Julián Leyzaola, Tijuana’s secretary of public security, accused of torture

Beatings, suffocation, electrical shocks to the feet and genitals

Tijuana's government and business communities praised Julián Leyzaola for cleaning up the municipal police. Critics accused him of torture.
  • Tijuana's government and business communities praised Julián Leyzaola for cleaning up the municipal police. Critics accused him of torture.

Depending on whom you ask, Julián Leyzaola is either a hero or a beast. Controversy surrounding Tijuana’s secretary of public security made headlines in December 2009, when accusations surfaced in the San Diego News Network, on KPBS-FM, and in the Los Angeles Times that the retired lieutenant colonel had taken his purification of Tijuana’s infamously corrupt police force too far. At a November 2009 human rights convention in Washington, D.C., 36 former municipal police officers accused Leyzaola and his men of torture, including beatings, suffocation, and electrical shocks to the feet and genitals, administered in order to procure confessions and names of defectors.

The New Yorker ran journalist William Finnegan’s take on Leyzaola, “In the Name of the Law,” last October. Finnegan’s research included ranging the mountains with the Mexican migrant-aid group Grupo Beta; interviewing deportees, smugglers, immigrants, and immigration officials; and “generally trying to see the U.S. immigration issue from the Mexican side.

“Many of the people who had been tortured in the police anti-corruption campaign led by Lt. Col. Leyzaola, or who had spoken out against the torture, were in hiding,” Finnegan writes in a November 19 email. “So I had to find those people, which took a while, and then persuade them to talk to me, and to trust me with their very painful stories. That was a slow, delicate process. I had to travel to central Mexico to find two women [Blanca Mesina and Silvia Vázquez] who had publicly denounced Leyzaola and had afterward been harassed and received death threats and been forced to flee Tijuana. They had gone into hiding in central Mexico with their children.”

Finnegan’s story was not the first to break the controversy surrounding Leyzaola’s term, but it was the most compelling. Having interviewed the man himself in his downtown Tijuana office, Finnegan painted a picture of Leyzaola that was both honorable and ominous. Described as “trim and athletic, with a strong, slightly lupine face,” Leyzaola worked from a building that carried the August stink of the neighboring slaughterhouse. An old samurai sword sat on a bookcase behind the 49-year-old’s desk. The “new stud duck in town,” as Finnegan described him in his early days, told reporters that El Teo, one of Tijuana’s top drug bosses, acted “like a woman” after being arrested.

Alternately described as “Tijuana’s top badass” and “a very sick individual,” Leyzaola worked closely with police chief Gustavo Huerta for two years hunting down Tijuana’s narcos with unprecedented fervor. The pair’s achievements garnered applause from President Felipe Calderón, U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual, the Border Patrol, the FBI, former mayor Jorge Ramos, and prominent Tijuana business owners.

When Carlos Bustamante took office as mayor of Tijuana on December 1, he named police chief Huerta to follow Leyzaola, who had been appointed by the rival party, as secretary of public security. Leyzaola’s term expired at the close of November. The appointment of Huerta, a 42-year-old retired army captain, “guarantees that there will be continuity in the work that we have seen in Tijuana,” said Bustamante.

Only two years into his proposed five-year purification plan, Leyzaola had urged Bustamante to “at least put [in] another military person, someone who speaks the same language as me.”

Leyzaola had been promoted from director of the Tijuana police department to security secretary in December 2008 in the midst of the worst wave of drug-related violence Tijuana had seen since President Calderón declared war on drug-trafficking organizations two years earlier. Deputy chief of police Margarito Saldaña was among the city’s 844 casualties attributed to narco violence, 500 of which occurred in the three months prior to Leyzaola’s promotion.

Beheadings and public displays of murder victims became more common as factions of the splintered Arellano Félix organization fought for ownership of the key border territory. Drug kingpin Teodoro “El Teo” García had over 300 rivals dissolved in barrels of acid by his “stew maker” Santiago Meza and reportedly had cages all over Baja California to hold his multitudes of kidnap victims. Victims of gruesome murders appeared in the streets daily. Thousands who could afford it moved their families to San Diego.

A soldier since the age of 16, when he enrolled in the Heróico Colegio Militar, Mexico’s West Point, Leyzaola devised a five-year plan to turn Tijuana around. The task has been likened to bringing order to Al Capone’s Chicago. His strategy focuses on cleaning up the city one district at a time. A strike force moves into an area and makes several arrests. Officers who have undergone background checks (80 percent reportedly failed the mandatory polygraph tests) replace beat cops. Former military officers with no regional police experience take over as district commanders.

The militarization is part of a nationwide effort to dismantle drug-trafficking groups by deploying 50,000 army troops to work with municipal police departments. Police chiefs often do little to combat drug gangs; organized drug trafficking is a federal responsibility.

Leyzaola’s hard-nosed crusade as detailed in stories from the Los Angeles Times and the New Yorker included shoot-outs and high-speed pursuits in his armored SUV while out “hunting” for narcos, publicly calling drug lords “cockroaches” and “cowards,” instructing his bodyguards to go after gangsters rather than protect him, and even punching the face of a dead cartel gunman at a crime scene where one of Leyzaola’s men was killed.

He told the media, “If the cartels understand only the language of violence, then we are going to have to speak in their language and annihilate them.”

He kept the police force in line by personally confronting suspected traitors, humiliating them, and giving police a pay raise. Salaries were increased to nearly $1200 a month, the highest of any municipal department in the country. Officers suspected of corruption were assigned to patrol the palm trees outside Leyzaola’s office.

“I told them, if they try to attack me in my office, you’ll be right outside,” Leyzaola said in a Los Angeles Times story dated December 20, 2009. “The first ones they kill will be you.”

Over 600 officers, or roughly 20 percent of the police force, ultimately resigned, and around 200 now face criminal charges.

“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.

Former Baja California human rights ombudsman Francisco Sánchez spoke before the commission, saying that the Mexican government has the responsibility to fight corruption but cannot use torture to do so. A report released by Amnesty International around the same time calculated that the number of complaints of abuse by the Mexican Army had nearly quadrupled in the year and a half prior compared to the previous two years combined.

Blanca Mesina, the daughter of one of the 25 officers detained and tortured in March 2009, also testified before the commission. One of the more outspoken opponents of the abuses, Mesina wrote a letter that was published in three papers denouncing the mistreatment of her father, who was honored by Mayor Ramos two months before being detained.

“[Leyzaola] is inventing criminals,” Mesina told KPBS-FM. “He grabs whoever and says he belongs to a cartel to make people think he’s cleaning up the streets.”

After making her father’s case known, Mesina was followed by police cars and received multiple death threats, according to a story from KPBS-FM and tijuanapress.com. She was held at gunpoint in a convenience-store parking lot by what appeared to be a special forces officer. According to an Amnesty International report, the man told her: “This is the last time that I am going to warn you to stop filing complaints in Tijuana. There are many contacts, and I don’t think you want to lose someone close to you. If I don’t kill you now it’s to avoid a scandal around the elections and because your case is already known internationally.” He then kissed her on the cheek and left. Mesina fled Tijuana and went into hiding in central Mexico with human rights lawyer Silvia Vázquez. Vázquez had received similar threats for her denunciation of Leyzaola’s overzealous purification of the police force.

Mesina’s father Miguel and 12 fellow officers were released for lack of evidence this August, 17 months after their arrest. When Miguel demanded his job back, he was denied it.

More than 50 officers have since come forward claiming that soldiers abused them in the presence of Leyzaola and Huerta. A relatively new practice called arraigo allows authorities to detain suspects for 40 days while they are being investigated. The Amnesty International report criticized the Mexican government and civilian authorities for not investigating abuse cases, saying the Mexican military lacks transparency in its judicial system.

Sánchez, now coordinator for the Citizen Observatory of Human Rights in Baja California, is reported in a December 2009 San Diego News Network story as saying that the torture complaints were not heard by the Mexico attorney’s office, the Mexican Commission on Human Rights, or the Baja California State Commission for Human Rights. He called the situation “a regression for human rights in Mexico that started with the militarization of municipal police departments.

“At the hearing, the [officials] replied verbally to the complaint, but truthfully there was no answer from the authority, not even a sign of interest to investigate the cases, or recognize that there is a complaint that is important to investigate,” Sánchez said. “There was no interest on the part of the Mexican authorities to hear the cases.”

Officers who claim to have been abused receive little sympathy in Tijuana, according to the New Yorker. Terrified residents assume accused cops are guilty and are glad that something is ostensibly being done to make the city safer. Others believe the persecution of officers is little more than a show put on for the United States to justify the billion-plus dollars it gives to fight drug-trafficking organizations and corruption in Mexico as part of the Mérida Initiative. Clark notes that accusations of torture at the hands of authorities are no longer surprising to the people of Mexico. He has taken 500 torture cases over the past 25 years, only 1 of which resulted in charges.

Leyzaola, meanwhile, denied allegations of abuse, saying in a KPBS-FM story: “One has to understand, criminal organizations’ economic power and threats can corrupt any institution. So, it may be the criminal groups are using human rights organizations for their own benefit.”

He claims simply to arrest suspected officers and deliver them to the army at the Morelos barracks in Tijuana. Alfonso Duarte, the army general formerly in charge of Tijuana, also rejected the claims, calling them defense mechanisms by fake human rights groups intended to discredit their work.

Despite the accusations, Leyzaola was appointed deputy secretary of public safety for Baja California on December 6. Governor José Osuna is quoted in a KPBS-FM story as saying, “I recognize Julián Leyzaola’s work.”

The indictment last July of 43 alleged narco-traffickers on both sides of the border showed that the battle against drug rings is far from won. Among the arrested was the Baja California state attorney general’s top liaison to U.S. law enforcement, Jesús Quiñónez, who was alleged to be working for the largely dismantled Arellano Félix organization. Three weeks earlier, Quiñónez and Leyzaola had attended a Fourth of July party given by Steven Kashkett, the U.S. consul-general in Tijuana, at which Kashkett praised Leyzaola’s work.

Regardless, Leyzaola’s term did see results. One officer estimates crime in the city’s seedy Zona Rosa district to be down by 80 percent, according to a November National Public Radio report. Only four officers were assassinated on duty in 2010. Gruesome gang-style public-murder displays are much less common than they were when Leyzaola took office, as are car thefts and home invasions.

“The day I took office, there were five kidnappings,” Leyzaola told Finnegan. “The city was totally degraded, totally controlled by organized crime. Convoys of Escalades and Suburbans full of armed men were rolling around these central streets, killing with complete impunity.” Now the narcos “are no longer big groups in SUVs using AK-47s but just a couple of guys in old cars with pistols.”

“This isn’t the police of three years ago,” General Duarte told KPBS-FM following the landmark October seizure of 134 tons of marijuana. “Now it is a police that confronts criminals.”

Though Huerta is expected to follow closely in Leyzaola’s footsteps, Los Angeles Times Tijuana reporter Richard Marosi noted last August, “The possible change of security chief in Tijuana couldn’t come at a more crucial time. With local gangs withering, outside drug cartels may invade, trying to fill the power vacuum. Maintaining a strong police presence is seen as essential to prevent Tijuana from becoming a battleground border city like Ciudad Juárez.”

Finnegan reflects the sentiment in a November 19 email: “Like a lot of people, I am concerned that a new drug war may be breaking out, with the potential to produce even more public bloodshed and terror than the last one, which only really ended less than a year ago, with the capture of El Teo. A new street war would presumably pit the Sinaloa cartel against the Arellano Félix group.”

He says he would like to see the anticorruption campaign expand into a more general campaign against public corruption in the city and the region.

“And, of course, I think it needs to proceed by actual investigations, indictments, and fair judicial proceedings,” Finnegan says, “not by torture, which produces no justice, no real information, and certainly no reform.”

“If I don’t stay, I hope that you continue to work with loyalty and honor,” Leyzaola told a group of officers three days before Huerta was appointed, according to an Associated Press report. “I hope our mission doesn’t change and that we don’t return to ways of the past.”

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