The man who took bullets waging war on Mexico’s cartels is now taking on politics

On Julián Leyzaola Pérez’s watch as police chief, murder rates in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez plummeted – now after surviving a murderous attack, he’s trying to become mayor of Tijuana .

When I interviewed him in 2008, Julián Leyzaola Pérez strutted with a military gait. As he should: a former lieutenant colonel in the Mexican army, he had been summoned to command the police force, then head public security in Tijuana, at the time Mexico’s second-most dangerous city. We met on his first day in the job.

But now, he arrives in a wheelchair to talk.

Leyzaola – one of the most remarkable, imposing and controversial figures to emerge from Mexico’s cartel carnage – wielded office with famous (some say infamous) ruthlessness and efficacy, driving down murder rates in Tijuana, then Ciudad Juárez. But in 2015 came the payback: while with his wife and son in Juárez, Leyzaola was ambushed by a hit squad, took two bullets as he shielded his child, and has since been paralysed from the waist down.

After the attack, Leyzaola has twice run for election as mayor of Tijuana, and was twice narrowly defeated – for the second time this summer. Tijuana – after a period of relative calm – is now the murder capital of the world, with a terrifying 2,518 homicides last year, and on course to beat that in 2019.

Julián Leyzaola Pérez, center, walks past the body of a top municipal police officer in Ciudad Juarez.
 Julián Leyzaola Pérez, center, walks past the body of a top municipal police officer in Ciudad Juárez. Photograph: Raymundo Ruiz/AP

We meet at a favourite restaurant of his beside the Pacific shore, for coffee and pan dulce, the ocean beyond the window under a leaden sky. Col Leyzaola is wheeled in by a man with the erect spine of a soldier, and is palpably furious at his immobility.

“My mission has not changed,” he says. “To fight organised crime until it is broken. This is not a strategy that can be implemented from behind a desk. It has to be done on the street and that is where I intend to be, even now.”

Back in 2008, Leyzaola was everywhere to be seen around Tijuana. Whenever there was a shootout or bodies dumped – and there were plenty – there he was, surveying the crime scene, consulting his officers and addressing the press – prowling the beat.

Back then, Leyzaola used the term “social terrorism” to describe cartels. “What I can do is increase a police profile to avert the social psychosis the narcos want to generate,” he told me back then, stressing they needed “physical presence to reassure people, and intelligence to fight the criminals themselves”.

Leyzaola was so successful in reducing homicides, the federal government transferred him to do the same in Ciudad Juárez, then Mexico’s and the world’s homicide capital – which he did.

When Leyzaola took over public security in Tijuana, the murder rate had just begun to rise from a stable average of around 250 per year to a sudden record of 1,250 in 2008. This was due to an assault on the border drug-smuggling “plaza” by the Sinaloa cartel of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán against the local Arellano Félix Organisation (AFO), for control of routes into California.

A burning bus, set alight by cartel gunmen to block a road, is pictured during clashes with federal forces following the detention of Ovidio Guzman, son of drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
 A burning bus, set alight by cartel gunmen, during clashes with federal forces following the detention of Ovidio Guzmán, son of ‘El Chapo’. Photograph: Reuters

Two of the AFO’s lieutenants defected to Guzmán to lead a bloody war of attrition: Teodoro “El Teo” García Simental and his henchman Santiago Meza López, “El Pozolero”, named after pork soup because he dissolved hundreds of his victims in acid.

Leyzaola says now: “I studied the criminal groups – their own rules, language, even religion [Santísima Muerte, most holy death] – their cult of excessive violence, how they penetrate society. And I devised a strategy with the then mayor to neutralise them, and recover the city.” At first, this meant coordinating branches of law enforcement at odds with one another. In mayor Jorge Ramos Hernández, Leyzaola found a rare political ally against corruption.

With the Arellano Félix syndicate in decline, “my real war was against the Sinaloa cartel”, recalls Leyzaola. “They offered me money” – reportedly $80,000 a week – “as they had done to my predecessors, but I refused, for which they tried to kill me five times”.

After the third attempt on his life, Leyzaola moved his family across the border to San Diego, and took up residence in a military base. He brought in military officers with limited police experience to lock down zones in the city, barrio by barrio. “El Pozolero” was arrested in 2009, and “El Teo” a year later.

By the end of 2010, homicides in Tijuana had halved. There are two explanations: one, that the Sinaloa cartel won the war and established a “pax mafiosa” in town. The other, that Leyzaola applied a mano férrea – iron hand – with such force that it worked. An exhaustive report by a trans-border team of academics working under the umbrella Justice in Mexico, allows for both.

But Leyzaola waged another war: against many of his own officers. Mayor Ramos’s predecessor, Jorge Hank Rhon, who owns a betting empire and the Tijuana Xolos football team, had undertaken a recruitment drive into the city’s police, which the Justice in Mexico report says “enabled large numbers of corrupt officers to join the city’s roughly 2,000-member police force”.

In Mexico, police forces are infamously contaminated, either willingly or after offers from the cartels, payment for services rendered, or death.

Julian Leyzaola speaks with his police officers in Tijuana, Mexico in 2009.
 Julián Leyzaola speaks with his police officers in Tijuana, Mexico, in 2009. Photograph: Guillermo Arias/AP

Against these corrupt officers, Leyzaola was ruthless. “It was my other war”, he says. He purged some 600 officers and departmental personnel – nearly a third of the roll.

“I adopted a policy of zero tolerance in applying the law, against no matter who, whether they wore uniform or not,” Leyzaola says. “I undertook to clean the police force of corrupt officers by whatever means were necessary, and I did so. By the end, it was harder for officers to serve the cartel, and harder for the cartel to move around safe houses in this city”.

But Leyzaola’s purges provoked allegations of human right abuses, and even of his own presence during the torture of police officers believed to be on the cartel payroll . He was censured by the Baja California Human Rights Commission for a litany of abuses against suspect officers, and in 2014 banned from public office for eight years – a ruling overturned last year by state magistrates, citing lack of proof.

Challenged about allegations that he abused human rights of prisoners and suspect officers, Leyzaola retorts: “The only way to fight crime is to apply the law. It was these people who violated human rights, why defend them, and not the law?”

By 2011, Ciudad Juárez, midway along the border, was murder capital of the world. Leyzaola was duly transferred there and endeavoured to repeat his Tijuana record. But while he had had the backing of Tijuana’s Mayor Ramos, authorities in Chihuahua were unimpressed.

Leyzaola’s welcome was an ominous one: within 48 hours of his arrival, a mangled corpse was dumped with the message: “Leyzaola, Welcome to Juárez”. He took a call from a former police officer in Juárez, José Antonio Acosta, by now working for the Sinaloa cartel, saying: “This is Diego, I am at your service” – suggesting that the new chief and cartel work in tandem. Leyzaola’s retort was erudite: four months later, Acosta was arrested along with a number of his collaborators, among them police officers.

Leyzaola mounted “intense harassment patrols block by block, barrio by barrio. To take back the city colonia by colonia.

But, as in Tijuana, that was not all. Leyzaola speaks like no one of his ilk about corrupt Mexican law enforcement operating as a crime syndicate. “When I arrived”, he recalls, “I set myself against two cartels: the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels. Then I realised there was a third cartel: the federal police cartel. It had a force of 5,000 officers, moving drugs, running extortion rackets. Just like the criminal cartels, they occupied territory by violence and fear. I confronted all three, head-on.”

After three years in office, Leyzaola’s tenure came to an end. Murders in Juárez had plunged from 1,926 in 2011 to 514 in 2013. The city took a deep breath of hope, thinking, wrongly, that the worst was over (homicides in the city are now worse than at any time since 2011).

Leyzaola established a private security firm in Juárez, and on 8 May 2015, was shot for his endeavours in office.

View of new common graves -needed due to the increase in the number of murders in the past months- at a cemetery in Tijuana, Baja California State.
 View of new common graves – needed due to the increase in the number of murders in the past months – at a cemetery in Tijuana, Baja California state. Photograph: Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images

Having opened a private security company in Juárez, he was arriving at a money exchange office with his wife and son when two gunmen opened fire. Diving to protect the child, Leyzaola took two bullets. The men were jailed after the briefest of trials, and said they had been paid for the hit, but claimed they did not know by whom.

Leyzaola, wincing at the memory, says emphatically that the attempted execution was “by the authorities in Juárez, on orders of the Chihuahua state government, because of its connections to organised crime”.

Tijuana is now one of Mexico’s fastest-growing cities, integral to the vibrant cross-border economic area known as ‘Cali-Baja’; a city where 40% of all audio-visual goods in North America are manufactured. Nearly 200,000 people a day cross the border legally, for work, social and family life and domestic finances.

But Tijuana – after years of relative calm – now tops the world homicide league. In 2017, the city had more homicides than any other in Mexico and with a rate of 138.6 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2018, took the macabre world title it is on course to maintain in 2019.

And here Leyzaola returned. After a period of depression, decided to throw himself back into this fray, this time politics. “What they undid of my police work I could try and restore with political authority,” he says. He moved his family back to Tijuana and ran for mayor of his adoptive city.Advertisement

On the campaign trail, Leyzaola presented himself as the “mayor on your streets”, and was greeted as having “once brought peace to the city”, yet his opponents mounted a press conference at which a former police officer, José Luis González – who had served four years for corruption, but had his conviction quashed – claimed he had been tortured by Leyzaola, who in turn retorted that González was a “criminal in uniform”. At the polls, he was narrowly defeated by Juan Manuel Gastelúm of the National Action party (PAN) – or as Leyzaola sees it, “by the corrupt political machine”.

Leyzaola concedes that narco-traffic turf wars account for the sharp rise in violence; “now drugs are for everybody; 30 pesos for a synthetic dose”. But he believes the main problem “remains the fight for the big export plazas, for the big money”.

Unlike most of his peers who think it harder to confront disparate, fragmented street-level groups, Leyzaola thinks it’s “more difficult to fight a big organisation. It has a chain of command, can modify tactics, diversify into kidnapping, extortion, migration. Small groups can be taken down on my territorial model; but the great problem in Mexico is power of the big cartels and their corruption of the institutions of state.”

Leyzaola is a devout Catholic. He is not an opponent of the disastrous war on drugs, indeed he is one of its most fervent advocates. But he is contemptuous of its strategies, urging a “moral and legal eradication” of narco-traffic and its culture. On the trial and conviction of El Chapo in New York, he says: “It’ll make no difference. The ‘kingpin strategy’ of just jailing the leaders doesn’t work. You cannot just jail the kingpin and expect it to have an effect. You have to fight the whole organisation, at its roots, and within the system”.

His own next step? “To try again to get elected. Surrender is not in my vocabulary.”

Source: The Guardian