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Rooting Out Corruption In Tijuana’s Police Force

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Aired 8/30/10

In its fight against violent drug cartels, Tijuana officials have been engaged in a massive effort to weed out corruption in the city's police force. But some are accusing the city's top law enforcement officials of engaging in human rights violations such as torture against police officers they suspect of being corrupt.

ALISON ST JOHN (Host): I’m Alison St John, sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh and you’re listening to These Days here in San Diego on KPBS. Anyone who lives in San Diego can’t help but be aware of the violence that has bubbled south of the border exacerbated by rival drug cartels vying for control as old, long established cartels are rooted out. KPBS border reporter Amy Isackson and Vicente Calderon of Tijuanapress.com have been following the story for a couple of years now. They watched the violence escalate in 2008 and they reported on a struggle by Tijuana’s mayor and police chief to root out corruption in the police force. This week, they’re here with an update on that struggle, and a new twist that has complicated matters for the police chief. We’d also like to hear from you this hour so remember you can always join the program by calling us at 1-888-895-5727. So, Amy, thanks so much for joining us.

AMY ISACKSON (KPBS Border Reporter): Good morning.

ST JOHN: And Vicente, great to see you.

VICENTE CALDERON (Editor, Tijuanapress.com): Good morning.

ST JOHN: So let’s start out. Amy, tell us a bit of what kind of corruption was there on the Tijuana police force?

ISACKSON: So not just complicity with officers but officers actually working for the cartels, according to Chief of the Police Leyzaola and other police officers. So officers killing, kidnapping on the part of the cartels, moving police and their squad cars away from certain areas because drug cartels told them we want to do something, commit a crime in this area and so they would move the police away. When we talked to Leyzaola last – Chief Leyzaola last year, he was telling us about the cell phones that many of the officers carried that were direct lines to the drug cartels. So the drug cartel operatives would call the police and tell them we’re going to do X, Y and Z, and the police would answer their phone and then go do what they were assigned to do.

ST JOHN: So sometimes if you saw a police car moving somewhere, you would be better to follow them rather than wait because something was going to happen. So what kind of figures have been given as to how many officers were involved with the drug cartels?

ISACKSON: There’s – I don’t think there’s ever really been a percentage given but there was a study that came out a few years ago that rated Tijuana’s police as the most corrupt in the country.

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm. So, Vicente, when was Police Chief Leyzaola brought in?

CALDERON: He came as Director of the Police in 2007 but in 2008, he began as the top cop in charge not only of the operational activities but also the policies of the police department. And he has been a strong man in the force since then and he has been praised by almost everybody in the government, especially from the – locally, from the Baja governor to the mayor as the instrumental and very active effort to corral corruption.

ST JOHN: Did he have a track record of rooting out corruption before he came on board?

CALDERON: Well, he has been praised always as a honest cop. He was – he’s a military man. He’s retired from the military forces. But previously he used to run – he was the warden for the Longo Prison, one of the mid-level security prisons in Baja, California. Previously, he was the director of the Preventive State Police, an agency basically created by the government from the previous administration from the state of Baja, from the PAN political party, because they want to distanciate themselves from the Attorney General’s office. So they come out with this new agency, was like the Panista Police and even though is just a preventive force allegedly, they do a lot of investigation. And this was practically the anti-narcotics police of the previous government Baja administration.

ST JOHN: So, Amy, what did he – what strategies did he immediately put into place to try to root out this corruption?

ISACKSON: As Vicente said, he’s ex-military and he brought this military discipline, I would say, to the Tijuana police and he established himself as the general, for all intents and purposes, of the municipal police and showed the police that he wasn’t going to be intimidated either by his own agents or by organized crime. And he was actually out in the street fighting drug cartel operatives hand in hand with his police officers.

ST JOHN: Hmm.

ISACKSON: He also, his – It’s kind of this tough love that he recognized his officers and praised them when they did a good job but also punished them when they did not. He actually delivered, in his efforts to root out corruption, he actually would deliver the police to – he would arrest them and deliver them to the military base himself. He also would go out into the delegations, the different police delegations throughout Tijuana, and give these sort of motivational kind of evangelical speeches to them, telling them you have to be an honest policeman and your life will be easier. You will live with more peace of mind if you can just live within your salary and not accept these bribes. And think of – you won’t have to worry and you’ll be able to sleep at night.

ST JOHN: Has he been able to increase the police salaries at all? Because I had heard it was hard to support a family on them.

ISACKSON: I believe that the police salaries are some of the highest…

CALDERON: In Mexico.

ISACKSON: …in Mexico.

CALDERON: Yeah.

ISACKSON: It’s still not high.

CALDERON: To be honest, this was – To be clear here, this was a move that was even previous to his arrival to the department. I’m not sure how much they were able to increase it but still the salaries is – it’s an issue that is always talked by the local authorities in Tijuana because they think it is a big problem. A police officer begins earning about 15,000 pesos a month as a new recruit. That’s about one thousand – $1200.00 per month.

ST JOHN: Is that – Could you lead a middle class life in Tijuana on that?

CALDERON: I will say that that’s very hard.

ST JOHN: That would be…

CALDERON: That’s very difficult…

ST JOHN: Yeah.

CALDERON: …but I think you compare it to the salaries in other areas and in other sectors of the economy, it’s getting better.

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

CALDERON: It’s getting better. It’s fairly – fairly decent.

ST JOHN: So to an outside observer, it seems almost a bit of a miracle that he’s still alive, this police chief. He must’ve had a very strong security force around him.

ISACKSON: Armored cars, a lot of armored cars. And also he did – he’s had a number of attempts on – and death – death threats that he’s suffered.

ST JOHN: These guys…

ISACKSON: He’s actually broke up a few attempts that were headed towards him but they were able to infiltrate and stop people from going to get him.

ST JOHN: So I understand he did actually root out some members of the police force. How many police officers were actually removed from the force?

ISACKSON: I believe since he’s started there’ve been about 450, 460 police who’ve left the force. Many of those have been removed by Leyzaola. Others have run away and quit. Others have gotten sick and not been able to come to work. But about 450, 460 since he’s started, and they really – He and the mayor of Tijuana really point to that as – that big number as a sign of success and that they’re doing their job and going after police corruption.

CALDERON: And we’re talking a force the size of about 2200 officers in general, so it’s a big chunk of the officers on the streets. The thing is that we are – And we have seen – We have to credit Leyzaola with part of the responsibility on decreasing the crime in the city. Even when the police, the local police in Tijuana, has just preventive status and they are not able legally to make any investigations, but he’s not the only one but there’s several actors, if we can put it like that, but he’s one of the most important persons that has been able to decrease the number of crimes in general, kidnappings, homicide – high profile homicides but although there’s this complaint from the citizens that many – since they have been fighting against drug cartels, organized crime, the communities, the local police and the regular police beat has not – has been neglected because they were either fighting drug cartels—and for awhile you have to remember that the previous year we have one of the worst years for – by the number of police officers killed. So they were riding in groups of three to defend themselves against the attacks that they were being targeted from the organized crime groups.

ST JOHN: So you’re saying that community safety has increased now, that somehow the focus has broadened from just fighting drug cartels.

ISACKSON: What happens is, it’s an important distinction, I think, to make, is that Tijuana Municipal, the city police, going after organized crime doesn’t fall to them under the law. That falls to federal authorities. But Tijuana police and Julian Leyzaola, the Chief of Police, have really gotten into going after organized crime. And because they’ve done that, because their focus had been that, they left parts of the – many parts of the city unattended. So there were robberies of, you know, liquor stores or pharmacies and that kind of thing and they would take a long time – there were many complaints from citizens, there still are, that police would take a long time to get to those…

CALDERON: To respond.

ISACKSON: …to respond to those crimes.

ST JOHN: So you’ve been following a group of the policemen who were actually removed last year. What were they accused of, Amy?

ISACKSON: They were accused of having ties to organized crime so part of what Chief Leyzaola has been doing is that he has been taking groups of police, and this group happened to be 25 police, and they were all hauled in in March of 2009 and Leyzaola supposedly went out and arrested many of these people and brought them to the military base for questioning. The person that we talked to in our feature was Miguel Mesina, and he had been a policeman for three decades in Tijuana and he says that he was called – It was after their morning meeting and he and three of his colleagues were told to stay behind and they were hauled off to the military base.

ST JOHN: So what happened to them?

ISACKSON: So Miguel Mesina, they were taken to this military base and they were there for a couple of days, they say, and we – this is after talking with Miguel Mesina, with various other policemen, with their families, and going through hundreds of pages of depositions that they all gave. They say that they were held at this military base, they were blindfolded, their eyes duct taped shut, that they were held in small rooms, forced to lie down on mattresses, told not to talk, and that they would be called in for questioning. And during this questioning they, all 25 of them, allege that they were tortured. So things like having a plastic bag put over their head so that they couldn’t breathe and then their last – when they looked like they were going to pass out, the soldiers would take the bag off of their head, electric shocks to their genitals, beatings to extract information from these police officers. And many of the police officers say that they were told that they needed to confess and that they needed to rat out their colleagues. And in the case of Miguel Mesina, he says when he wouldn’t, he was given a statement that had been written for him and they wanted him to sign the statement that was his confession. And others in these depositions talk about being handed blank pieces of paper that they were asked to sign, ostensibly so that the authorities could fill in the confession for them.

ST JOHN: Now this is all something that happened last year, right? I mean…

ISACKSON: So this was in March of 2009. This was…

ST JOHN: Right.

ISACKSON: …actually a year and a half ago. After being held at the Tijuana military base, they were then flown to a prison in Southern Mexico where they have – where they had been since. And just two weeks ago, 13 of these policemen were freed. They appealed these charges of organized crime and a municipal – a judge in Mexico ruled that there actually was not enough evidence to prosecute them and so these 13 were freed. There are still 12 who have also appealed but they’re waiting the decision from the judge.

ST JOHN: So, Vicente, have you just learned all this information this year?

CALDERON: No.

ST JOHN: Or is this something that’s been known – has been…

CALDERON: No.

ST JOHN: …claimed anyway for a while?

CALDERON: Yeah, we’ve been following these cases from – since the beginning of this administration. Torture is not something really new in Tijuana police agencies but I think the government made some progress during the previous decades and I think it’s ver – that’s why we are putting too much attention to this particular case because this is very well documented. We have been talking not with just this group of officers, with other group of officers but also with citizens and – or people who has been arrested by other police agencies and the similarities are astoning – are very…?

ST JOHN: Astonishing.

CALDERON: …astonishing, yeah, because…

ST JOHN: The similarities of their stories.

CALDERON: Of the stories.

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

CALDERON: And there’s like a pattern of tools to torture people trying to make them confess that they are working for organized crime. And we have to admit that this – it’s a very important – it’s a very tough battle, the one that the authorities are fighting again (sic) organized crime. Their level of impunity was terribly high. But right now what we are seeing is that many people, innocent people, is being beaten and abused by the authorities with the pretext of being working against organized crime.

ISACKSON: And the case was actually taken up by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and that’s the highest human rights court in the Western hemisphere. And that was last year and they’re still following the case and they’re still investigating the case.

ST JOHN: But the thing that’s new is that one of those police officers has returned to Tijuana this year and is challenging the police chief, right?

ISACKSON: So, five of the 13 who were freed, five have come back to Tijuana and they – Miguel Mesina told us that the others were too scared, that they didn’t want to come back to Tijuana. The five that have come back want their police jobs back. And so they went to the city hall and have filed papers and said they want their jobs back but Tijuana’s mayor says that he will not give them their jobs back. He says that even if they didn’t find evidence against these men, and there’s one woman actually, he doesn’t want any kind of suspicion on his police force. So, therefore, they cannot come back to work.

ST JOHN: And what about Chief Leyzaola? What’s his reaction to these allegations?

ISACKSON: Chief Leyzaola has not – he – We talked to – When we spoke with him last year, he dismissed all the claims of torture and said that he didn’t do it. And then this year, he – we tried to talk to him and he won’t talk about these current issues that are going on but also says these people will not return to his force.

ST JOHN: So you have a situation now where you have somebody who’s come back and is really raising some questions about the strategy that the police force has used. Do you think it’s undermined the credibility of the police force at all, Vicente?

CALDERON: I think so but the problem is we are perceiving some kind of level of tolerance about torture from different sectors of the Mexican society. They are so fed up with the impunity of the drug organization, with the violence shown by the drug organizations that people is willing to accept this because they think this is the only way to face these criminals and these criminals with the level of impunity and so organized and so powerful. So they want – they like the idea of a strong man or a strong government doing whatever is needed to face them. And with the results, it looks like many people is justifying that. We’ve been reporting on these cases since the beginning of this administration. The thing is that we never got as much echo from other groups, not just us but there’s some, for example, human rights groups, community-based organizations, that are being helping these groups. And…

ST JOHN: Helping the policemen?

CALDERON: The policemen and the citizens.

ST JOHN: And the – uh-huh.

CALDERON: And the citizens. But they didn’t have as much resonance on other entities, and that goes also for this side of the border. The U.S. government is helping Mexico to crack down on cartels, drug cartels, and is giving a lot of money. Everybody knows about – or most – many people know about the Mérida Plan and that includes some premises that they will not help the Mexican government – he’s not showing a level of respect for human rights in this battle against organized crime. And we are seeing that many people that are praising the efforts of the Mexican government, and Leyzaola specifically, are not really bothered for those – by those allegations of human rights abuses and torture.

ST JOHN: 888-895-5727 is the number if you’d like to ask a question of Amy Isackson or Vicente Calderon. But, Amy, I understand that you spoke with somebody, an observer up here on this side of the border who had some interesting things to say about the strategies used by the police chief and the mayor.

ISACKSON: We spoke with David Shirk, who’s the director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, and he had a very interesting point in terms of all of this. He said that the basic problem stems, in large part, from Mexican authorities’ lack of powers and lack of tools and lack of training to do thorough and correct investigations. And so they don’t have – because they don’t have those powers of investigation, because they’re not as strong as they should be in Mexico, they resort to these tactics, alleged torture, to try and get information.

ST JOHN: So as reporters, what weight do you give to this information from Miguel Mesina, the policeman who was locked up for all that time? It sounds like there’s a general cultural feeling in Tijuana that, you know, the situation was so bad it warranted some potentially illegal strategies. You know, what do you – where could this go next?

CALDERON: Well, depends on the reaction. I talked to – we – I was at a press conference with the governor the other day, last Friday, and we – I asked the governor, because he’s a big supporter of Leyzaola’s job. And he even told us that if he doesn’t – is kept on – In November, we’re going to have a change of city administration. A new mayor will take place. So the talk about Leyzaola staying in his post even with the change of a political party in the city administration was very much likely. Everybody was praising that this guy has been effective so they should keep him. And the governor is praising his job and pushing for that. But I asked him, is the reduction of crime a justification for torture as a mean to be fighting this battle.

ST JOHN: That’s the question.

CALDERON: Yeah. He says no. But in reality, we are seeing a very different scenario.

ISACKSON: And what – another interesting point that goes to that, that David Shirk from the Trans-Border Institute made was that a little torture is never okay. A little torture is never a little torture, it’s torture, and the moment that a government uses torture, it becomes no better than the torturers and it hands over legitimacy to organized crime groups, the others that are using torture, and makes the government as good as the criminals.

ST JOHN: So a new mayor is about to – When is he coming into office, Amy?

CALDERON: December first.

ST JOHN: December…

CALDERON: Excuse me.

ST JOHN: Vicente. Okay, it’s just a few months. Has he said anything about whether this sort of moral limbo and sort of no man’s land that exists right now, has he said anything about where he might stand on it and whether he might get a new police chief to try different strategies?

CALDERON: He’s actually not talking an awful lot. He says that he’s consider – he hasn’t ruled out Leyzaola as a possibility of staying. But we have to keep in mind also that beside these claims from the police officers, the Human Rights Commission from the State of Baja just issued a recommendation to remove Leyzaola from the force because they found enough evidence to claim that a group of five citizens were tortured by Leyzaola officers with him present. And there’s some other allegations that have come out. So it’s very difficult. It’s a kind of a political liability for the new mayor to keep Leyzaola in his post now even if he wants and he’s pressured by the governor and other – and the military, which is a big ally of Leyzaola in these efforts.

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm. Umm-hmm.

ISACKSON: And just taking a step back from these new allegations by this Baja California Human Rights Commission, it’s interesting timing. When Blanca Mesina, Miguel Mesina’s daughter, she took up the case of these officers and she went to the state commission and said, look, we have these allegations of torture and the state commission and state authorities in Baja California didn’t really want to know about them. So these other community human rights groups came in and then it went to Mexico City. Now the Western – at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights but it’s just kind of interesting to look at it and say those claims didn’t hold water for the state commission but now these claims have come out.

CALDERON: For the current – for the current Commission of Human Rights because the previous…

ISACKSON: Correct.

CALDERON: …people in charge help her but this one, once he took it in, he didn’t follow on these allegations.

ST JOHN: So we just have a couple of minutes left here and actually we got a caller who wanted to know how much the police chief earns. This is a job where you may lose your life unless you’re very, very well protected. Does he get a good salary?

CALDERON: Yes, I think he’s earning about $10,000 a month…

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

CALDERON: …more or less.

ST JOHN: $10,000 a month.

CALDERON: That’s the official number that you can get through the transparency government files of the – how do you call those…?

ST JOHN: Yes.

CALDERON: Transparency…?

ST JOHN: The government is transparent. It does provide salaries.

CALDERON: Exactly. There’s an attitude for…

ST JOHN: But it’s a big contrast to the average policeman on the street.

CALDERON: Oh, yeah.

ST JOHN: But it sounds like there’s a potential of a big shift coming up in December with the new mayor. And I guess the question is how much—and we only have a minute left to go—how much is this moral dilemma of whether the law enforcement agencies can be allowed to use illegal tactics to combat the violence in Tijuana, that seems to be a bit of an unanswered question at this point.

CALDERON: That’s a big dilemma the new mayor will face because he has to see this guy’s effective, he’s a strong man. It’s a part of his strategy so I’m still in his way. He’s not done with it. But should we keep the torture? Somebody who’s been accused of torture, is he able to, if that is true and I think there’s some grounds for that, able to do his job without this, quote, unquote, tool.

ST JOHN: Okay.

ISACKSON: And many people are concerned that Tijuana will lose ground because of the gains that Leyzaola has made against crime and if he leaves that Baja will go back.

ST JOHN: Great. Well, Amy Isackson, thank you so much for being in. And Vicente Calderon we really appreciate you covering this difficult topic. Stay with us. Coming up next on These Days, an interesting performance artist who has remixed himself in creative ways.

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