The appointment of retired colonel Julian Leyzaola, the controversial former head of Tijuana’s police force, to lead a security crackdown in troubled Juarez raises questions about whether he is the best – or the worst – man for the job.
Leyzaola is a larger-than-life character who makes for a great magazine profiles. He is credited with “cleaning up” Tijuana’s police, mostly by appointing former military officials to high-ranking positions. Under his watch, from 2007 to 2010, security conditions in Tijuana saw some relative improvements: murder rates peaked at over 800 in 2008, then began to steadily drop. Last year, the municipality of Tijuana saw 472 homicides related to organized crime. Not a desirable number by any means, but moderate levels compared to other northern border municipalities, including Ciudad Juarez (2,738 murders), Chihuahua (670) and Culiacan (587).
Leyzaola has been criticized for his hardline methods, allegedly sanctioning the use of torture during interrogations. A better question is how much did Leyzaola’s reforms, which mostly consisted of forcing the sacking of hundreds of corrupt cops, have anything to do with the improved security in Tijuana.
Violence in Tijuana reached a boiling point in 2008 partly because of the same reason why things are so gruesome in Juarez today. That is, the major cartel operating in the city split into rival factions. In Tijuana, a top commander of the Arellano-Felix organization, Teodoro Garcia Simental, alias ‘El Teo,’ split from the Arellano-Felix organization, allegedly with support from the Sinaloa Cartel. Street battles, beheadings, and bodies hung off of bridges soon became the norm. Similarly, in Juarez, violence intensified after a mega cartel, formed by a Juarez-Sinaloa alliance, split apart.
In January 2010, Garcia and his two fight-hand lieutenants were arrested, and a relative calm in Tijuana soon followed. But it is difficult to tell how much this tranquility had to do with Leyzaola’s efforts — which included the firing of hundreds of officers from Tijuana’s 2,000-man police force since 2007 — and how much of it had to do with the dynamics of the drug-trafficking gangs active in the city.
Tellingly, in Ciudad Juarez there have also been multiple efforts to “purge” the security forces, including the recruitment and training of about 2,000 police officers since 2008. There are an estimated 10,000 military and federal police officers currently deployed to the city. But this has had little effect on the staggeringly high murder rate.
The violence in Ciudad Juarez has less to do with the need for police reform (still an urgent priority) and more to do with street battles between gangs who readily sell their services to whichever cartel, be it Sinaloa or Juarez, is the highest bidder. These groups and more are carving up the city block by block, seeking territorial control not just of drug exports to the U.S., but also of the city’s domestic market. It is similiar to the kind of fractured gang violence currently being seen in Colombia, in cities like Medellin or rural areas like Bajo Cauca.
Going into Juarez, Leyzaola has some explaining to do about his record, especially concerning allegations of human rights abuses. Arguably, his “take no prisoners” approach may prove to be what Juarez needs. But to some degree, the violence still being seen in Juarez, Tijuana and across Mexico is the inevitable collateral damage caused by the government’s strategy, which prioritizes the take-down of top cartel leaders, leading to the fragmentation and splintering of the DTOs. Tijuana may be seeing a relative period of calm, but this could almost be in spite of Leyzaola’s efforts, not because of them.