“There are occasionally miracles in Mexico — the Virgin of Guadalupe and a law enforcement effort in Tijuana that has been effective.” – George W. Grayson, an expert on narco-violence in Mexico at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
Tijuana’s Top Cop
Tijuana’s top cop Julian Leyzaola, who took on the position of secretary of public security in December of 2008 when the troubled department was widely considered the most corrupt force in a nation of corrupt forces, and the city was mired in its bloodiest year, is being replaced by his number two man Gustavo Huerta, mayor-elect Carlos Bustamante announced Friday.
Since the July election, there have speculations about whether Bustamante—the PRI candidate—would replace the PAN appointed Leyzaola, who remains popular and is widely credited with the city’s unlikely turn around from the depths of its most violent year to a civic “reawakening.”
During his tenure, Leyzaola cleaned up both the city and its police department. He implemented a military-like strategy—based on counter French counter-insurgency operations in Algeria and Colombia’s war against its cartels—to reclaim sectors of the city from organized crime and coupled it with an anti-corruption effort that saw a series of high profile department purges to root out elements within the force with narco ties.
The Border’s Gotham
In January of 2009, Leyzaola scored his biggest victory. His arch nemesis, Teodoro “El Teo” García Simental—the murderous crime boss who turned Tijuana into a war zone, killed dozens of Leyzaola’s officers, taunted him with narco messages and tried to have him assassinated several times—was captured with out a fight.
Although he was arrested a long way from Tijuana, in La Paz, Mexico, by federal police acting on U.S. intelligence, Leyzaola consider the triumph his own. His unrelenting efforts to go after García had driven him out of the city. In the near comic book portrayal of good vs. evil in the local media—where Leyzaola played an unraveling city’s last hope against García’s evil incarnate—Leyzaola got the last word in the drama filled back-and-forth that captivated Tijuana, remarking that upon being captured, “El Teo” “acted like a woman.”
Despite his successes and nearly mythical aura, controversy has surrounded Leyzaola. Disturbing allegations of human rights abuses have recently surfaced. Heriberto Garcia, head of the state human rights commission, accused Leyzaola of torture. In a report released in August, Garcia stated that there is evidence to bolster the claims of five Tijuana residents who maintain they were tortured while Leyzaola himself was present, after being arrested at the scene where a city police officer was killed.
Leyzaola’s own officers have alleged that they have been tortured by him. Recently, a 50-strong group of municipal police officers and their families marched to department headquarters to protest of what they say are arbitrary detentions, forced confessions and the torture of city police officers that have resulted from Leyzaola’s department purges.
Even with the controversy surrounding him, replacing Leyzaola is a bold move for Bustamante. He was backed by Tijuana’s business community and by U.S. law enforcement, who went so far as presenting him with honors at a recent ceremony—a move widely interpreted as not so subtle message to the incoming mayor to keep Leyzaola around. Bustamante, however, was unswayed. Huerta, who like Leyzaola is a retired military officer, is currently serving as Leyzaola’s deputy. “[Huerta] guarantees that there will be continuity in the work that we have seen in Tijuana,” Bustamante said.
As Goes Tijuana, So Goes Mexico
It’s the decision that will mark his mayorship. As Los Angeles Times Tijuana reporter Richard Marosi notes, “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 battle ground border city like Ciudad Juarez.”
The success of the Tijuana model of policing has been held up by President Calderón as proof that his quarrelsome policy to confront this nation’s drug cartels is working and is being replicated in the violence plagued border city of Juarez. If the Tijuana backslides into the violence and chaos of 2008 with the sacking of Leyzaola and appointment Huerta, the gains Tijuana has made in the last two years won’t be the only casualty of Bustamante’s decision. Mexico’s only success story in its drug war too will be lost.”