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The Battle for Tijuana’s Streets Continues


In a follow-up to our special series Border Battle, we look at how the war against Tijuana's drug cartels is going, and why the police chief is a prime target of the drug lords.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Last year the grim news about bodies being found and gun battles being fought in Tijuana were regular headlines on KPBS and other news outlets. In fact, we have a special series called “Border Battle,” tracing the death toll and other casualties of the war between two factions of the Arellano Felix drug cartel. Tijuana is quieter now, except if you are a member of the Tijuana police force. Joining us to follow up their report on the “Border Battle,” are my guests Amy Isackson, border reporter for KPBS News. Amy, welcome.

AMY ISACKSON (Border Reporter, KPBS News): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Vicente Calderón is editor of Vicente, welcome.

VICENTE CALDERON (Editor, Thank you. Gracias. Buenos dias.

CAVANAUGH: We invite our audience to join the conversation. If you’ve been to Tijuana lately, tell us if you notice a change. Or if you know a member of Tijuana law enforcement, tell us about the situation they’re facing. Call us with your questions and your comments at 1-888-895-5727. And we can take calls in Spanish, so if you’d like to call us and have it translated, please do. Let’s start with a little background. Describe what was happening, Amy, in the drug war in Tijuana last year at this time. Who were the players, what were they trying to do, and describe how violent things became.

ISACKSON: I think we need to go back to April of 2008. That was sort of the breaking point between the leader of the Arellano Felix cartel, a man named El Ingeniero, and the – one of his lieutenants, a man named El Teo. And the Arellano Felix cartel, by way of background, is the cartel that’s been in Tijuana since the late ‘80s or so. It’s been the dominant cartel. And El Teo apparently was getting to violent for El Ingeniero’s taste, he was kidnapping too much, he was killing too much, and he was drawing too much attention from the authorities onto those kinds of crimes and that was brining too much attention for them to be able to continue with crossing drugs as successfully as they would want to and without the attention of authorities. So El Teo apparently – there was a shootout in April of 2008 in the eastern part of Tijuana and that was just the breaking point. El Teo – A bunch of, I believe, about 13 or perhaps more people were killed in that shoot out. El Teo says, okay, I’m done with Arellano Felix cartel. I’m going to go – and he apparently went to Sinaloa or contacted people in Sinaloa, which is one of the most dominant cartels in all of Mexico and sought backing from Chappa Guzman, who’s the leader of the Sinaloa cartel. Then in September, we see that El Teo comes back with the power of the Sinaloa cartel in tow and unleashes himself on Tijuana, and he starts killing people. At the end of September, there were a couple of attacks on policemen that was really the opening salvo in what became this gruesome, gruesome war that lasted through – it lasted until now really but the gruesomeness and the extreme violence really started to fade out at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. And it was hideous. There were decapitated bodies that were left around. There were people that were dissolved in acid that were left in big blue trash cans. Sometimes people got up – chopped up into pieces and left in various pieces in trash bags around the city. And it got to the point that reporters would say how many bodies? And if it was just one, it was almost like, okay, we’re not going to go, it’s not good enough.

CAVANAUGH: In fact, Vicente, you and Amy put together an actual map of where various bodies had been found in Tijuana, and that was part of the “Border Battle” series that we were talking about from early – last year and earlier this year. And I’m wondering, when you look back at those times, how different is it now in Tijuana?

CALDERON: Not very much. Not very much. First, we noticed a decrease in the number of home sites and () and we also knew that – we know that there’s a descrease in the number of kidnappings in the city. Not that there is none because there’s some cases still – I mean, () last Thursday, we have another one, another case of somebody kidnap. But we see that there’s not as big as was – the total is not as big as it was in 2008 and the general geography that we were showing on that map still is the same. Most of the () are still happening in the east part of the city. We just came from another violent weekend when they found another head on the streets. This was in Colonia Francisco () not in the east part of the city. We have at least two cases of a woman in different incidents killed. This got a little bit more complicated although it pick up again on the last month probably. But in general, the death toll to the beginning of December was 530 compared to the previous year, 843…


CALDERON: …is a considerable reduction.

CAVANAUGH: And is this being reduced all over Mexico? Because we know that the drug cartel wars had a lot to – had () Cuidad Juarez and a lot of the border area and even into the interior of Mexico was involved in it. Are we seeing similar reductions all over? Or is it just in Tijuana?

CALDERON: I’m not sure but I can tell you, for example, places like Cuidad Juarez, no, the total is even bigger, larger this year. This is the ground zero for violence and homicides, drug related, in Mexico, unfortunately () Cuidad Juarez is not that different but in the number of killings it’s still very bad. The general numbers, the official numbers, tell us there’s less people killed and also they are concentrating this, again, and the people somehow linked to this. But I guess the situation in Tijuana it’s bad. The thing is () comparing with the most violent year in history so that, in that sense, 530 going to be here in about – not but about 550 this year for the total is still a big number of killings.


ISACKSON: It is. Compared to last year, as Vicente said, about 830 but if you look back to previous years, it was generally about 420, 400, 380, and so it’s still, compared to last year, it’s better but…

CALDERON: And they were considerably…

ISACKSON: …to years previous, not good.

CAVANAUGH: Right, and, Amy, is there somehow a consensus that law enforcement has made a difference though in cracking down on the cartels?

ISACKSON: I think in terms of what we saw all last year, in terms of that coming to an end, I think it was a couple of things. And I also believe it’s hard to ferret out what put an end – or slowed that violence. At the end of last year, we thought that maybe the holiday – the killers wanted a vacation, which often in December around the holiday times, the killings taper off. That may have been true. We also later found out at the beginning of this year that authorities on both sides of the border said that El Teo and El Ingeneiro had come to a sort of truce, a kind of uneasy truce that they would tolerate each other. I think that that was also out of necessity because waging this kind of battle is expensive in terms of the number of people that you’re losing, in terms of the cars, in terms of the guns, in terms of the ammunition, and at some point your funds just have to run – you have to run out because those costs add up. But also the army was cracking down. I think Baja Attorney General’s office was cracking down and that had to have helped the violence diminish as well.

CAVANAUGH: Well, whether or not the police force in Tijuana has been instrumental in making the violence tamp down a little bit, they certainly are the focus of a lot of that violence. Now I wonder, Vicente, if you’d tell us a little bit about the current police chief of Tijuana, Julian Leyzaola.

CALDERON: Julian Leyzaola, yes. He’s an ex-military man who has previous records on – as a police officer, he directed previously the state police, a newly formed police in the last ) administration, last Baja administration. And the guy has been trained – Well, he’s a product of the Mexican army. He’s a very nationalistic Mexican, a very nationalistic soldier, a lieutenant. He has been trained in the U.S. He went to West Point, I think it is, the School of the Americas, for awhile. He – And his resume says that he went to that especially to focus on accounting and, I mean, () administration or something like that. It’s very interesting for me that he went to this school so infamous for their training of leaders of Latin America to torture the society. But the guy, Julian Leyzaola, he’s 49 years old and he has made a big difference on the perception of the society and the situation of the police officers. We – I believe that, one, he has been instrumental in the () level of impunity that the drug organization are operating with. They don’t move as freely as they used to do. Not that they are not operating. If they want to kill you, they’re still pretty much going to be able to do it or if they want to kidnap you. But the response from the authorities, especially the municipal authorities, to the crime in general, it’s a lot better than in the past.

CAVANAUGH: And that has come with a price, Amy.

ISACKSON: It has come with a price. It has come with a price that drug cartels are not happy with Chief Leyzaola and they are attacking his agents. And they made it clear that those attacks of those officers are directed at Leyzaola. Now it’s always unclear, it always raises the question when a police officer is killed in Tijuana, were they killed because they’re complicit with drug cartel organizations or were they killed because they were doing their job. And in the last five months, drug cartels have literally hunted down—Leyzaola says they’re hunting us like rabbits—hunted down 23 officers and they – what we – the information that we have would point to that these officers were honest cops. They were killed because they happened to be wearing the police uniform and the attacks are random and they just come when they get – when the drug cartels have an opportunity, they mow them down.

CALDERON: 33 in the last five months because since this administration – the city administration began, the number is about 43, I guess.

CAVANAUGH: Amazing. In one of your reports, Amy, I know you had this chilling – you recorded this chilling police communication, this taunting between drug cartel members and police on the police radio channel. Tell us a little bit about that.

ISACKSON: The police radio – the drug cartel organizations have broken into the police radio and that’s been a situation that’s been a problem for many, many years now. The drug cartels will break into the radio and they’ll threaten police officers. And so you can hear them going back and forth, and they just – they swear at each other, they call each other horrible names, they threaten each other, they say meet me at such-and-such a place in two days and we’ll fight it out one-on-one. And what we heard in that exchange also was them threatening to go after even more police officers, and they say in the next three days, we’re going to go after more and we’ll call you on your own radio on this police frequency and we’ll let you know what we’re up to and what we’re going to do. And it also takes a – those messages get left in the streets, literally, as well, as notes. And when we started to piece this story together was back in July when the drug cartel killers killed some policemen, and they left a note on one of the cars saying that we will kill five officers a week until Chief Leyzaola resigns, and that made it very clear what they were doing.

CALDERON: And something also amazing is that they – in that particular incident when they left this note in July, on the radio, you could hear the criminals saying don’t pay attention to what Leyzaola’s telling you. He’s moving around in an armored car, he’s moving with a big entourage of escorts, and he lives in the military barracks. You don’t have that protection so () stop paying attention or following his orders because you’re going to end up killed.

CAVANAUGH: I want to speak more about this police chief in Tijuana because his style is very different from what we understand as police style in the United States. And we also want to take some questions and comments from our listeners but we have to take a short break, and we will be returning, speaking with Amy Isackson and Vicente Calderon about the new border battle that’s going on in Tijuana and taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I’m Maureen Cavanaugh. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. My guests are Amy Isackson and Vicente Calderon, who are continuing their reporting on the “Border Battle” in Tijuana and the changing nature, now apparently the targets of the warring drug factions have become the Tijuana police force. And we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. A reminder that we can take calls in Spanish and if you want to call us from Mexico, our number is 619-287-8100. So, Amy, tell us a little bit about Chief Leyzaola. I don’t – I’m never going to say that name correctly. But tell us a little bit more about this man and the fact that his style of policing is very different from what we understand here in the United States. I understand that he has engaged actually, personally, in shootouts with criminals in the street.

ISACKSON: He says, as Vicente says, he’s a military man, 33 years in the military. And during that training, he told us that it was just drilled into him, that the good things he does are for the good of his country and the bad things that he does won’t hurt Mexico. And he’s taken that to this post in the Tijuana police. And he is – he says he’s convinced that the situation in Tijuana can change. He talks about drug cartels in, you know, he uses the word mugrosos to talk about them, which means like the filthy people or the filthiest people of all. And he’s enormously committed. He’s a man on a crusade to change the police culture in Tijuana. And he says if he stepped down like the military taught him, it would hurt Tijuana, that he’d be complicit with the drug cartels and he’s convinced that if he did step down, that the drug cartels would come back and subordinate the police, the government and society. And he has – he does go out into the streets. He says that it’s important for him to show his officers that drug cartel killers are human, that they aren’t these kind of mythological creatures that are immune to bullets and that just rise up again after they’re shot and don’t die. And so he has headed operations out in the street. He actually killed a suspect after the drug cartel organizations stole an armored bank car. This was last – last year? I believe…

CALDERON: Last year at the beginning.

ISACKSON: The beginning of last year and he…

CALDERON: Yeah, in January, 2008.

ISACKSON: They had this chase and he killed one of the suspects and, ironically, the suspect turned out to be a policeman, a municipal policeman who also worked for the mob. He says that his only sacrifice in this war is not being with his family, that his family doesn’t live in Tijuana because it would just be too unsafe.

CAVANAUGH: You know, what you said, Amy, about the casualty in that shootout being a police officer, Vicente, that reminds me of the fact that police corruption is a serious problem in Tijuana, and I wonder what the chief is doing to address that?

CALDERON: It’s a serious problem in all Mexico. But, unfortunately, the city of Tijuana got this reputation of being one of the worst, if not the worst, in the country. And one of the things that they’ve been doing is arresting the officers and turning them in with the federales () for the alleged ties to organized crime. So he’s making an example of those cases. I mean, in one of the incidents, they () the police officers to the military barracks and there were 19 from the municipal force. He ordered them to show at the military base and they were arrested from there. And another group, they personally took a group of, I think it was, five or six officers and turned them in – over to this military base, which is now functioning as an office of the Special Agency Against Organized Crime. And many of those guys, about 125, are still arrested and under process in one jail in the state of (). That’s one of the first thing that they are doing to try and get rid of the level of corruption that they have.

ISACKSON: I was just going to say, I think it’s important to point out at this point that as tough as Leyzaola is, as he – the stories that Vicente tells about him corralling his officers and sending them to the military base for questioning, a lot of people don’t see that as heroic and as strong a measure as Leyzaola would present it because they say that Leyzaola, in the process, has overstepped his bounds and has committed – they accuse him of committing human rights violations.

CAVANAUGH: Well, they…

ISACKSON: We can come back to that.

CAVANAUGH: Well, actually that was a point that I wanted to make. Actually a point ahead of that is Chief Leyzaola is taking this particular banner on himself but doesn’t jurisdiction for drug trafficking fall under Mexican federal government?

CALDERON: Exactly. He’s not – he doesn’t even have authority to do any investigation for the way the law is set up in Mexico. I mean, municipal police are more preventive police. But I make this – I put this question to the mayor, which is the one who appointed Leyzaola, and he told me, well, they made it an issue once they infil – once organized crime infiltrated the municipal force.

CAVANAUGH: I see. I see.

CALDERON: And also, we have to put () the fact that federal authorities were not doing enough. They are responsible for – federal police in Mexico was not – Attorney General office was not doing enough to combat drug trafficking. Many people see Leyzaola as a hero and we got statements from many sectors from the private industry and from other political officials () believe that he’s a hero. He’s doing something that nobody else have done in the past. But there’s, as Amy was pointing out, many serious allegations of the way he’s getting these statements from his officers.

CAVANAUGH: There’s a number of people who want to comment on what’s going on and join the conversation. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. But before we go to the phones, there are – I want you to share with us, Amy, some support that the Tijuana Police Chief is actually getting from Tijuana’s mayor and from our mayor, Jerry Sanders.

ISACKSON: So Tijuana’s mayor, Jorge Ramos, backs Leyzaola. He says that when he took over as the mayor, the police was overrun with officers that were working for organized crime and he says he was forced to confront that problem because he says the only other option would be literally to hand the keys of the city over to organized crime, which is what he says they had before he came in. And Vicente spoke with Mayor Ramos for our story and we can – one of the issues that came up is that critics say that Ramos, it’s easy for him to support Leyzaola because Ramos is immune to the violence that it creates because he has bodyguards and goes around in a armored car. And here we can listen to how Ramos responds to those critics.

JORGE RAMOS (Mayor, City of Tijuana): Do you really think that it is comfortable for me to do what I’m doing? What would be comfortable for me is to do what everybody did with this job. In 13 months, I’m going to be walking on the streets of my city with no protection like the one that I’m having now. I think the people that is sending that kind of messages, they don’t even have an idea what is on the line on myself and my family.

CAVANAUGH: And our – Mayor Jerry Sanders supports the Tijuana police chief as well.

ISACKSON: Mayor Jerry Sanders talks more about his support for Mayor Ramos but by association he talks about Leyzaola as well. And here we can listen to what Mayor Sanders has to say.

JERRY SANDERS (Mayor, City of San Diego): Mayor Ramos has been especially courageous in taking the stand that he has in trying to clean up a police department that had some bad people in it, firing those people, bringing in others, and I think he’s been very steadfast in his desire to keep a community that’s safe for both sides of the border.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s take a call from Sean in Chula Vista. Good morning, Sean. Welcome to These Days.

SEAN (Caller, Chula Vista): Good morning. I take issue with () the police. I think the lawmakers, both here and south of the border, are to blame. I think it’s unethical to continue this fight without using our heads and I just think we’re giving the tools to the criminals who make the money and I say tax and regulate it and give the victims true tools to help themselves out of the addiction.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that, Sean. Thank you very much. Would either one of you like to comment?

CALDERON: I think he makes a very interesting point but the problem is that the police is the first line of defense to confront this problem. It’s true. And Leyzaola complains also that in so many cases they arrest people and they take more time to process them than for them to get out because a judge or a district attorney is not doing their job, or maybe is helping them deliberately. So he got an interesting point in that sense but it’s – corruption is not just a problem with the police but in many aspects of Mexican society and U.S. society also, and probably not as much – () not as much as () but it’s always a problem.

ISACKSON: I think he also raises a interesting point and a good point in that enforcement should really be one part of a larger paradigm in terms of cracking down on drugs and drugs coming across the border and organized crime, that we need – that many analysts say that we need to look at this problem in much wider context in terms of rehabilitation, in terms of not just going after it in the law enforcement sense. And I think that’s – that he raises a very valid point with that.

CAVANAUGH: I want to follow up on a comment that we heard Mayor Ramos make on the soundbite that you gave for us, and that is the incredible precautions that officials in Tijuana have to live under. You were alluding to Vicente that, you know, Chief Leyzaola has to live on an army base. Tell us more about that.

CALDERON: Well, the thing is that they know they are subjects of these attacks. And keep in mind that at least two chiefs of police have been killed since 1994 in Tijuana. Some with alleged ties to the organized crime the () in 2001, but the previous one, the first opposition or the PAN Secretary of – or, chief of police allegedly for not taking bribes from organized crime. So that’s one of the reasons that was in the original plan when Leyzaola was choose for this position, to be shield, to be isolated, to be protected as much as they can. Some people is complaining for the number of bodyguards that he has to be moving with because what the cost for him and for the city and that doesn’t extend to many of their officers. But, well, we know at least he has been – organized crime has been plotting in at least four instances to kill him. And the most recent case was when they stole some vehicles, painted them, painted those vehicles to look like military cars, and they got some look like military uniforms, and they get one of this () 50-caliber rifles. It was more than a rifle. These type of things can penetrate, one of the most high – highest level of armor on a vehicle. And these guys are trying to get rid of Leyzaola even with all this protection. So in that sense, I think it’s obvious why he needs to take those many precautions.

ISACKSON: And Vicente mentioned one police officer that they tried to bribe him and he was killed apparently for not taking the bribe, there’s one story that Leyzaola told us that I think illustrates a lot is that he says that one day this ex-military man came to see him in his office and he came up and they were chatting and Leyzaola says )_ time that they were looking for some new hires and for military people and he said to the man, you know, you’re a bit too old, you’re in your () fifties, I don’t think that we can offer you any work. And the man apparently said to Leyzaola, well, I came to offer you a – what Leyzaola said was a very large sum of money every month to be complicit…


ISACKSON: …with one of the drug cartels. And Leyzaola, as he relates the story, says that he stood up and took out his pistol and arrested this ex-military man who had come to see him. And Leyzaola says that an investigation of that man has since led to uncovering of a network of ex-military men who were complicit with the cartel.

CAVANAUGH: Now not everybody is a fan of Chief Leyzaola. There are some complaints that he is playing fast and loose with human rights. And what have you heard about that, Amy?

ISACKSON: There’s a case actually before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C. that was brought by, I believe, 25 police officers, some from MexiCali, also a number from Tijuana, many of the ones that Vicente was talking about who Leyzaola rounded up and sent to the military base for questioning. And they accuse Leyzaola of torturing them, of beating them, of shocking them, of blindfolding them and making them sign blank pages that were supposedly their confessions or making them sign written confessions that they couldn’t read. And the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has taken up that case and I think that that is noteworthy in and of itself because the commission doesn’t – it takes about 50% of the cases that come before it. And the Inter-American Commission is instigating – is investigating those claims.

CAVANAUGH: Vicente, I’d like to get a feel from you about how the people in Tijuana are feeling about the on-going – the change in the way that the drug cartels are targeting police officers and the fact that perhaps the body count is down, not as far down as we would hope it to be but it has decreased. What is the feeling in Tijuana now about where this is going?

CALDERON: I will say that in general people backs Leyzaola, Leyzaola’s actions.


CALDERON: You know, they don’t trust – they don’t like their own police. That’s very important. And I think for that reason I see this neglected – or they were neglecting this response – or I was amazed for the fact that we were seeing, every week, two officers killed, three officers killed, one officer killed. And nobody was really making anything to protest that. They saw that as a tragedy in the sense that, well, even if they have ties, they should be behind bars but not killed. And I always keep in mind that they – these guys have families and there’s – I don’t think there’s a completely honest, pure cop anywhere in the world. But they also give some level of protection to the people. They were on the take, many of them were forced to be on the take for this environment that the previous administration created to – that made it more dangerous to try to do the right thing because everybody else was doing the wrong thing and looking the other way and not just helping – looking the other way but helping, actively killing people. So it’s – In general, they like Leyzaola because they see the tide’s changing but also they are ) for the real situation () the police is going through. I think that was very important for our story because that’s something that we wanted to show, that people need to pay more attention to how they are killing their police officers. The discussion needs to be done if Leyzaola is doing his job because to a lot of people he seem as a hero but how he is getting to this point. He’s not the only one. I mean, we are in a very interesting moment in Tijuana because he’s not the only one taking upon the drug traffickers. We are seeing it also on the state level with the Attorney General’s office, which is also accused of a lot of corruption, and with the military. Not necessarily with the same level or intensity from the federal. The military is helping them tremendously. But I think it’s good that () feel that there’s these guys who really wants to change things. We have hear this so many times, so many times just to be disappointed after we find out that he was working for a rival cartel. But I think we need to give credit to this guy also. So I think we should pay attention to Leyzaola and the way he’s doing things.

CAVANAUGH: Let me take a phone call. Elias is calling from Chula Vista. Good morning, Elias. Welcome to These Days.

ELIAS (Caller, Chula Vista): Boy, you guys don’t mess around when you call. I’ve been listening to this radio station for quite some time and this is the first time I’ve been really interesting. My dad was born and raised in Tijuana in the Colonia Libertad. I was born in San Diego, and I was semi-raised in Tijuana, and we don’t even go down there anymore. It’s sad to say. It breaks my heart to see Tijuana the way it is now from the way it used to be. And I believe that the officer, the police chief, is doing the right thing, you know, for the populace, for the city, and God bless him. I hope he does – I hope he survives and I hope he meets the challenge because one day I want to be, you know, with my father back in Tijuana, you know, eating some carnitas and reminiscing about the good times.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for your call, Elias, thank you so much. And we did have a comment on our web site. Dave commented that he loves to travel to Mexico but worries that Mexico is a lawless country. And, you know, Amy, I suppose that it’s going to take quite some time and quite a big change before people really do start to think of Tijuana and Baja as the place that it used to be.

ISACKSON: I think it will. I think that perception is – it’s hard to change 834 bodies in the space of one year. But I think () very important thing for people who want to go to Tijuana, whether they have family there or whether they just want to visit, is that no tourists have been killed in the violence in Tijuana. It is contained, 99% of it I would say, in contained within the drug cartels and that () doesn’t happen in areas where tourists would visit.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both so much. We’re out of time. Amy Isackson, Vicente Calderon, editor of and, of course, our own Amy Isackson, border reporter for KPBS News. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

CALDERON: Thank you.

ISACKSON: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: If you’d like to learn more about our “Border Battle” series or post comments about this topic, you can go online to Coming up, a long weekend living homeless. That’s next as we continue on These Days here on KPBS.

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