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Tijuana Police Accused Of Torture In Drug War


As part of our ongoing Border Battle series, we look at how Tijuana's police chief is tackling corruption and we explore allegations of torture by police and the military.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Last year at this time, we heard terrible reports of violence in Tijuana. Every few days it seemed there were gruesome discoveries of bodies, victims of a drug cartel war raging in Tijuana and other cities across Mexico. Since that time, there has been a crackdown on cartel violence by the Mexican Army and by the Tijuana police force. But critics say with the crackdown has come a big increase in human rights abuses. Joining us as part of their continuing series “Border Battle” are my guests, Amy Isackson, border reporter for KPBS News. Good morning, Amy.

AMY ISACKSON (Border Reporter, KPBS News): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Vicente Calderon has been delayed but he will be here. Vicente Calderon, of course, editor of So – And I want to let our listeners know, too, you can call us and join the conversation about conditions in Tijuana and the crackdown against drug cartel violence. You can call us at 1-888-895-5727. The call in from Tijuana is 619-287-8100. Now, Amy, last week we talked about the praise being received by Tijuana’s police chief Julian Leyzaola, and remind our listeners again about his background and how long he’s been police chief.

ISACKSON: He has been in charge of the police for the last two years, first as the Operational Director and now as the Director of Public Security for Tijuana. He is an ex-military man, which there’s been a trend of bringing ex-military and people on leave from the military into law enforcement in Tijuana, which we can talk about in a second. Leyzaola had 33 years in the military and he’s really guided by that training. He says that the military has drilled into him that what he does, his own personal actions, are for the good or the bad or – of Mexico, that everything he does affects his country. And he also trained at the School of the Americas on the U.S. side, and that’s the infamous school that’s turned out many that – had turned out many Latin American dictators. Now, when Leyzaola inherited the police two years ago, he says that many officers were on the payrolls and actually worked for organized crime. And he really sees his effort—and I think part of this comes from his military training—to rid his force of corruption as a war, and the drug gangs, I think, see that as well. They – Apparently he’s – Leyzaola says that they’ve tried to assassinate him four times, and another cartel actually tried to buy him off with a huge monthly salary. And in order to insulate himself a little bit from this, Leyzaola lives at the military base and travels around with about a dozen armed guards and cars that have the thickest armor possible.

CAVANAUGH: Now, last week we did talk primarily about the praise being heaped on Chief Leyzaola about – tell us why so many people, including the mayor of Tijuana, are – seem to be so supportive of what the chief has done.

ISACKSON: He has really come in, as they say, with a new mentality, that he is going to get – he’s going to clean up the Tijuana police and he’s going to get these corrupt officers out of his force. And so that has enormous backing and they believe that he has the training, the military tactical kind of training, the attitude. He’s out there in the streets leading his forces. He – Actually, we talked about this last week, that he, at the beginning of the year, was out in the streets in an operation. The cartel had stolen an armored bank car and he actually shot one of the suspects dead and that suspect turned out to be a municipal policeman that was working for the cartel. So he’s out there in the streets showing his officers this is what you need to do. He goes out and kind of ministers to his officers out in the precincts and tells them, come on, guys, you’ve got to just get used to living on your police salary and you will never – He told them at one meeting we heard, you’ll never sleep as well knowing that you don’t have cartel ties. And so he really tries to appeal to them, and so all of this is enormously convincing to people in Tijuana, enormously appealing to government leaders in Tijuana, and he’s had some good results.

CAVANAUGH: Now, just in general, how is law enforcement cracking down on drug cartels in Tijuana? How are they going about doing this?

ISACKSON: Well, I think it’s worth pointing out here that Chief Leyzaola is the chief of the municipal police in Tijuana and technically the municipal police – it isn’t – Under Mexican law, it isn’t their job to fight down – or fight organized crime and crack down on drug cartels. However, that – those things fall to the federal authorities. However, by going after corrupt officers in his force, Leyzaola has really been drawn into that fight because those officers, supposedly many were the eyes and ears of the cartels. And also just by fighting crime in general in Tijuana, it’s so infiltrated, he says, by drug cartels he’s been drawn into that fight as well, that if you go after a car robbery in Tijuana, it could be someone from a cartel has sent an underling to steal a car, etcetera. So trying to cut down on, and cut off, drug cartels’ ties within the police is one way that the authorities are cracking down on drug cartels in Tijuana with – under the guide of Leyzaola. Also, Mexican President Felipe Calderon, when he took office, made going after drug cartels really the cornerstone of his administration. And to that end, he’s sent tens of thousands of troops around Mexico, Mexican Army soldiers to crack down, and the Army has an enormous presence not as – I take that back. Not as enormous as in some other border cities like Cuidad Juarez but the Army has a very strong presence in Tijuana and the Army is working with the state and local authorities and federal authorities to crack down.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Amy Isackson. She’s the border reporter for KPBS News, and we are talking about the border battle, the continuing series, “Border Battle,” on KPBS. Our number is 1-888-895-5727 if you’d like to join the conversation. And, Amy, you wanted to add something.

ISACKSON: One big footnote to that is even though the law enforcement authorities have scored some bit hits against the drug cartel in Tijuana, had some big arrests, had some big seizures of arms, of drugs, etcetera, and the violence had quieted down since last year, I think it’s very important to point out that in the last few weeks it’s surged again and we’re seeing it’s an echo of last year to some degree with multiple shootouts, multiple people, you know, 10, 15 people being killed in the space of just, I believe, 15 people in 15 hours. Decapitated bodies, there were four heads found in Tijuana a few mornings ago. And so it begs the question of – at the – I’ll back up for one second. At the end of last year, there was supposedly a truce between the groups that were warring and now the authorities say that truce is broken and that’s why we’re seeing this violence again. However, I think it begs the question of how much control of this situation do authorities really have? Is it a decision of the drug cartels to not fight each other and that’s why violence goes down? Is it law enforcement cracking down on it and violence goes down, some combination thereof? I think that those are important things to look at.

CAVANAUGH: I want to talk more about that a little bit later and before we get into the human rights charges against the crackdown by the Mexican government, I want to talk about some instances that we know of where there have actually been connections between the cartels and, let’s say, specifically the Tijuana police force. What were conditions like, how deeply was this infiltration into the police force?

ISACKSON: From what I have heard and from what Leyzaola – Chief Leyzaola has told us, pretty embedded in there. The police aren’t paid very well in Tijuana. Officers, I believe, it’s about a – earn about $1200 a month. And in that sense, they’re easy prey for drug cartels. Drug cartels come in, they’ve got a lot of money and they dole it out and they offered money to policemen to be their eyes and ears, and they’ve also used threats to convince them to be their eyes and ears as well. So Leyzaola told us when we talked to him that there were officers who had special cell phones that the drug cartels had given them and when they would arrest someone, the drug cartels would call them and say – on that phone and say, you know, let that person go. Get rid – you know, we need that person.

CAVANAUGH: And so that the connection was very, very tight for a long, long time. I want to welcome Vicente Calderon, joining us, editor of, and part of our continuing series “Border Battle” here on KPBS. And, Vicente, you’re just in time to talk about the very heart of the matter that we’re addressing today and that is the allegations that there have been abuses of human rights in this crackdown against the drug cartel war in Mexico. And some of the officers and families that have been accused of being part – of working with the drug cartel or at least taking money from them now say that their family members have been tortured in order to get confessions. Tell us about that.

VICENTE CALDERON (Editor, The officers have been tortured…


CALDERON: …in numbers to…

CAVANAUGH: That’s what I meant.

CALDERON: That’s what – Yeah. And there’s about 150 officers who are already under process or within a jail as part of these efforts to clean up corruption. And we don’t know exactly how many are there or how percentage of the one that allegedly used to work for the organized crime are under process. But this began when Mr. Leyzaola began his effort to clean up the corruption, taking – he personally called these – many of these officers or they sent them a note that you have to show at the office of the lieutenant, and from there they take them to the military facilities in Tijuana. So they were talk – they were thinking that they were just cooperating with his boss of following orders and he took them to the military and there that’s where they began questioning them. And they claim that the type of questioning is – it’s violating all the Mexican laws and the constitution. Since the beginning of the – of these accusations, they said that they blindfolded them, they don’t allow them to get a defense lawyer but they’re supposed to – according to the law that what you have to do if you’re making a deposition, that they are beating them, that they rob – they had to – all these accounts from the different groups of police officers are very similar, and also that they are wrapped in some type of blankets so they will be beaten and they will not get bruises so they will not be able to prove that they were beaten. And that somebody will sit on their knees and another guy will be sitting on the chest of the officer. They will be just hitting them. They will be using a plastic bag that they put on his head to try to asphyxiated them and they will allow them for awhile to be unable to breathe and then they will take that off just and then ask them, are you going to tell us what we want you to tell us?


ISACKSON: We got depositions, legal depositions from 25 of the officers and reading them, it talked about also people getting – having their genitals, electric shocks applied to their genitals and just horrific – what sounded like horrific scenes. And one of the things, as well, was that they say that they were kept incommunicado for the first five days, that their families didn’t even – their families didn’t know where the officers were and they were just kept at the military base for the first five days of this questioning.

CAVANAUGH: And what happens after the questioning? Are they detained without trial?

ISACKSON: So during this questioning, the goal of it was to get them to admit their ties to organized crime. And some of the officers said that they were forced to sign these declarations that they weren’t allowed to read that supposedly admitted their ties to organized crime. Other officers say that they were just forced to sign blank sheets of paper so that the military or – could ostensibly put – fill in what they wanted to. So with this group of 25 officers with the depositions that we read, they, after 40 days, they were taken to a prison in Nyrete, Mexico, and that’s where they remain and their legal cases are going through the process now.

CAVANAUGH: We are talking about the allegations that there are human rights abuses involved in the crackdown on cartel violence in Mexico. My guests are Amy Isackson and Vicente Calderon. And we are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. I want to speak with Ricardo in Mission Valley. Good morning, Ricardo, and welcome to These Days.

RICARDO (Caller, Mission Valley): Good morning. Thank you. Geez, I don’t know where to begin. I mean, human rights abuses in Mexico, you guys are talking about it like it’s something new, but it’s something that’s been ongoing. It started – it began with the PRI Party. They were basically a glorified dictatorship. They’re the ones that created the cartels. They’re the ones that sponsored them. And here we have an administration, a new government that’s trying to stamp out basically a century’s worth of corruption and all of a sudden everyone’s critical, all of a sudden people are voicing human – you know, crying out there’s human rights abuses, there’s constitutional violation, and it just really seems really hypocritical and it just seems really ill-timed. And it’s just a comment, it’s not a question. I’m just…


RICARDO: You know, I’m trying to understand, you know, that for so long this has been going on and all of a sudden someone’s trying to change things and then everyone all of a sudden is crying out, okay, human rights are being abused and it…

CAVANAUGH: Ricardo, thank you. Thank you. Thank you for your comment. I think probably there are many people who would agree with Ricardo that this is a huge problem in Mexico and if some people’s rights are violated while things are being corrected, well, that’s just the way it is. What would you say to that, Vicente?

CALDERON: Exactly. There’s a lot of people who is not really paying attention to these allegations of torture because for that – exactly for that feeling. They think these guys are ruthless. They will be decapitated. People did – they do this to their people they are dealing with and then sometimes or innocent people not even involved in drug trafficking. But the problem is that the authorities cannot be taking the same strategies than the criminals. We all are happy to see that there’s at least – or an appearance, at least that we want to believe that there’s really somebody standing up for the citizens and against these criminals who became too powerful. The problem is that we cannot allow to – this strife, these torture procedures to become part of the ruling of the law because we don’t know how many innocent people will be mistreated like this. And the problem is, as they say under the position, they told them that if they died, they will just throw their bodies on the highway and they will make it look like it was a cartel hit. And then we have to be worried because we are endangered because of the drug traffickers and also the authorities. And this was foreseen for a lot of human rights groups when the military became the most – probably the most important part on the strategy, the strategy of President Calderon to face the drug traffickers.

ISACKSON: It’s been a real concern in Mexico, it’s also been a real concern on the U.S. side, and with Plan Merida, which is the billion dollar package to give aid, law enforcement and equipment aid, to Mexico to fight the drug cartels, they put about – the government, U.S. government, made about 15% of that contingent on the fact that Mexico was fulfilling its human rights obligations in this drug war, and it’s been a controversial part of Merida. Last fall – or, last August the State Department issued a report that didn’t really say that Mexico was complying with human rights but they said that they were going to release the 15% of those funds anyway. There was another report that’s just in the House earlier this month that’s very critical of the State Department report and says that Mexico isn’t necessarily complying with the human rights conditions in Merida.


CAVANAUGH: Yes, go ahead.

CALDERON: And also, of course, everybody who is arrested – difficult – it is not that easy that they will accept their culpability but this is not – Not all the people who has been arrested – not all the officers that were arrested are claiming to be treated this way. And these families were able to take their case to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. They were following the procedures and it’s a little bit of a difference between some of the other groups that have been arrested and this one. And, by the way, last week some of these officers were released because – exactly for the lack of evidence. So 12 or 11 of these – the fuse group, another one of the 25 other – other group…


CALDERON: …were released because they didn’t – were able to prove that they were guilty.

CAVANAUGH: One more call. Roger from North Park. Good morning, Roger. Welcome to These Days.

ROGER (Caller, North Park): Thank you for taking my call. I would just like to comment to Amy Isackson’s remark that – in regards to the School of the Americas. First of all, Tijuana’s police chief, Julian Leyzaola, is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. – in the Army de la Terra Mexicano for 33 years. I mean, Mr. Leyzaola’s work has earned him lots of praise on both sides of the border and we owe him a vote of support against what has got to be viewed as an entrenched enemy drug smuggler. Just – The comment I want to tell you is that blaming or suggesting or characterizing the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas as a dictator mill is just incredibly unfair to the people that – who have worked there, including myself. This is an outstanding school that trains people how to fly, mostly Spanish speaking folks, how to work. They have dozens and dozens of human rights courses within the school. I think it’s incredibly unfair to just comment that, well, it’s an infamous school that’s turned out so many dictators. That’s really unfair. Thank you…

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you…

ROGER: …very much for taking my comment.

CAVANAUGH: And thank you for your call, Roger. Would you like to comment at all, Amy?

CALDERON: Well, go ahead.

ISACKSON: Go ahead.

CALDERON: I think it’s – Of course, it’s a lot of good things coming out of that school in general but it’s not a lie or not a – it’s not an accusation unfounded that they were the sponsor of this manual for torture. That’s one of the big controversies that they were dealing with and that they were training many of the dictators from South America for the – in the last – in the – during the eighties, of the seventies. So, well, Leyzaola says that when he went to the School of the Americas, he was being prepared, trained on account – some kind of administration resources or accounting practices. So we don’t – we are not saying that he was trained there but the fact that that school, that part of the military branches is – has been in the middle of a controversy due to the teaching of these torture practice, we are not inventing that. That’s very well founded.

ISACKSON: And I think it’s also important to raise that – to not raise – to just bring it up that he – that Leyzaola did spend time at the School of the Americas because I think that that is an important point and goes towards understanding his formation and his ideologies.

CAVANAUGH: Well, as these human rights allegations have been made and as they go through the legal process and as Amnesty International releases its report and so forth, the whole idea was, well, maybe some people’s rights are getting stepped on because the drug cartel war is being basically demolished. But as you were saying, Amy, this week in Tijuana the upsurge in violence has been dramatic. Tell us more about that.

ISACKSON: So there was a – checking this morning, there was a headline that said 15 bodies in 15 hours. And it’s game on again in Tijuana for lack of a better way to put it. We’ve been seeing a surge in the number of shootouts and the number of bodies left around the city in the last couple of weeks, and it seems to really have taken off again in the last couple of days. And we spoke with the Baja California’s Attorney General and he said that the truce between the two groups seems to have disappeared and they’re back at it with each other.

CAVANAUGH: And is there any short answer to why this may be? Why?

CALDERON: The ending of a truce between these factions.

CAVANAUGH: But, I mean, why? Do we know why the truce ended?

CALDERON: We – there’s not – It’s difficult to know exactly but we have – we at the Tijuana Press believe that there’s two options that we are analyzing and according to the information provided by the authorities is that one of this group began making more kidnappings without consenting with the other one and when they talked said, you know what, this is again going to bring us more pressure from the authorities so you better step down and come. They didn’t. They keep doing these kidnappings. Most – and many of those cases is not proved so far that they are members of the same organized crime groups. We have the doctor that was recently kidnapped and after 10 days released. So that’s one of the theories, that some of the groups began doing more kidnappings and the other one’s trying to quiet down the situation. The other theory that we are examining is maybe one of the groups, specifically the Teodoro Garcia Simental group, is getting too suspicious that he’s, quote, unquote, partners from the other group, from the Fernando Sanchez Arellano, are tipping the Mexican authorities of their whereabouts and who is working with them. And since he sees the pressure, because the number of people arrested recently, it’s in big numbers, more from the side of Teodoro Garcia Simental, he began to trying to find who’s the mole, who’s leaking the information to help the authorities to crack down on him.

CAVANAUGH: So it calls into question whether the crackdown is really working at all. I want to thank you both so much. We’re out of time but please do come back and tell us what’s going on. I’ve been speaking with Amy Isackson, border reporter for KPBS News, and Vicente Calderon, editor of Thank you both and happy holidays.

CALDERON: Happy holidays.

ISACKSON: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And we’re sorry we couldn’t get to everyone who wanted to join the conversation. Do post your comments online, Now, coming up, a conversation with San Diego City Councilman Todd Gloria. These Days continues in just a moment here on KPBS.

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