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Tijuana top cop who fought cartels is out of a job

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. Now, he's out of a job.
Julian Leyzaola
Mexican Army Lt. Col. Julian Leyzaola was dismissed Friday after showing unprecedented zeal trying to end the grip of drug cartels on one of Mexico's most notoriously corrupt police forces.Guillermo Arias / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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."

Campaign against cockroaches
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. "If there's an organized crime guy with an AK-47, you have to make that arrest."

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. First, a strike force made a slew of arrests. Then beat cops were replaced by officers who passed intensive background checks. Former military officers with no police experience took over as district commanders.

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."

'Dirty fat pigs'
In early January, federal authorities arrested Teodoro "El Teo" Garcia Simental — one of Leyzaola's "dirty fat pigs" — who allegedly was behind the cop-killing campaign and hung bodies from freeways and beheaded victims.

From the confessions of El Teo's top lieutenants in custody, Leyzaola learned that corruption was hitting close to home: a district police commander was taking $6,000 a month to tip El Teo to law enforcement presence. He was Leyzaola's close friend from military school.

They also said El Teo employed another district commander whom Leyzaolo tapped for special projects.

In March 2009, Jorge Sanchez was among 25 officers who were arrested on suspicion of working for El Teo. A 16-year veteran, he led the strike force that went into the first district targeted for makeover: downtown Tijuana. He reported directly to Leyzaola.

Sanchez remembers sitting with Leyzaola in the mayor's office to discuss security for a boxing match. As they wrapped up, Leyzaola said Gen. Alfonso Duarte Mugica, the army general in charge of Tijuana, wanted Sanchez to report to the military base because "someone is saying things about you."

From the back seat of Leyzaola's Ford Expedition, Sanchez insisted he was honest.

"You're going to have to be very strong," he remembers Leyzaola saying as they parted. "You need to be very firm in your statements."

To Sanchez, the message was clear: he was about to be tortured.

Sanchez says a plastic bag was placed over his mouth three times while his eyes were covered with tape, and he was punched in the stomach. Others claim they got electric shocks while in military custody.

He was among 13 officers who were released in August 2010 — 17 months after their arrest — when a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence. Now he wants his job back.

The police force has shrunk to about 2,000 officers from nearly 2,600 three years ago as officers who were fired or quit under pressure have yet to be replaced due to budget constraints.

Staying focused
Leyzaola has poured much of the money he gets into the six police districts that have received his makeover. At his last change-of-command ceremony this month, the southern Sanchez Taboada district got 53 new patrol cars; before, it had seven. A career military officer was put in charge, and the officers got new radios that are less susceptible to being intercepted by drug traffickers.

Only four officers have been assassinated on duty in the city this year, down from 29 last year.

Car thefts and other robberies are down sharply but there were 681 murders from January through October. That's up 40 percent from the same period last year but still shy of the record 843 deaths in all of 2008.

In an unusual public tribute, the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement agencies took the stage at Tijuana's gleaming cultural center in September to praise his accomplishments.

Since the election in July, Leyzaola has thought his days were numbered and didn't hide his disappointment at the prospect of losing his job. He said that he needed five years to turn around the force.

"If I don't stay, I hope that you continue to work with loyalty and honor," he recently told a group of officers. "I hope our mission doesn't change and that we don't return to ways of the past."


Associated Press writer Mariana Martinez contributed to this report.