A colonel cracks down on corruption.
by William Finnegan October 18, 2010
“The day I took office, there were five kidnappings,” Colonel Leyzaola said. The city was “totally controlled by organized crime.”
In the drug wars that rack Mexico—the death toll over the past four years is approaching thirty thousand—Tijuana is an anomaly. It is a place where public security has actually improved. In 2007 and 2008, the city was a killing field. During the last three months of 2008, nearly five hundred people were murdered here, many in gruesome public displays: decapitations, dismemberments, corpses left hanging from bridges, piles of bodies with their tongues cut out. There were daylight shoot-outs between gangs using automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers in downtown streets and shopping malls. Kidnapping for ransom got so bad that many wealthy and middle-class families fled to the United States.
The Mexican government had already sent in the Army. This has been the basic approach of President Felipe Calderón’s administration to Mexico’s organized-crime problem since taking office, in December, 2006. In Tijuana, the military began by disarming the city’s police. The twenty-six hundred members of Tijuana’s finest were widely believed to work for the narco-traffickers; the Army wanted to test their weapons for possible involvement in unsolved murders. Those test results, if they were ever produced, were not released, but the military took so long to return the guns that some cops began carrying slingshots on the job. Like most municipal police in Mexico, the Tijuana police were poorly paid, undertrained, and underequipped—when they had target practice, they had to buy their own bullets. They were also widely despised. The Army’s arrival in Tijuana, in 2007, was welcomed by a terrorized public. But the military, with no local knowledge or experience in urban warfare, had no luck at first in stopping the rising narco violence.
Then Army officers began replacing local police commanders. Lieutenant Colonel Julián Leyzaola Pérez (Retired) became Tijuana’s chief of police. In December, 2008, he was named Tijuana’s Secretary of Public Security, increasing his authority. Unlike his predecessors, Leyzaola went straight at the narcos. He called them mugrosos (slimeballs) and cockroaches, and chased their armored convoys through the streets. He replaced police commanders whom he considered passive with other retired Army officers. He told the press, “If the cartels understand only the language of violence, then we are going to have to speak in their language and annihilate them.” He told his bodyguards to concentrate on going after attackers rather than on protecting him. “I know how to shoot and I shoot well. I always shoot to the head.” His fearlessness and ire left tijuanenses in awe. Arriving at the scene of a shoot-out where one of his men had died, he punched the corpse of a cartel gunman in the face. During Leyzaola’s first year in Tijuana, thirty-two cops were killed in the line of duty—more than had died in the previous five years combined.
Normally, in Mexico, narco-traffickers don’t tolerate aggressive law enforcement—least of all from city police, who lack the formal power to investigate serious crimes (state police do that), let alone combat drug trafficking (that’s for the federal police). Local police chiefs who annoy them are simply killed. It happened to the Tijuana police chief in 2000. It happened to the chief in Tecate, the next border town to the east, in 2007—he was murdered in bed, while lying next to his wife, with fifty shots to the face and chest. It happened to the deputy police chief in Tijuana in January, 2008, when a large contingent of gunmen surrounded his house and killed him and his wife and two daughters.
Leyzaola moved his family out of Mexico. He slept on an Army base. He survived a series of assassination attempts. One involved a plot to blow up police headquarters with a car bomb. He moved his office to a high-rise with a well-defended ground floor. The narcos like to commandeer police radio frequencies and fill them with taunts, threats, misinformation about crimes in progress, and narcocorridos—ballads about their exploits. Death threats against Leyzaola became a leitmotif on Tijuana police radios. In an unusually elaborate effort, one gang leader, Teodoro García Simental—an ultra-violent, obese psychopath known as 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. In July, 2009, El Teo left a note on the body of a slain police officer: “If you don’t resign, Leyzaola, I’m going to kill 5 a week.” El Teo’s men had already, in a frenzy a few months earlier, killed seven cops and wounded three in the space of forty-five minutes. Leyzaola did not resign. He called El Teo a coward.
In a country where organized crime operates with fantastic impunity, this sort of ground-level defiance was unusual, if not unique. President Calderón, on a visit to Tijuana in 2009, praised the local anti-drug offensive. Carlos Pascual, the U.S. Ambassador, said Tijuana had the best municipal police force in Mexico. The mayor of San Diego praised Leyzaola, and the Los Angeles Times called his work a “model for the kind of law enforcement muscle the Mexican government needs to battle organized crime.”
Drug-related violence declined in Tijuana in 2009, although spasms of astounding bloodshed continued. Then, in January, 2010, El Teo was captured—not in Tijuana but in La Paz, in Baja California Sur, nine hundred miles away. Again, U.S. law enforcement provided critical intelligence. But Leyzaola considered it a personal triumph, and he told reporters that El Teo, once in custody, had acted like a woman. Indeed, the mugroso had moved to La Paz only because he, Leyzaola, had driven him out of Tijuana.
After the arrest of El Teo and, in the following weeks, the capture of several of his top lieutenants, the great Tijuana drug war seemed to be over. The city’s murder rate remains high, but, according to David Shirk, of the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute, which studies public security in the region, “now it’s not large-casualty kills in the public plaza. It’s small-time, street-corner stuff, on the periphery. It’s getting rid of remnants of El Teo’s organization, settling scores.”
Leyzaola’s satisfaction with the relative peace in downtown Tijuana today is palpable. “The day I took office, there were five kidnappings,” he told me. We were sitting in his eighth-floor office on a sunny morning in August. The lower floors of the building had a dreadful stench from a slaughterhouse next door, but the odor dissipated at this altitude. Leyzaola is forty-nine, trim and athletic, with a strong, slightly lupine face. The son and grandson of soldiers, he entered the Heróico Colegio Militar, Mexico’s West Point, at sixteen. He went on, “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.” The narcos still do their dirty work, he said, but quietly now. “They are no longer big groups in S.U.V.s using AK-47s but just a couple of guys in old cars with pistols.” Leyzaola himself was, unmistakably, the new stud duck in town.
But his work is not finished. With the help of the Army, he has been conducting a large-scale depuración, or “purification,” of the Tijuana police. He has arrested, often personally, more than a hundred and eighty officers suspected of corruption, and has forced the resignations of hundreds more. La depuración is the most important work he has done by far, he told me. He reckons he has smoked out six hundred bad cops, and has changed the climate for those who remain. “It’s unprecedented in this country,” he said. “A police force, at any level, purifying itself like this. It’s never been done before.”
Although organized crime requires corruption at all levels of government to function effectively, the cop on the beat is a crucial piece of the machinery. Police officers can provide key information and services. In Mexico, they often moonlight for the cartels as drivers, bodyguards, kidnappers, hit men, drug runners, lookouts, thieves, corpse-disposal experts, and extortionists. Their uniforms come in handy on raids, robberies, kidnappings. Cops can also be useful simply by hearing and seeing no evil, or by directing the law-enforcement efforts of more gung-ho colleagues toward the operations of rivals. (This is true for all levels of police, and now the federal police have also started firing large numbers of officers suspected of corruption.)
I asked Leyzaola if he had ever been offered a bribe.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “He sat right where you’re sitting. He was a former Army colleague. I thought he had come for a job. I told him I was sorry but I had nothing for him, because he was too old for this kind of work—he was about fifty-seven. He said, ‘I’m not looking for a job. I am here as an ambassador for Chapo Guzmán.’ ” Joaquín (El Chapo) Guzmán Loera is the most powerful drug lord in Mexico. He runs the Sinaloa cartel and has operated in Baja for years. “ ‘He wants to pay you eighty thousand dollars a week to go to conferences and meetings, to set up sister-city programs.’ He wanted to pay me, in other words, to stop doing my job.”
Leyzaola looked at me serenely, with just a hint, I thought, of amusement, or perhaps it was outrage. There were five gold stars on the epaulets of his blue-black police uniform, and an old samurai sword on a bookcase behind him. He made a slow, watchful move for the pistol on his hip, and then pretended to quickly draw it, cock it, and hold it to my head. “I said, ‘You are a traitor to la patria. You are going to repeat what you just said to me.’ And I made him stand up, with my gun to his head, and made him walk down the hall, and go down the elevator, and get in my car, and drive to the airport, and fly to Mexico City, and then go straight to the attorney general’s office, where I took him in and told him to repeat what he had said to me.” Leyzaola, with a hand held cocked like a pistol between us, and now a slight smile, made it clear that he had not removed the barrel of his weapon from his former comrade’s temple the whole trip.
I could see why Zeta, a Tijuana weekly with an international reputation for investigating the drug cartels, had named Leyzaola (along with his Army counterpart, General Alfonso Duarte Múgica) its Man of the Year for 2009. Zeta has lost two editors to assassinations by organized crime. A third was wounded by a botched attempt that killed his driver. Each week, the paper runs a full-page memorial to Héctor (Gato) Félix Miranda, who was murdered in 1988 by a bodyguard of a local oligarch named Jorge Hank Rhon. The memorial page carries a photograph of Félix Miranda pointing into the camera, and it asks Hank, in bold type, “Why did your bodyguard Antonio Vera Palestina kill me?” It accuses the sitting governor of Baja California, and his predecessors, of doing nothing to pursue those who ordered Félix Miranda’s murder. Hank’s business empire, which includes a racetrack and Mexico’s largest chain of betting parlors, flourishes despite the bad publicity. He was elected mayor of Tijuana in 2004, and served until 2007. But Hank does not swagger around the city these days in high-speed armored convoys, as he traditionally did. That, I was told, is because Leyzaola forbids it.
The hotel next door to mine, the Real Inn, had a forbidding air. It had been taken over by the federal police, and its driveway was blocked by sandbagged checkpoints from behind which helmeted guards kept heavy weapons pointed toward the street. The building itself was bulky, ugly, painted white, with many dirty small blue windows. It looked more like a jail than a hotel. It was attacked last November by armed commandos, so the paranoid-looking guards behind the sandbags had reason to be on edge. Zeta reported that the attacks had been the work of a local cartel, angry because the federales using the hotel as a barracks had stolen a drug shipment that belonged to them from Tijuana’s international airport.
The federales deployed to Tijuana do not enjoy a good reputation. Roberto Quijano Sosa, a prominent local attorney who represents the private sector on security issues, told me that he gave the federal police an F for their performance in Tijuana, and that that grade was going down. The city police, previously an F, were now a C-minus, Quijano said, with all credit for that improvement going to Leyzaola. Leyzaola, meanwhile, is blunt, even by his standards, about the uselessness of the federales in Tijuana. He calls them mugrosos. He has been similarly blunt about corrupt city police since the beginning of la depuración. In his first month as Secretary of Public Security, at a breakfast honoring outstanding members of the force, he told the gathering that, when it came to corrupt officers, nobody would cry when these “beasts in uniform” were killed. Mass firings had already begun.
Leyzaola was right about the lack of public sympathy for slain cops. The large public funerals and hero’s farewells accorded to American police officers fallen in the line of duty are unimaginable in Tijuana. Even as the city police were being targeted by the cartels and killed by the dozen, people seemed to assume that the cops being gunned down were probably not clean anyway. Rank-and-file cops were in an impossible position, with Leyzaola at their backs with a bayonet, calling for the narcos to bring it on, and the narcos obliging. And then there were the purges, the escalating cycles of anonymous and not so anonymous denunciations leading to the sudden arrests of cops. Leyzaola increasingly involved the Army in these busts. Squadrons of masked troops were arriving at the homes of suspects, breaking down doors, and seizing, with no legal niceties, what the newspapers were calling narcopolicías. Many of these officers disappeared into local Army bases or were flown to far-off federal prisons.
For Ricardo Castellanos Hernández, a six-year veteran, it happened differently. Like most of the force, he had been made to take a lie-detector test after Leyzaola came in, with questions about bribes and contact with the cartels. He passed easily, he told me—he had never been crooked, although plenty of his fellow-cops were—and he was assigned to a new downtown unit led by former soldiers. He worked there for six months. Then, on September 15, 2009, as Castellanos was standing at attention at early-morning muster, his commander ordered him into a white vehicle with blacked-out windows. Inside were three masked men. “They pushed my head down.” Castellanos had been denounced.
It had taken me a week to arrange our interview. Castellanos was understandably skittish. I was supposed to pick him up in my car outside a Domino’s Pizza in the city’s financial district. He was wearing bluejeans and a tight gray T-shirt. As I approached, a police patrol car stopped beside him. I veered away and watched from a distance as a female officer got out and engaged Castellanos in what looked like intense conversation. She had a rifle in one hand, held casually, pointed away. After a minute, to my surprise, she gave him a long, hard hug, rifle still in hand. Then she left. He and I headed to a restaurant in my car. Castellanos, who is thirty-one, has a bodybuilder’s physique—enormous shoulders, arms, and chest—but a gentle, nervous manner. He drank cup after cup of black coffee, and his eyes never left mine.
“They took me to the Second Army Zone, cuartel Morelos,” he said, in a mixture of Spanish and English. The Morelos barracks are near the city center. A gigantic Mexican flag—the biggest flag I have ever seen—flies over them. “Eight or nine masked soldiers took me out, body-searched me, handcuffed me. They were treating me like a criminal. I was totally surprised. There are officers who are afraid that this might happen to them, but I wasn’t. They took me inside, told me to kneel down. They put red tape around my eyes and head. I was in darkness. We went to some room. I know which room. It smells like cinnamon. I remember one soldier behind a computer.
“Only one person asks the questions. I didn’t have any answers. He wanted the names of other officers and civilians involved in organized crime. They taped my hands behind my back and made me sit on the floor. They put more tape around my knees, around my feet. They put a blanket around me. Then I felt the weight of three people—one on my feet, one on my legs, and one who started kicking me in the chest. I couldn’t defend myself. At that moment, I feel the fear. Because I don’t know what’s going to happen. I kept asking, ‘Why? Why are you passing me this?’ But only one person spoke. He kept asking me questions. I kept saying, ‘I don’t know.’ He got angry. They put some plastic on my face. I couldn’t breathe. It felt like years passed. Too long. I suffered well.”
Castellanos gave a humorless laugh.
“Sometimes, when they put the plastic, somebody punched me in the face. I saw, like, white lights. It was the most difficult experience of my life. And the most difficult part was I’m not guilty. If I had a little bit guilty, maybe I deserve this. But I am not. I believe in God always. But in this moment I don’t see God anywhere.”
Castellanos was tortured for three days, primarily by a soldier whom he called “the person of the voice.” He came to learn who had denounced him—a fellow-officer who had also been tortured for names. The other man had told his torturers that he saw Castellanos’s car in the company of members of the Arellano Félix gang—a powerful organized-crime group sometimes known simply as the Tijuana cartel. He also mentioned that he thought Castellanos had been looking at his wife. Castellanos sighed. “I’ve never met or seen his wife. I don’t even know her name.”
On the second day, with his torturers threatening to harm his wife and two young daughters (his wife, frantic about his disappearance, was meanwhile receiving phone threats, warnings to stay silent), Castellanos came to the end of his power to resist. He was willing to say or sign anything. “I say, ‘O.K., I’ll do what you want.’ I was always screaming, ‘Please, please don’t do that to me.’ But I think they don’t care.” He was given a denunciation, a list of names, to sign. “The worst thing to me was that I signed that paper, which I hadn’t even read.”
His eyes searched mine, fierce and pleading. It looked to me as if something terrible had happened to him inside. A friend of his later told me that when Castellanos couldn’t sleep he did pushups and pullups, hour after hour, which explained his physique. He went on, “I just signed the paper. Whatever. This was on a Wednesday. They destroyed my mind. They destroyed my spirit. Always with tape and handcuffs. No opportunity to defend myself. But the government, the military, believed what I’m confessing. They believed things I said yes to from torture, because I don’t want to die. They are very bad persons, but they are also stupid.”
Castellanos was moved to the Real Inn, which, besides being a barracks for federales, is just what it looks like: a jail. It is used for suspects under arraigo—a forty-day preventive detention that is a key part of new federal emergency security law. Castellanos was injured physically. “Bleeding from the rectum. Something wrong in my chest, something broken.” But there was no more torture or interrogation at the hotel. His wife and brother were able to visit him there. His arraigo was renewed for another forty days. And then, on December 8th, he was released. He was never charged. He never saw a judge. He no longer had a job. Leyzaola had “lost confidence” in him. But the people whose names were on the list he signed were presumably picked up and pressed for more names.
“That’s how it works,” Raúl Ramírez Baena told me. Ramírez is a human-rights activist with long experience in Baja California. He drew a diagram, showing how each “suspect” provided a list of names, and how each of those “suspects” provided another list, quickly producing a “network.” “They call it an ‘investigation.’ But there is no investigating. Only arrests, interrogations, and torture.” Ramírez, when we spoke, had just come from a Tijuana radio station, where he had talked on the air about la depuración. Many listeners had called in. “They were people with detained police officers in their families. The police have such a bad reputation here—people were glad at first to see them being arrested. But now they are realizing it’s a trick. We don’t say that the torture victims are guiltless. We don’t know. There has never been any investigation.” His shirt pocket, he showed me, was full of scraps of paper. “These are from people who called in. They are the names of mothers and wives of detenidos. Some are receiving threats for speaking out.”
Ricardo Castellanos, who, even on a good day, is a nervous wreck now, was particularly agitated when we spoke, because of an article that had come out that day in Zeta. A large new haul of officers—sixty-two, most of them Tijuana city police—had been arrested on suspicion of corruption, displayed to the press at a military airfield, and flown to a federal prison on Mexico’s Gulf coast. The Zeta article was about another group of officers who had so far escaped the dragnet. It mentioned Castellanos twice—once as an informer and once as an ex-policeman who had worked for the Arellano Félix gang. Castellanos was horrified. These allegations were presented as fact. The one about him being an informer could get him killed. “Zeta is a good paper, I think,” he said. “But they’re just taking information directly from the military and publishing it.” Much of the article did read as if it had been produced by the Army, though there was a sidebar about how the families of the sixty-two new detenidos were terrified that their loved ones would be tortured in captivity.
The families had reason to be afraid. Many other detainees say they were tortured. Among a group of twenty-five policemen picked up in March, 2009, taken to an Army base in Tijuana, and then transferred to a federal prison in the state of Nayarit, a majority managed, eventually, to submit depositions about their treatment in the cuartel. Their stories were very much like that of Castellanos. They, too, were bound, blindfolded, beaten, and almost suffocated with plastic bags by soldiers determined to make them sign “confessions” they had not written or read and were sometimes simply blank pieces of paper. They also suffered simulated drowning and were shocked with electrodes attached to their genitals. Some reported that Julián Leyzaola was present during their torture. Leaks to the press said the detainees had been working for El Teo.
Blanca Mesina Nevarez, the daughter of one of the twenty-five policemen, after seeing the condition of her father, wrote e-mails to the local newspapers denouncing what had been done to him. Three papers published her letter. (Zeta did not.) Mesina, a twenty-seven-year-old exercise instructor, became a spokesperson for the families of the twenty-five. They all chipped in to pay her fare to Washington, D.C., where she testified, in October, 2009, before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, about the treatment of her father and his fellow-detainees. She and other witnesses at the hearing accused Leyzaola by name.
Back in Tijuana, Mesina and her family say that they were quickly punished for her boldness. Phone threats were succeeded by physical threats. Mesina was followed constantly by police patrol cars. In May, a black pickup truck with darkened windows and no license plates began bumping her car from behind. After the second bump, she veered into a convenience-store parking lot. “I tried to run in, but he was quick,” she told me. “He caught me outside. He had a pistol and wore a mask. He was dressed in kind of a uniform, like a special-response unit of the Tijuana police. He put the pistol to my head and said, ‘Blanquita, what’s up? Why did you submit a denunciation?’ He said he wanted to kill my family. Then he said, ‘I’m not going to kill you at this moment, because the situation has reached an international level and we don’t want to create a scandal before the election.’ Then he kissed me on the cheek and left.”
After that, Mesina went into hiding, along with a human-rights lawyer, Silvia Vázquez Camacho, who was working pro bono for Ricardo Castellanos and a number of other torture victims in the Tijuana depuración. Vázquez had also received escalating threats and constant unwanted police attention. I found the two women in a city in central Mexico, where they were hiding, together with their young children. They were both homesick, they said, and worried about their families in Tijuana. But it was difficult to know when it would be safe to go home. Not as long as Leyzaola was in charge, Vázquez said, but he was hardly their only problem. The cops who had threatened and terrorized them were working for someone, who was in turn working for someone else. Leyzaola would be only one link in that chain, which led up into the political parties, various levels of officials, the military, and the cartels. “It’s more institutional than personal,” Vázquez said.
An experienced defense lawyer, Vázquez has what one might call a holistic view of Mexican law enforcement, politics, organized crime, and the justice system. If the denunciations of police harassment and threats that she and Mesina had submitted to the authorities, and the requests for protection, began to be addressed, perhaps by a new administrative faction whose interests and alliances were different from Leyzaola’s, that would be a good sign. Of course, that might not happen soon, and there were never any guarantees.
Two weeks after I met Vázquez and Mesina, Mesina’s father and twelve of his fellow-prisoners were abruptly freed from prison by a judge, who said that there was no evidence against them. Mesina’s father returned to Tijuana and publicly demanded his job back. He did not get it. As with Castellanos, the authorities had evidently “lost confidence” in him. Mesina and Vázquez remained in hiding, unconvinced it was safe to go back.
Some human-rights organizations want nothing to do with police officers who become victims. I contacted a citizens’ group for families of the disappeared. When I mentioned my interest in police officers to the group’s leader, he balked. Too many of his members felt antipathy toward the police, who were often prime suspects in the disappearance of their loved ones.
Still, I found other police-officer torture victims in Tijuana. There were four ex-cops, just released from jail, who said they had been attacked by Leyzaola himself. Their case was unusual. It started with a traffic stop and a Tae Kwon Do competition. A Korean trainer in the competition had complained to his teammates that the police stole six hundred dollars from him after he left a downtown strip club. The governor of Baja California was opening the Tae Kwon Do competition the next morning, and the Koreans started yelling at him about the cops who had ripped off their friend. Tijuana does not see many international sporting events, so the governor was mortified. He called Leyzaola and said, Find those cops. The usual door-smashing, shackling, and rough treatment brought the four patrolmen who had stopped the Korean to Leyzaola’s “bunker,” as it is known—a fortified soundproof room in the old downtown police headquarters. Luis Galván Hernández, the cop who had actually patted down the Korean, told me the story.
“We were blindfolded,” he said. “They started punching me in the stomach, hard, Leyzaola on my right side, Huerta on my left.” Gustavo Huerta Martínez is the city’s police director. “My hands were tied behind my back, my shirt pulled over my head. Leyzaola was hitting harder. I said I would admit anything just so they would stop. Leyzaola said I had stolen six hundred dollars from the Korean and he wanted me to confess to his video camera. I said no to the video. That’s when he went nuts. They started using rebar and an AR-15 rifle against my back, while still punching from the front. They started making mistakes, leaving marks, causing wounds. I wouldn’t make the video. They beat us all for hours.”
Then the four cops were thrown in jail for four months. Galván, a sharply dressed thirty-seven-year-old, showed me the medical report from his admission to jail. It listed eighteen separate injuries. “Leyzaola says that’s because I fought him,” he said. “What really happened was that I managed to get one hand out of the cuffs and tried to pull the plastic off my face. I couldn’t breathe. That sent him over the edge. He is a very sick individual.”
The four cops say that they were first charged with armed robbery and were told by Leyzaola that they were going to prison for twenty years. The charge has since been reduced to a misdemeanor, and a lawyer, taking their case pro bono, managed to get them bail. Galván, who studied law himself, said he expected an acquittal, although he wished his Korean accuser were still in Mexico. The man’s story, he said, was fiction. If he had lost money, he had lost it in the strip club. “We’re filing a complaint for torture. Plus I want my job back. My job was my life.” His friends, he said, believed he had a death wish, talking publicly about his mistreatment by Leyzaola. Galván glowered at his papers as he gathered them into a folder. He wanted his job back. He had done nothing wrong.
In August, the Baja California state human-rights commission released a report meticulously detailing the detention and torture of five police officers in August, 2009. Leyzaola was alleged, in the report, to have almost asphyxiated one of the victims by putting a plastic bag over his head and repeatedly punching him. The state human-rights commissioner recommended that Leyzaola be suspended from duty while an investigation was conducted. The recommendation was rejected.
Leyzaola was breezy about the torture accusations when I brought them up. “Some have been hit, sure,” he said. “They don’t go gently. But no torture, no.” He himself merely executed arrest orders and handed suspects over to the Army at the Morelos barracks. “It’s not a hotel,” he said, shrugging. The interrogations at the cuartel were not, in any case, his responsibility. After Blanca Mesina and others testified in Washington, D.C., last fall, Leyzaola said, “It may be the criminal groups are using human-rights organizations for their own benefit.” As for the policemen charged with robbing the Korean visitor, he said, “I call them traitors to la patria.”
La depuración wasn’t finished, he said, and never would be. There was too much temptation. Hiring honest people would always be a challenge. For a while, eighty per cent of applicants were being rejected for failing polygraphs. The cartels were obviously intent on rebuilding their network of collaborators on the force.
Still, some of the recent revelations of local police corruption have been embarrassing to Leyzaola. In December, two of his personal bodyguards were arrested by state police in the company of a group of El Teo’s men in Ensenada, a port city seventy miles south of Tijuana. Then, in February, a top zone commander and his deputy—military men recently appointed by Leyzaola and publicly praised by him—were caught, along with three other Tijuana police officers, in a raid by the federal police on a house where El Teo’s gang was holding two rival narcos captive. Because Mexican soldiers are normally posted far from their home towns, and live on military bases, some people believe that they are less susceptible to narco corruption than the police are. But military collusion with the cartels runs deep and wide.
In July, in a revelation less embarrassing to Leyzaola than to American and Mexican law enforcement in the region, the Justice Department announced, in San Diego, the indictment of forty-three alleged narco-traffickers, working both sides of the border. Those arrested included Jesús Quiñónez Márquez, the Baja California state attorney general’s top liaison to U.S. law enforcement. Quiñónez, according to the indictment, had been working reliably with the Americans against El Teo’s gang—while working for the Arellano Félix group. Three weeks earlier, Steven Kashkett, the U.S. consul-general in Tijuana, had thrown a Fourth of July party around the swimming pool at his official residence. His guests had included Quiñónez and, of course, Leyzaola, whom Kashkett praised in his prepared remarks.
Leyzaola’s job security is actually now in question. The Tijuana mayor who hired him, Jorge Ramos Hernández, will leave his post in December, a casualty of term limits, and his successor, a wealthy U.S.-born businessman named Carlos Bustamante Anchondo, has not said whether he will keep Leyzaola, although he does say it is the single most important staffing decision he will make. Leyzaola has made it clear that he wants to stay, and many tijuanenses believe that, with the strong backing he enjoys from the military, the U.S. government, the Mexican federal government, and Tijuana’s leading businessmen, he will certainly be retained. But, as Silvia Vázquez, the lawyer, suggested, there are many more invisible interests than visible ones working in Mexican power circles.
Leyzaola, meanwhile, is enjoying being Tijuana’s top badass. He has banned one of Mexico’s most popular bands, Los Tucanes de Tijuana, from performing in their home town, because they play narcocorridos. He sleeps at the Morelos cuartel, he told me, and the first thing he does each morning is salute the enormous flag that hangs above the base. His job, he complained, involves too much paperwork. He gestured impatiently at his desk, his computer, his interviewer. “It’s mainly administrative,” he said. “But at night I do what I enjoy.” He patted his weapon and gave a wolfish grin. “Me voy a la cacería.” (“I go hunting.”)
I thought people in Tijuana would love Leyzaola. He had saved them from El Teo. Everyone I asked agreed that the streets downtown were safer now, that you could go out to eat without having to worry that the whole restaurant would be taken hostage. (It used to happen.) Still, I found no passionate fans. One bar owner said, “What’s his name again? I can’t even pronounce it.”
Leyzaola is a hero to Tijuana’s big businessmen, some of whom now feel safe enough from kidnapping to move their families back from the U.S. To ordinary tijuanenses, however, the police are still the police—arbitrary, ineffective, dangerous. The Army and the cops deserve some credit, people might concede, for ending the Tijuana drug war, but mostly it was the cartels themselves, sorting out their differences.
Certainly, it’s unlikely that Leyzaola’s public triumph over the gangsters in Tijuana has affected the volume of narco-trafficking in the region. The drug business is operating as smoothly and profitably as ever. The gang war that Leyzaola helped stop was actually bad for business. It started because the Arellano Félix crime group, which has controlled the Tijuana “plaza” for generations, began to splinter a few years ago, weakened by the deaths and arrests of its leaders. Tijuana, with its easy access by land, sea, and small plane to the vast drug markets in California, is an exceptionally valuable plaza. The main antagonists in the recent war were the Arellano Félix gang—led today by Luis Fernando (the Engineer) Sánchez Arellano—and a breakaway group led by El Teo, who was originally a bodyguard and had risen within the organization.
El Teo’s specialty was never the drug business as such, which tends to reward discretion. His fortes were kidnapping and extortion. He reportedly had a network of cages, scattered across Baja California, containing his kidnap victims. In early 2009, one of his henchmen, known as El Pozolero—the Stew Maker—was arrested. El Pozolero calmly admitted to dissolving the remains of three hundred of El Teo’s victims in vats of lye. The Engineer tried to persuade El Teo that his high-volume brutality was attracting too much attention. The reply he got was a ferocious gunfight between their followers, which left thirteen corpses on a main road in east Tijuana. El Teo turned, for backup, to Chapo Guzmán. At some point, El Chapo must have realized that El Teo was an unstable ally. Few mourned, certainly, when he and his henchmen were taken down. Today, the Engineer and El Chapo share the Tijuana plaza more or less amicably.
The conspiracy-minded tend to see Leyzaola as working for El Chapo—“clearing the plaza” for him by attacking his narco rivals. That’s what he means, they say, when he talks about going out “hunting”—a few nighttime drive-bys on petty drug dealers not working for El Chapo.
Leyzaola doesn’t mind giving the impression that he’s armed and dangerous. But the truth is that his six-gun approach to fighting organized crime and police corruption has made space for real security improvements. A street cop will now think twice about putting the arm on a motorist or a tourist. He does not want to risk having Leyzaola jump down his throat. And the mere mention, by a suspect under arrest, of a powerful narco-trafficker “friend” is apparently less likely to produce a quick release than it traditionally was in Tijuana. It seems perfectly likely that Leyzaola, his strong ties to the Army aside, is working for no one but himself. He enjoys his job. His particular style of doing it requires a lot of hammy acting and physical courage, and he does it well. He also benefits from a great deal of impunity, a condition that everyone deplores in principle but that nearly everyone tends to prefer in practice.
Nobody disputes that a depuración is needed—in government generally and in the police especially. But are the dirty cops actually the ones being purged? The people I asked were skeptical, at best. Purges proceed by their own blinkered logic, particularly when they are conducted by torture, and are themselves subject to corruption. A social anthropologist with excellent contacts in the local jails told me, “A lot of payments are being made to determine who gets arrested.” Numerous people said it was all un espectáculo—a show. The intended audience was the public and “Obama.” The latter is shorthand for the many U.S. agencies funnelling more than a billion dollars into the Mexican government’s anti-drug efforts through the Mérida Initiative, which places a much-needed emphasis on fighting public corruption, particularly in law enforcement.
Torture by the authorities is so common in Mexico that it seemingly fails to shock anyone to whom it is not happening. Victor Clark Alfaro, a longtime human-rights activist in Tijuana, told me that his office had handled five hundred torture cases over twenty-five years. Precisely one had resulted in charges. Still, I was shocked when Adela Navarro Bello, the editor of Zeta, told me that a group of policemen arrested in la depuración who claimed to have been tortured did not look to her, in their post-interrogation mug shots, as though they had been tortured. You can usually tell, she said. (Of course, electrodes to the genitals don’t leave marks on the face.) The apparent indifference of U.S. authorities to the many accusations of torture made against Leyzaola is somehow less puzzling. After all, it is essential that the police start kicking ass in Mexico.
Mexico’s predicament, amounting in some places to state capture by the cartels, obviously concerns the United States. Tijuana is a city of two million people. Its San Ysidro station is the busiest land-border crossing in the world. Three hundred thousand people cross the border each day, many of them daily commuters. Rolling back the power of organized crime there barely qualifies as a foreign-policy problem. As one senior American diplomat put it, “Heavily armed groups are perpetrating these extreme levels of violence within shouting distance of major U.S. cities.” The Border Patrol, the F.B.I., and the California attorney general’s office have gone out of their way recently to heap praise on Leyzaola and his work. “We have a lot of trust in him and his team,” an F.B.I. special agent told reporters in Tijuana in mid-September. And, it could be inferred, a man in Leyzaola’s position needs more leeway to act against the enemies of peace and public order than the average American police chief does.
Hillary Clinton, in early September, used the word “insurgency” to describe the situation in Mexico. President Obama pointedly rejected her description the next day. Mexico, he said, is a “vast and progressive democracy, with a growing economy.” In truth, there is no significant political insurgency in Mexico. And yet the wealth and power of organized crime has become the country’s defining feature. In the face of that frightening reality, it’s natural to look for exceptions to the rule of lawlessness, and Julián Leyzaola is happy to provide one.
He talks about how the recently concluded war between El Teo and the Arellano Félix group “benefitted us—we could see them better, like fishermen.” Now, he told me, even the capo of the Arellano Félix gang, the Engineer, was on the run. “He was in Hawaii. Now he’s in Mazatlán.” As Leyzaola mimed the gun battles with which his forces had won the streets, his hand motions were fluid and eloquent, almost joyful. ♦