Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Border & Immigration

Border Battle: Tijuana Drug Cartels Target Police

Tijuana Police Force Becomes New Enemy In Drug Wars

Special Coverage By KPBS and

Border Battle Continues

GLORIA PENNER (Host): A year ago, KPBS brought you a special 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 US. That fight has calmed down, but the cartel has a new enemy: Tijuana’s police. KPBS’s Amy Isackson and’s Vicente Calderon continue the “Border Battle” series with this profile of Tijuana’s police chief and his crusade that’s turned police officers into drug cartel targets. But a warning first that some of the footage in the story is graphic and may not be suitable for children.

AMY ISACKSON (KPBS Border Reporter): Drug traffickers have cracked the Tijuana police radio. Criminals and police insult each other for more than twenty minutes. Its all dirty names and bravado. This time, narcos celebrate the murders of three policemen.

VICENTE CALDERON (Editor, The criminals threaten to kill more in the next three days. 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.

ISACKSON: They killed seven officers last April in 45 minutes. Outside Tijuana’s police headquarters, wives, sisters and daughters collapsed on the coffins. The daughter of one of the officers read a poem she wrote.

DAUGHTER: Daddy, I still want you with me and don’t know what I’ll do without you. Don’t leave me. Daddy, I love you and I need you.

CALDERON: Tijuana’s police chief Julian Leyzaola spoke at a more recent funeral for three officers. Leyzaola said being a policeman in this town is a religion.

ISACKSON: Even though drug cartels go after officers, Leyzaola is their real target. They made that clear in July when they went on yet another coordinated killing spree. They left a note on the squad car of one of the policemen they ambushed… ”We’ll kill five officers a week until Leyzaola resigns.”

CALDERON: 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 his office.

JULIAN LEYZAOLA (Tijuana’s Director of Public Safety): It’s more like I’m crazy. Not so much like Don Quijote, because I do think this can change.

ISACKSON: When Leyzaola took over, he launched a crusade against corruption. He began visiting Tijuana’s precincts to give motivational speeches. He also hit the streets.

LEYZAOLA: I got into shootouts with the criminals. To show officers that these people aren’t invulnerable. They’re scared to die, just like us.

CALDERON: 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 moonlighting for the mob. Under Mexican law, it’s not even Leyzaola’s job to fight drug trafficking. That’s federal jurisdiction.

ISACKSON: 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.

CALDERON: 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.

LEYZAOLA: 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.

ISACKSON: Tijuana’s Mayor Jorge Ramos backs Leyzaola, even though officers complain the chief is the reason cartels are hunting them.

JORGE RAMOS (Mayor of Tijuana): What should we do then? Say sorry and back up? No. One life is too much to pay. I agree with the police officers. But we have a commitment to do our job, to clean our corporation. And if that’s the price that we have to pay – that is a very high price – we have to do it. We have to do that because otherwise I have to give the keys of the police corporation to the organized crime, what they used to have.

CALDERON: More than two-dozen police officers charged that Leyzaola tortured them. Tijuana authorities say crime, including homicides and kidnappings, is down.

ISACKSON: But Leyzaola still sleeps at the army base and moves in an armored car with twelve bodyguards.

CALDERON: Drug cartels’ threats continue to crackle across his radio.

RADIO: You’re going to see. Like that 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.

CALDERON: Vicente Calderon,

ISACKSON: Amy Isackson, KPBS news.

PENNER: So joining me now for more on the battle over drug trafficking south of the border is Amy Isackson, KPBS border reporter, and Vicente Calderon, editor for, our partner in the “Border Battle” series. And we welcome both of you.

ISACKSON: Thank you.

PENNER: Lets look at that report that came out from Tijuana authorities that homicides and kidnappings are down from the high numbers we saw last year. How accurate is that, Amy?

ISACKSON: I would say it’s pretty accurate. We don’t really have much of a reason to question it. They say that it’s down from about 800 – more than 830 last year – homicides for all of last year to about 500 and some this year. The thing is the number of bodies is only instructive to a point, I think. The quality of the violence is different in Tijuana now. It’s not a daily drumbeat of a decapitated body left here, five decapitated bodies left somewhere else. It’s a little bit different. It’s calmer as they’re going after policemen. It’s shifted to police. The agents are the real targets. And I think though, the drug traffickers still can act with a sense of impunity. And we saw that starting again last week what we think is in retaliation for some arrests of some pretty big cartel people. They started going out and shooting and kidnapping again.

PENNER: Well certainly, Vicente, we saw that chief Leyzaola played a very big part in what's happening and the changes that are going on. At least that’s the impression we get. How much of this really can be attributed to what he’s doing?

CALDERON: It’s difficult to find out how much because it’s not even his responsibility to be fighting drug trafficking. But the drug traffickers are so entrenched in all the activities that they are facing these guys. But I think they proved that he’s doing his job. We see it in the attacks on them, on the attacks that they are doing. Not for particular officers, but just because these guys are wearing the uniform. So they are not pleased because Leyzaola has taken at least some of the bases drug gangs used to have within the police force. And since then they cannot operate with the same amount of impunity. There's still a long way to go, but the level of impunity has decreased.

PENNER: Just to pursue that a little bit more, police corruption is still a serious problem in Tijuana isn’t it?

CALDERON: It is in general, but you don’t see that they are working as much in favor, or acting as operators of the organized crime syndicates as they used to have. They still have some bad apples. A couple of weeks ago we saw that they arrested another three officers that allegedly had ties to organized crime and provided information to these guys. But the number of arrests is proving that at least some of the people helping them from the inside is not as much as they used to have.

PENNER: What does it take to change this culture of corruption?

ISACKSON: Leyzaola, he’s an ex military man. Thirty-three years in the military. And what he’s trying to do is impose military discipline on his Tijuana police force. Zero tolerance for any kind of corruption, any kind of collusion with the drug cartels. He’s made examples out of some officers. He’s called them in, detained them, and sent them to the military base for questioning. He’s giving officers incentives, cash bonuses if they have a lot of arrests and good arrests. He goes out with this kind of tough love to the precincts throughout Tijuana and really ministers them and tells them you’ve got to live off your salary, you don’t know how well you’ll sleep knowing that you don’t have ties to organized crime.

PENNER: What kind of federal support is he getting?

CALDERON: Its more money from the federal government and help from the military. The military has taken a very important role. With the lead of Leyzaola in the municipal force, they are joining efforts. And this is what’s producing more results. Many of the cases of important suspects’ arrest are from the ranks of the municipal police working with the military. So the main help is coming through the military forces.

PENNER: In a word, what’s the next part of the story you’re going to work on?

CALDERON: Well, we saw that a lot of people think that Leyzaola is a hero, but there are a lot of people complaining that he has been abusing the human rights of the people and of their own officers. We’re going to examine that part of the story in our next report.

PENNER: Well thank you very much Vicente Calderon, Amy Isackson.

What questions do you have about the Statewide General Election coming up on Nov. 8? Submit your questions here, and we'll try to answer them in our reporting.