There are stars in security and law enforcement just as there are in the ranks of organized crime, and Julián Leyzaola is one of them. Once considered one of Mexico’s toughest cops, he was recently brought on as an advisor to help improve the imploding security situation in the tourist mecca of Cancún. But can, and will, he repeat his unsavory methods on a shoreline crowded with foreign visitors, or is his appointment just public relations bluster?
A retired military colonel, Leyzaola served as a police chief in both Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez during some of the worst years of violence in Mexico’s contemporary drug war. He is widely credited with having reversed the homicide rate, chronic insecurity and crime during his tenure in both border towns. A well-known figure in Mexico, Leyzaola has often made the headlines himself, most memorably when he was attacked by gunmen while sitting in his car in Ciudad Juárez (after his stint as police chief), an aggression that has left him confined to a wheelchair.
His security victories in both Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana came at a high cost. Leyzaola earned a reputation for using brutal, confrontational methods to achieve his goals. On his arrival in Tijuana, 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.”
Journalist William Finnegan recounted a particularly disturbing episode in a profile on Leyzaola in the New Yorker: “Arriving at the scene of a shoot-out where one of his men had died, [Leyzaola] punched the corpse of a cartel gunman in the face.” More cops died under Leyzaola’s watch than during the five previous years, according to the writer.
In a telephone interview with InSight Crime, Mike Vigil, a retired agent from the Drugs Enforcement Administration (DEA) who spent years based in Mexico, compared Leyzaola to Joe Arpaio, the controversial sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona.
“He violated every principal of human rights … a lot of people were sent to prison without doing anything,” Vigil said, referring to Leyzaola, who declined to be interviewed by phone for this article.
Leyzaola arrived in Ciudad Juárez in March 2011, after which a dramatic drop in homicides took place. Within two years, the daily murder rate fell from a jaw-dropping 10 a day to about one per day. Before that, he was credited with “cleaning up” Tijuana and its corrupt police, mostly by appointing former military officials to high-ranking positions. Under his watch, from 2007 to 2010, murder rates that peaked at over 800 in 2008 steadily dropped to levels that were low compared to other northern border municipalities at the time.
But both of his periods as police chief are littered with accusations of human rights violations, such as the use of torture during interrogations. And a comparison for arrest figures during a couple of years in Juárez shows an important difference: In January 2011, police arrested 1,462 people for suspected misdemeanours, but by July 2012, after a year of Leyzaola’s reign, that figure was 13,568.
As in many situations where violence tapers off, it was hard to determine if the drop in violence was a direct response to Leyzaola’s hard-line methods, or had more to do with the eventual emergence of a dominant criminal player. In his time as police chief in both cities, violence was largely the product of territorial disputes between rival cartels — the Sinaloa Cartel and Arellano Felix organization in the case of Tijuana, and the Sinaloans against their former allies, the Juárez Cartel, in Ciudad Juárez.
But Leyzaola’s experiences do place him in a strong position to take on the security issues now ravaging the city of Cancún. Violent incidents such as night club shootouts and bodies dumped in exclusive apartment blocks are becoming increasingly common. Some reports suggest that the relatively recent arrival here of the kind of brutal-drug related violence so common in other regions of the country marks a push into the city by the aggressively expanding Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) and its fight for dominance with the Sinaloa Cartel. Others put the violence down to clashes between the Zetas and a new, independent cartel.
But whatever is behind the current bloodshed, there are a few reasons why Leyzaola’s impact is likely to be minimal.
Given the importance of Cancún and the high presence of foreign tourists, Mexico’s federal government is already involved in controlling security and sent in the military earlier this year. Yet it was Remberto Estrada, the municipal president of the Cancún-area municipality of Benito Juárez, who brought Leyzaola on board. How much power Leyzaola has to contribute and implement his plans will depend largely on his relationship with the federal government, not the local authorities, and much leeway they allow him. There are already signs that federal troops and police are taking the lead in going after leading local capos.
Should Leyzaola find himself able to exercise strong sway, his wings could also be clipped by the quality of local police forces.
“What he can do is recommend strategies, but if the local police is very corrupt they’re not going to be very effective,” said Jorge Chabat, a professor of international studies at the Centre for Research and Economic Development (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas – CIDE) in a phone interview with InSight Crime.
Community members interviewed by Bloomberg take a dim view of the quality of the city’s authorities — both police and politicians. Carlos Mimenza, a real-estate developer, told the news agency that the authorities “are responsible for the spread of violence and extortion, colluding with the country’s drug cartels instead of protecting entrepreneurs like him.”
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It will also be harder for Leyzaola to get his tough tactics sanctioned by higher-ups in Cancún than it might have been in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, scrappy border towns in comparison to the high-rise luxury of Cancún. Heavy-handed policing there promises to have more projection and impact internationally, perhaps a factor as bad for business as drug-related violence itself.
That said, Chabat doesn’t think Mexicans have as much of a problem with human rights violations in the fight against crime: “When it’s those involved in criminal activity, people don’t care. They want to see results. [Human rights] isn’t a factor that worries them much.”
But any gains Leyzaola might make promise to be only short-term, according to analysts.
“If there isn’t a reform to combat impunity, organized crime will continue to operate,” said Chabat.
In the past, Mexico has called in higher-profile security gurus such as former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and retired Colombian police chief General Oscar Naranjo to try and help fix the problem of violence. But Vigil doesn’t think bringing in star specialists is the way to go, and neither do they have the position or power to make the kind of fundamental changes needed to have a real impact.
“Rather than hiring [Leyzaola], they really need to change the feeling of complete impunity,” he said. “Criminals [in Mexico] feel like they can do anything and get away with it.”