The police who patrol this murder-ridden city have been acting strange lately, according to Jose Perez, a street vendor who sells tamarindo juice and knockoff Pumas a few blocks south of the U.S. border.
“They’ve stopped saying hi to the drug dealers,” Perez said, lowering his voice to a whisper. “And they’re making them leave.”
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.
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.
“Policework is a religion practiced by men and women of honor,” said Murguia, the Juarez mayor. “That’s why I brought him here.”
In Tijuana, more than two dozen former police officers have stepped forward with credible assertions that they were tortured, according to Nik Steinberg, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who has investigated allegations of abuse by Leyzaola. The victims say they were beaten, waterboarded and given electric shocks to their genitals to extract false confessions, with Leyzaola present on several occasions. In at least one case documented by national and state human rights officials, Leyzaola participated in the abuse, putting on a pair of black leather gloves before placing a plastic bag over the alleged victim’s head and punching him while he asphyxiated.
In a separate incident, the Baja California state human-rights commission found that officers under Leyzaola’s command fired indiscriminately on inmates and visiting family members during a 2008 prison riot in Tijuana in which at least 19 people were killed.
“Leyzaola’s leadership sends the message that sometimes you need to abuse human rights to make public security gains,” Steinberg said. “No one would dispute that security forces in Mexico are dealing with incredibly violent and ruthless criminal organizations, but the idea that the only way to fight them effectively is by throwing out the rule of law is deeply flawed.”
Leyzaola rejects the torture accusations, saying that it is a matter of dirty cops trying to strike back at him. Murguia, the Juarez mayor, noted that none of the allegations have led to formal charges against Leyzaola.
In March, less than two weeks after Leyzaola took charge, four young men disappeared in Juarez after witnesses saw them arguing in a park with members of the city’s elite Delta Force police unit. The men’s bodies turned up in the desert a few weeks later, their hands tied and throats slit.
Leyzaola ordered an internal investigation of the incident, which found no wrongdoing by his men. But a subsequent state police probe led to the arrest of three of the officers, now charged with forced disappearance and other crimes.
Rosa Maria Vazquez, mother of two of the victims, said Leyzaola met with her family and pledged to investigate, but that she believes he is protecting as many as a dozen other officers who witnesses saw at the scene.
“I don’t know if it was Leyzaola, but somebody had to give the order to kill my sons,” she said tearfully. She’s seeking asylum for her family in the United States.
Juarez’s police department has been so rotten for so long that the central government has sent thousands of Mexican soldiers and federal police to provide security. They rarely bother with petty crime and quality-of-life issues, riding around the city in the backs of pickup trucks with body armor and automatic weapons, looking to engage mafia gunmen.
In contrast, Leyzaola says his officers will work Juarez like beat cops, building trust with residents and business owners, many of whom are accustomed to being shaken down by police, or worse.
Leyzaola has said he will use his officers to take back Juarez one section at a time, in a clear-and-hold strategy that will eventually allow the 5,000 federal police officers here to stand down. In the past several months, the city’s homicide rate has declined, with about 1,200 killings this year, still sky-high but on pace for a 25 percent decline over last year, when car bombs rocked downtown and several massacres scarred the city.
Juarez’s confidence peaked earlier this month, when the city hosted its first international athletic competition in years, the Pan-American women’s volleyball cup, drawing sell-out crowds and teams from all over the region.
“We’ve felt safe,” the U.S. women’s coach, Hugh McCutcheon, said in an interview at his hotel, “but we’re also taking precautions.” The team traveled to and from its games with armed escorts.
Two days after the tournament ended, 21 people were killed in the city, the worst one-day toll this year.