cops," said 
one U.S. law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity 
because he is not authorized to comment.

Leyzaola seems unfazed by the siege-like conditions. A slim man with 
thick eyebrows, he listens to soft rock music stations and jogs every 
morning in the park-like grounds of the Morelos military base, where 
he lives. He says he is just doing the job he was hired to do and has 
no political ambitions.

"I don't feel pressure," he added.

But he has shown flashes of anger. At a funeral for three police 
officers last year, he lashed out at journalists for taking 
photographs of grieving family members.

Last month, reporters witnessed his most troubling outburst. After 
arriving at the scene of a shootout, Leyzaola was informed that one 
officer who had saved a woman from the crossfire had died.

He walked up to an ambulance gurney holding a dead suspect, pulled 
back the sheet, and struck the corpse across the face.

"Why did you die? You should have stayed alive," said Leyzaola, 
recalling his thoughts at the time. "Not even death is a worthy 
punishment for what you did."

The most serious allegations against Leyzaola stem from a roundup in 
March of officers suspected of corruption. They were taken to the 
Morelos base, where 25 of them said they were tortured, according to 
a report by Amnesty International and testimony given to the 
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington.

Several police officers said Leyzaola had personally delivered them 
to the base, shackled and blindfolded. Two of them said they 
recognized Leyzaola's voice while they were being beaten, according 
to the reports. The torture allegedly included electric shocks 
applied to their feet and genitals.

Francisco Sanchez, the head of a local human rights group, said 
authorities' crackdown on organized crime is necessary, but so is 
respect for the rule of law and human rights.

"It's unclear if he actively participated in the torture, but the 
evidence suggests that he doesn't respect the law and should be 
investigated," Sanchez said.

Leyzaola denies any involvement, saying he merely arrests suspects 
and delivers them to the army base, where federal authorities take 
custody. He said he has no intention of backing down in the struggle 
against the drug bosses.

"If you attack me, I'll retaliate," Leyzaola said.

"If you attack again, I'll retaliate with greater force. And if you 
attack me again, I'll keep retaliating, again and again and again." 
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