Tijuana's New Force: The Battle Within
A Collaboration Between KPBS and TijuanaPress.com
A year ago we brought you a series called Border Battle, about the war between two factions of Tijuana’s Arellano Felix Drug Cartel to control key drug smuggling routes to the U.S. That fight has calmed down, but the lieutenant who started it has a new enemy: Tijuana’s police. This morning, Border Battle continues with a profile of Tijuana’s police chief and his crusade that’s turned police officers into drug cartel targets.
Drug traffickers have cracked the Tijuana police radio frequency. Back and forth, criminals and police insult each other for more than 20 minutes. They call each other dirty names. They challenge each other to duels.
Tonight, narcos celebrate the murders of three policemen. “Vamos por tres mas.” “We’ll kill three more,” they warn the police in a string of swearing.
Drug cartel hit men have assassinated 23 officers in the last five months. The attacks are random. Gunmen mow down police when they see an opportunity. They killed seven officers last April in 45 minutes.
At their funeral, the seven coffins were lined up in the street outside Tijuana’s police headquarters. Wives, sisters and daughters collapsed on the coffins. Men shook with tears. The young daughter of one of the officers read a poem she wrote.
“Papa, I still want you with me and don’t know what I’ll do without you. Don’t leave me. Papa, I love you and I need you.”
Tijuana’s Police Chief Julian Leyzaola spoke at a more recent funeral for three officers. He told mourners, “In this city, being a policeman is a religion.”
Even though drug cartels go after officers, Leyzaola is their real target. They made that clear in July when hit men went on another coordinated killing spree. They left a note on the hood of a squad car of one of the officers they ambushed: ”We’ll kill five officers a week until Leyzaola resigns.”
Leyzaola took charge of the Tijuana Police two years ago. He’s an ex-military man in his late 40’s. Statuettes of a knight, an Aztec warrior and Don Quijote decorate Leyzaola’s office. “It’s more like, I’m crazy. Not so much like Don Quijote, because I do think this can change.”
When Leyzaola took over, he launched a crusade against corruption. Many afternoons, he goes out to the police stations that dot Tijuana and preaches the new ideology he’s intent on instilling in the force. He tells officers they have to get used to living off their salaries. “You’ll never sleep as peacefully as you will knowing you don’t have ties to organized crime.”
Leyzaola also hit the streets. “I got into shootouts with the criminals. To show officers that these people aren’t invulnerable. They’re scared to die, just like us.”
A month into Leyzaola’s term, he killed a suspect during a chase with drug cartel members who’d stolen an armored bank car. The man turned out to be a policeman who moonlighted for the mob.
Under Mexican law, it’s not Leyzaola’s job to fight drug trafficking. That falls to federal authorities. But the chief says organized crime is so entrenched in all criminal activity in Tijuana, it’s inevitable that local police come up against it when they fight crime. And, by fighting corruption within his force, Leyzaola claims he’s gotten rid of most of the cartels’ eyes and ears.
The cartels have tried to bribe Leyzaola. They’ve tried to assassinate him four times. But he’s not bending. He says that would violate everything the Mexican Army taught him. “They indoctrinated me. They convinced me that I have to do the right thing. That, if I do something wrong, I will hurt my country. I still believe that.”
Tijuana’s Mayor Jorge Ramos backs Leyzaola, even though officers complain the chief is the reason cartels are hunting them, in Leyzaola’s own words, like rabbits.
Ramos asks rhetorically, “What should we do then? Say sorry and back up? No. One life is too much to pay. I agree with the officers. But we are committed to do our job, to clean our corporation.”
However, not everyone thinks Leyzaola is a hero. More than two dozen police officers charge Leyzaola tortured them. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is investigating their cases.
San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders has praised Leyzaola’s work. Tijuana authorities say crime, including homicides and kidnappings, is down.
However, Leyzaola himself still lives under armed guard and behind thick cement walls at Tijuana’s army base. He’s rides in an armored vehicle with 12 bodyguards.
Meanwhile, drug cartels’ threats continue to crackle across his radio. “You’re gonna see,” they threaten, “Like the guy in the van with his brains all over. That’s how you’ll end up. Let’s see if Leyzaola can put you back together.”