It was yet more evidence that Mexico’s bloodiest city is under the reign of a new lawman, Lt. Col. Julian Leyzaola, a retired military officer who was named Juarez police chief in March. Before coming here, Leyzaola was police commander in Tijuana, Mexico’s other big, troubled border town, where he was known for his courage, for his integrity and — according to human rights officials — for torturing officers he suspected of corruption or ties to drug cartels.
The controversy engendered by Leyzaola’s appointment to what is essentially Mexico’s most high-profile police job mirrors a debate going on elsewhere in the country, where military officers are increasingly assuming command of civilian police departments. President Felipe Calderon’s war on Mexican drug cartels was supposed to bring professional, modern law enforcement practices and a greater respect for human rights, but now a weary Mexican public just wants someone tough enough to stand up to the mafias.
“You can’t bring Mother Teresa in here to fight these criminals,” said Juarez mayor Hector Murguia, who hired Leyzaola.
In Juarez, as in Tijuana, Leyzaola has emerged as a kind of Mexican Eliot Ness, a steely gunslinger who calls mafia bosses “scum” and insists that criminals should fear police, not the other way around. Despite the trail of abuse allegations that have followed him to Juarez, he appeals to those who long for a crime-fighting hero neither corrupted nor cowed by the wealth and savagery of the drug lords.
“No criminal organization, no matter how violent or aggressive it may be, is going to flourish if it doesn’t have the support of the authorities,” Leyzaola told reporters recently. “If they don’t, they are definitely destined to fail.”
His first day on the job, gangsters left a bound, gagged torture victim next to a church with a banner that read “Welcome to Juarez Julian Leyzaola.”
Having earned praise from politicians, business leaders and even the FBI for his leadership in Tijuana, Leyzaola is now tasked with pacifying a city of 1.3 million that tallied more than 3,100 killings last year. He has estimated that at least one-quarter of his 2,500 officers were working for the drug cartels when he arrived. More than 170 have since resigned.
Human rights allegations
Leyzaola, 51, cultivates an ascetic image in Juarez, sleeping and taking his meals at police headquarters and carrying a loaded Beretta wherever he goes. In recent weeks, he has refused media interviews but has seemingly been everywhere in the streets, conducting beat patrols with his officers and busting the bad guys himself.
“Leyzaola Chases Down Killers,” read a recent headline in El Diario de Juarez, the city’s leading newspaper, describing how Mexico’s top cop had survived yet another assassination attempt, battling through a lunch-hour shootout that wounded several attackers. A day earlier, Leyzaola arrested two traffickers after finding 63 packages of marijuana in the trunk of their beat-up Pontiac.