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Questions about Leyzaola’s rise in Tijuana

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September 3, 2013


Lt. Col. (Retired) Julian Leyzaola Perez is the chief of police in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. He was previously the chief of police in Tijuana, where he earned a reputation for a no-nonsense approach to law enforcement. His terms ends this year in October, and he and the current mayor, “Teto” Murguia have asked the city to pay for bodyguards to protect them after they leave office. Leyzaola is given credit for the decrease in violence in Cd. Juarez, although skeptics attribute the decrease to the fact that the Sinaloa cartel won the war against the Juarez cartel for control of the city.–un vato

 Tijuana The man seated in front of the table in the bar came back from death on at least one occasion. He knew it when he felt the air pumping from the old oxygen machine stuck on his face, deformed by the blows, and listened to the two military men who were torturing him fighting among themselves because they thought he had died on them. Jaime Avila Flores had driven his patrol vehicle to the military installations of the 28th Infantry Battalion after he delivered his morning briefing at 8:00 on Tuesday morning, March 31, 2009.
Gustavo Huerta Martinez [foto below left], a former Army captain who acted as director of operations at the Secretariat of Municipal Public Security, ordered him to go to the military base where, he said, some people from Mexico City wanted to interview him. He arrived with his patrol partner a little before 10:00, but was denied access. He had to call another former military officer working as a police commander to get them to let him in. That confusion calmed him down a little. It made him think they had called him to ask him for some kind of analysis about the city. In a few minutes, however, he found out that after 22 years as a police officer his instinct had betrayed him.
“I never suspected a thing. I was a real idiot”, he says he thought when a military officer dressed as a civilian met him and led him towards a racquet ball court some distance from the central offices, “a big shoe box”, where there was a soldier waiting, who he saw was more nervous than he was. The soldier ordered him to walk to the farthest corner of the rectangle and he followed with a roll of toilet paper in his hands, from which he tore pieces to place against his eyes before blindfolding him. “It’s better for you not to see anything,” he told him. He waited for a long time for the arrival of the people from the capital. It was the three individuals that two hours later would resuscitate him.

The former captain who laid the trap for him was acting on orders of his boss, the secretary of public security Julian Leyzaola Perez, a retired lieutenant colonel originally from Sinaloa who in less than a decade had run the state penitentiary and the Baja California police academy. The two of them initiated a restructuring of the agency in March that year, replacing almost all of the existing commanders with officers educated in the military. He fired 600 policemen and arrested 160 of them, accusing them of corruption.

After that, Leyzaola initiated an exercise of force never seen before. He not only reduced the crime statistics, he whipped members of the narco cells. His public actions seemed to be dominated more by bitterness and contempt than by the law. He became a street judge and jury. One night in 2009, television cameras caught him striking the cadaver of an alleged gunman who was killed during a confrontation. “Whoever wants a confrontation, well, he can have a confrontation and that’s where he will end up. That’s the operating strategy”, he would explain months after that attack.
Leyzaola and Huerta now direct public safety in Juarez City, where they have repeated the same harvest of applause and crosses they left in Tijuana. But their reputation as murderers and torturers began the month that Avila and 24 other area commanders were illegally detained at the military base and subjected to torture for days, with the intent of constructing a success story in the war against organized crime that Felipe Calderon would use as an example.
“It was evident that nobody was going to talk to me”, recounts Avila, now physically diminished by torn ligaments in his knees, badly healed ribs and the partial deafness left from the blows and the asphyxiation. Almost 50 years old, these days he works as a carpenter in a small neighborhood work shop. There are many ways to lose your life. His, the one they left him with, is completely different from the one he forged for two decades. That morning, he arrived at the battalion facilities wearing the uniform that identified him as district chief of La Presa, and before noon, he he was on the floor, without his equipment harness, with his ankles, knees, hands and the upper part of his head tied together with cloth bandages.

“There is something stronger than a few blows, than a few broken ribs, something that, without it, you cannot get up off the ground. And they know how to do it very well. Imagine that position. Imagine yourself blindfolded. What’s happening? What immediately came to mind were the dead bodies I had found around the edges of Tijuana.

This is how I would find them!, their hands tied, their heads wrapped in bandages, tied up in the same way I was tied up. I can’t believe this is happening to me! I said: Is it the Army doing this, or is it the bad guys? I could no longer tell who was who. What I was starting to understand is that the two sides are the bad guys. In my head, I was telling myself: I’m screwed. They’re going to dump me, tortured, shot in the head, and they will place a poster on me that says I was with the mafia. But it’s them!.”

Tijuana in 2008 was listed among the most violent cities in the country. It was not a typical violence, outside the norm for that and other cradles of drug trafficking, like Nuevo Laredo, Juarez or Culiacan. The common characteristic in this handful of municipalities was the new way, multiplied and brutal, that they dumped the cadavers. And in each of these cities, the zenith was reached when the federal forces came in.

Tijuana reached it in October that year, with 62 murders in one week. Victims were found hanging from bridges, dissolved in acid, mutilated, piled up in vacant lots and garbage dumps. Local authorities attributed this to the confrontation between two local groups, one led by Fernando Sanchez Arellano, “El Ingeniero”, and another led by Teodoro Garcia Simental, “El Teo.” Unlike Sinaloa, Chihuahua or Tamaulipas, Baja California has only five municipalities (counties). In addition, all of them were governed by PAN officials, like the rest of the state.

The same institutional corruption existed there that existed throughout the country, the kind of collusion that allows organized crime activities. But (the city was) politically aligned with the Calderon government. In 2007, the commander of the II Military Region, Sergio Aponte Polito, pointed this out, even giving names and last names, after the State government disregarded his formal accusations.

The general was replaced at the request of the governor, Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan, with another man more in line with the cabinet’s plans. Immediately upon taking over, General Alfonso Duarte Mujica installed a de facto single police force under his command, one in which the civilian state and federal forces were practically brushed aside the moment that Leyzaola was also appointed Secretary of Public Safety.

The lieutenant colonel prepared the way. Or something similar. Before assuming the position as Secretary, he worked as the operations director in the same agency. He was the second in command to Alberto Capella, the previous director of the Citizen Safety Council, who alleged drug traffickers tried to kill at his home, as soon as the news spread that he would be the next municipal police chief. Capella entrenched himself and returned fire.

He was the prototype of courage and honesty, but that did him no good. Leyzaola was contemptuous of him as chief, while the city was horrified with each new criminal incident. The mayor, Jorge Ramos, decided to fire him in December, 2008, and, with Leyzaola in charge, used the nest three months to institute the changes and consolidate agreements, not only with (Gen.) Duarte, but also with the local political and business groups. The events started with a precise order from the new Secretary.

“From the minute that Leyzaola took office as Secretary of (Public) Safety, he ordered us to personally deliver to him any person caught with drugs or weapons. ‘Bring them to me and I’ll take them to the military base’, he told us. That became the style; all the people that we caught with weapons and drugs, we took to him, and he would deliver them to the military. You would never hear from them again.”

Jorge Sanchez Reyes remembers when he was Chief of Special Operations, a sort of elite group organized by Leyzaola with 70 men that he himself chose from among several precincts. Sanchez and his men were always dressed in black combat uniforms and ski masks. Orders were issued each day by Leyzaola personally. Or by radio, when necessary. The group was created to confront criminals, although id the Tijuana of mass murders this never happened.

On the contrary, Sanchez would get instructions to deploy his men to a certain point in the city, then they would find out that there were gunfights, or “mantas” and hanging bodies would appear, on the opposite side of the city. “Have you ever carried a cadaver? It’s unbelievable, but it feels as if they weigh twice as much. Now, imagine hanging three or five bodies from a bridge. That requires participation by at least 15 individuals and at least 20 minutes if, in addition, you hang a message up. That gives you something to think about, right?”

Previous to the arrests of the group of 25 commanders, the detentions of police officers began between October and November of 2008. Everything on orders from Leyzaola. Sanchez claims that none of the chiefs that they took away had ties to the large criminal organizations. In fact, the ones that remained were the same ones they had always suspected. An today they are still there, nobody bothers them.”

The detentions and torture at the 28th Infantry Battalion buildings were concealed by the military and civilian state authorities. The Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH: Comision Mexicana de Defensa y Promocion de los Drechos Humanos) requested information from the Baja California public information access system regarding detentions of civilians and police officers during 2009. The response was that there were no records on that , much less regarding the operation of detention centers in the City of Tijuana. But 10% of the Federal detentions reported in Mexico happen in Baja California, according to the CMDPDH itself. Sanchez was one of the victims rendered invisible by the system.

The personal phone of the Group Commander of Special Operations rang the morning of March 21, 2009. “Sanchez, you won’t believe this: they just released me from the (military) base. Can you send a patrol vehicle to pick me up?” The man who called him was in charge of the weapons locker, but before that, he was one of his subordinates within the tactical group. That’s how they knew each other. He found him in bare feet and very injured. When he picked him up, the officer told him that two other fellow officers were still inside, beaten worse than he. Sanchez asked him if he wanted to press charges, and the answer was “No.”

On the contrary, the police officers tortured throughout (the month of) were virtually ambushed by the highest ranking officials. Prior to the arrest of each one of them, the military tortured two civilians, identified as Luis Enrique Carrillo Osorio and Jesus Raymundo Sotelo Gonzalez. The first one was an ex-municipal police agent. He was arrested on the 19th of that month, and, according to the reports, he was in possession of a 9mm pistol, 40 grams of crystal and a vehicle that had been reported as stolen. His arrest led to the arrest of Sotelo Gonzalez the next day, and, a day later, to the beginning of the arrests of 25 commanders and deputy commanders in the Public Safety Secretariat, all accused of belonging to a criminal organization.

That was established in a petition for intervention filed last January with the Interamerican Commission for Human Rights (CIDH: Comision Interamericana de Drechos Humanos) by the CMDPDH in conjunction with the Citizen Commission for Human Rights in the Northeast (CCDH; Comision Ciudadana de Derechos Humanos del Noroeste).

They were all picked up the same way: Leyzaola and Huerta would call them and then force them to go to the base, telling them that the SIEDO had issued an order to compel their appearance. Not one of them was shown the document. Inside the military installations, on the other hand, they were subjected to asphyxiation with plastic bags or water containers; they suffered blows that left them crippled for life; they received electric shocks; they were threatened with death, humiliated; they were kept without food or water for days, their hands tied and their eyes covered with adhesive tape and bandages.

Sanchez had attended a meeting with the mayor and other municipal officials — among them Leyzaola — that Friday morning, March 27. When the meeting ended, Leyzaola asked him to stay behind. Alone in the meeting room, the Secretary slapped the wooden table. “Goddamn, Sanchez! I just got a call from General Duarte; (ordering me) to take you to the base, that somebody already talked about you, a so-called Maximinio”, he told him. Sanchez says he knew Maximinio by name only. He tried to resist. Leyzaola told him to go peacefully or the soldiers would go for him at his house. “If you’re not guilty of anything, there’s nothing to be afraid of”, Sanchez says he (Leyzaola) told him. Two guards took his weapons and got him into Leyzaola’s white, heavily armored Suburban.

“They took me to the base. They open the gate for all of his convoy. We step down. He tells me; Come on, you follow me! Then the two of us, now by ourselves, walked inside the building. I was more or less familiar with that military building. That’s where I did my military service. I’m from here, from Tijuana. So I recognized the room that they were taking me to; one of those rooms there are in military posts, with a racquetball court, a closed room from which two hooded soldiers come out. Leyzaola says, ‘Here he is’. And they answer, ‘Bring him this way.’ That’s the last place I saw Leyzaola. He left and I went in.

When I enter, I see a police officer tied to a chair, blindfolded. It was 9:00 a.m., more or less. There was nothing else. One of the soldiers approaches me and asks my name. I told him my name. Then he tells me, ‘Place your hands over here behind you.’ When I place my hands, he handcuffs me. I ask him, Hey, what’s going on? He tells, ‘No, nothing. Wait.’ Then he takes toilet paper and covers my mouth and blindfolds me. Then he tells me, ‘Sit down.’

Sanchez loses track of time. Hours go by. Nobody speaks. Only the sound of a ball bouncing is heard and the sound of a toy, “like a wind-up toy soldier.” The voices return. He hears them come in with more police officers. They ask them their names. He recognizes them: they are all commanders. He feels its nighttime when he hears the sound of a Hummer. They take them out with two other officers and put them into the vehicle. They drive without leaving the base, towards another location, another building. They still have their eyes covered, but his hears things.

“It’s as if you hear better when you’re scared,” he explains. They take him by himself to the new room. They order him to remove his shoes and lie down on the floor. He hears the sound of adhesive tape being unrolled. They use that to tie him down and somebody sits on his knees. They ask him what he does on the police force. He tells him he’s the Chief of Special Operations. Maximinio accuses you of taking money from the narcos, they tell him. He asks to be brought face to face with him, because that accusation is false. “While that is happening, you hear the sound of plastic. And suddenly… it’s a bag. I couldn’t see it, but well, it’s a bag. And, well, it sticks to you, immediately. And they punch you on the stomach to take your breath out. No, well, you feel that you are losing your life.

You feel you are suffocating. And just when you’re on the verge of death, they take it off and tell you: ‘Let’s see, fucker, now you’re going to tell me!’ But what do you want me to tell you, if that’s not true. And again… They did this to me about three times. They tell me, ‘Well, forget about that, just tell us which cops are with the mafia.’ Well, what can I tell you? You investigate them! What do you want me to tell you? And they tell me: ‘Well. let’s see, you move patrol vehicles so they can commit crimes.’ I tell them: No, that’s not true. Ask the Secretary (Leyzaola), he’s the one who tells me where to go, where to work. I work under his orders.”

Then I hear Leyzaola’s voice.

“I heard when he tells the one interrogating me: ‘Ask him about the ones in November.’ In other words, look, Leyzaola told them! And I thought: Oh, hell, he’s here.”

Sanchez and another 12 fellow officers who were subjected to torture at the military base obtained a ruling that absolved them in August of 2010. These are the 13 officers who always refused to admit the accusations made against them. The other 12 regained their freedom in October of 2012. They were the first ones arrested and the ones most subjected to torture. The ones who agreed to sign the accusations made against them. Of the 25 total, four were able to get reinstated with the agency. The majority of the remaining 21 want the same thing and have a lawsuit pending against City Hall.

The National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH: Comision Nacional de Derechos Humanos) requested that they be paid damages. They had salaries between 15 and 20 thousand pesos ($1,115.00 to $1,538.00) per month, plus benefits. Today, they survive by working as fruit stand vendors and selling second-hand goods; as mechanics, construction workers or carpenters. Two of them are cab drivers, like Sanchez. They all lost their homes and their international visas, they got criminal records for their ties with a criminal organization. Their life, such as they had, was taken from them. But there were at least 60 other police officers who will not have the opportunity to fight for what was taken from them.

While the 25 were being held, word went out that they would murder a policeman each day, until the group was freed.

“Who knows whether it was the government itself,” muses Sanchez. Because, looking at it coldly, who told them that? We did not have ties to crime. And then they started a slaughter of police officers who– at least the ones I knew– kept a low profile, they were good cops. None of them was the kind that you more or less suspected were going bad. It was people who, when we learned of it, we would ask ourselves; Well, why did they kill this guy? That’s why today we have realized that it was all planned, that it was a strategy of collaboration between the three levels of government, among the businessmen and politicians. If they had not been in agreement, we would not have been arrested. There is no other logic that allows an analysis of what took place.”

Early in 2008, Jaime Berumen Borrayo was the chief of the Sanchez Taboada Police Precinct. During 25 years of service, he had never faced members of drug trafficking cells, until the night that he arrested four of them. They threatened to make him into pozole (hominy), the term they use to describe the dissolution of a body in an oil drum full of acid. The four were arrested for driving a stolen vehicle and being suspects in four assaults. But a judge freed them after one month. It was like releasing the hunting dogs. That same day at dawn they went to the police officer’s house to kill him.

The four of them came, accompanied by another five hooded persons, all carrying weapons. One of the ones that Berumen had arrested shot him point blank with a pistol. He fired at his face. Berumen instinctively covered up and the bullet was diverted after breaking his arm. His children and wife came out of their rooms. They pointed their weapons at their heads. There was yelling and crying, but that intervention ultimately saved his life. The assassins left.

Berumen was incapacitated and asked to be transferred to the shops where patrol vehicles were repaired. But he had just returned to work when he was notified that he was suspended. They told him he was suspected of collecting (money) from the “tienditas” where drugs were sold, and that that was the reason they tried to kill him. He decides to defend himself through the courts and he wins. They reinstate him, and then Leyzaola calls for him. Before ordering his arrest, he tells him he does not agree with his reinstatement, that he has a godfather in the city council, but that it will not do him any good there. He got to the military post the morning of March 24. Berumen was the one who identified two of the three torturers, although only by their nicknames: “El Matute” and “El Tortas.”

The others implicated in the plot appear on the petition that the CMDPDH and the CCDH filed with the Interamerican Commission for Human Rights. In addition to Leyzaola and Huerta, they mention the commanding general of the Second Military Zone, Alfonso Duarte Mujica; the representatives of the Federal Public Ministry, Antonio Zepeda Leon, Humberto Velasquez Villalvo and Cesar Adame. Also Lt. Fernando Coaxin Hernandez, Director of Sanitation in the military base, who was responsible for resuscitating the torture victims.

The level of participation to savage a handful of police officers against whom no criminal ties were proven changed the perception that they themselves had about crime up to the day of their arrest.

Berumen lost the hearing on his right side and suffers from lumbago. He didn’t see Leyzaola, but after the first torture session he became aware that lurking in the shadows, inside the room, was the Secretary of Public Safety: “They brought me a laptop so I could look at the cops; they wanted me to point them out. I know he was there; it was his computer.” It all made him rethink the previous months, in 2008.

“When they were torturing me and I almost died, they told me to stop acting stupid, because nobody knew that hey were holding me in the military post, that if they went too far and we died, they were going to dump us on Blvd 2000 and leave a poster on us that said we were with organized crime.” Half of the 25 policemen received the same threat. And it made several of them think that the people committing massacres in the city were not only gunmen from one or another organization, but also the military. The mention of the 2000 Blvd. made their blood run cold: that was the favorite location to display bodies torn up from blows and gunshots.

The CNDH ruled that there are sufficient elements of proof to pay damages to the 25 former police officers, but also to take judicial and administrative action against those responsible for the violations. Last November, then, it sent a recommendation along these lines to the Tijuana city government, now governed by the PRI. The response from the local government was issued on April 29. The sindicature and the judicial area declared that Julian Leyzaola and Gustavo Huerta were obligated to appear before municipal authorities or they would be disqualified for life from holding any public office. Neither of them made an appearance. An official skirmish, more than anything else.

“In fact, such a resolution lacks jurisdictional effect. Leyzaola as well as Huerta can work wherever they want, except in Tijuana, if the threat is ever carried out,” explains Raul Ramirez Baena, a staunch persecutor of offenses committed by military and former military in Baja California, who founded and heads the CCDH. “But the ending is not so bad; it’s another stripe on the tiger, and that adds to the reputation of torturers that they both have.”

The criminalization without proof, the arrest and torture of the 25 police officers, Ramirez says, had in fact a manipulative effect. Because the violence in Tijuana was contained not by the efficient work of soldiers and municipal police led by Leyzaola, but because after the arrest of El Teo, agreements unexpectedly occurred between authorities, cartels and businessmen. “What we have is a pax romana. Nothing more. Everything is in reality a great tale”.


About Doc

Spreading the word about the dangers of methamphetamine.

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