This essay was originally published by NACLA in May, 2019, prior to Tijuana’s mayoral election. Though the subject of the essay, Julián Leyzaola, ultimately placed second in that race, he remains active in state politics and is expected to make a strong run for mayor in 2021. Considering the city’s ongoing security crisis, Leyzaola continues to represent an extremely problematic—and yet equally popular—response to crime and violence.
Midway through an interview in April, 2019, the passing wail of sirens temporarily drowned out the voice of one of Tijuana’s leading mayoral candidates, Julián Leyzaola Pérez. It was a grim reminder of the city’s ongoing violence, violence that he promised to end. When the reporter asked how he intends to do so, he smiles and says, “remember, I already did the job once.”
This claim was at the center of the city’s election, and at the heart of its problems. In 2018, Tijuana became Mexico’s most dangerous city, tallying more than 2,500 homicides. There are no simple solutions for the city’s escalating violence, but there is a real possibility that on June 2, voters will turn to a mayoral candidate offering hardline remedies and representing the worst aspects of the country’s decade-long drug war.
It is both remarkable and unsurprising that Leyzaola stands a good chance of becoming Tijuana’s next mayor. His stints as head of public security in Tijuana (2008-2010) and Ciudad Juárez (2011-2013) left a trail of credible allegations of human rights abuses. As a result, the Tijuana city government barred him from holding office for eight years (a court overturned the ban last year), costing him a job as a security advisor in Quintana Roo in 2017. Yet he is widely popular in his adopted city, where he is credited with restoring the peace during a time of terrifying cartel violence. At a recent event, a prominent business leader described him as “heroic.” In the last mayoral election, in 2016, he lost by fewer than 5,000 votes out of 403,000 ballots cast. (Had he won, the ban on holding office would have faced a legal challenge and likely been overturned.)
Three years later, Leyzaola’s law-and-order message resonates as strongly as ever. Should he become mayor, he will almost certainly implement his signature mano dura tactics. That is a troubling prospect: he says criminals “must be suppressed”, and his security strategy will criminalize the city’s vulnerable populations. He openly disdains human rights protections and has displayed an affinity for arbitrary detention. Not only would this approach almost certainly produce abuses, but it would fail to build lasting peace in Tijuana.
As Mexico debates the future of its security strategy, Tijuana is again poised to become a laboratory for a dangerous experiment in heavy handed, militarized policing, with results that are all too easily misinterpreted.
Over the past decade, Julián Leyzaola has worked tirelessly to ensure the security of one thing: his own mystique.
His reputation is based almost entirely on his success in reforming Tijuana’s municipal police from 2007 to 2010 when he served as head of the security corps and subsequently Public Security Commissioner. This was no mean feat: months before he took office, the federal government had dispatched 3,000 soldiers to the city and, suspecting collaboration with the Arellano Félix cartel, disarmed the entire municipal police force. Upon assuming command, Leyzaola removed hundreds of officers, and arrested more than 100 on suspicion of corruption. Leyzaola undertook the purge with great zeal. The remaining officers received pay raises, new equipment—including AR-15s—and military-style training. Leyzaola had the support of the army in his efforts, as well as substantial federal funding, which was crucial to his effectiveness.
Reports suggest the purified police force curbed kidnapping, robbery, and extortion, and made the city’s downtown areas safer for tourists and business. Significantly, Leyzaola also restored confidence in the city’s municipal police as a trustworthy collaborator for federal forces and U.S. law enforcement.
While this was a meaningful accomplishment, looks can be deceiving. That it occurred at a time of high drama in the country’s drug war meant that Leyzaola had a rapt audience of domestic and international observers. A rupture within the Arellano Félix organization near the start of his tenure had led to increasingly spectacular violence in Tijuana and Leyzaola played his role as crusading lawman what felt like a made-for-Hollywood confrontation. He publicly denounced criminals as “dirtbags” and ordered his officers to confront drug traffickers who paraded through the city in convoys. Five alleged assassination attempts—most of which were thwarted without a shot fired—only added to the myth that Leyzaola was the scourge of the city’s criminals. In 2009, Tijuana’s leading news magazine, Zeta, named him co-person of the year along with General Alfonso Duarte, the regional military leader. By the end of Leyzaola’s tenure, Mexican authorities touted Tijuana as a model for addressing security challenges.
If his tough guy routine made for good copy—and the scores of profiles suggest that it did—what is much less clear is the impact of his strategies on Tijuana’s security situation. The reformed municipal police certainly did make it more difficult for organized crime to operate openly, but despite Leyzaola’s bluster, there is no evidence that drug trafficking patterns changed significantly. And while headlines lauded him for confronting cartels, according to my research, federal forces—not municipal police—were responsible for most high-profile arrests.
Neither did Leyzaola’s approach have a meaningful impact on violence. Indeed, most analysis now suggests that most of Tijuana’s security gains during this period were the product of a “pax mafioso” and an accommodation between the Sinaloa cartel and the remnants of the Arellano Félix Organization—not enforcement activity. The end of the turf war led to a decrease in highly visible downtown murders, and, in the years after the end of Leyzaola’s tenure, an overall reduction in homicides. His policing did contribute to isolating violence to the city’s periphery, the areas where murders have surged over the past two years. Ten years after the fact, then, it is increasingly difficult to see Leyzaola’s strategy in Tijuana as a total success. In many ways, his victory was partial and cosmetic.
Nevertheless, his three years in Tijuana established him as a hardline police reformer and security savant. After Tijuana’s newly elected Mayor opted not to retain him in 2010, Leyzaola soon found work heading public security in Ciudad Juárez. There he oversaw a similar overhaul of the municipal police, boosting morale, improving training, and cracking down on downtown crime. During this three-year stint, homicides did decline dramatically, and Juárez became another success story for solving violence. Yet, as in Tijuana, the improvement likely had more to do with the end of a turf war, this time between the Sinaloa cartel and Juárez cartel-linked gangs like La Linea. Nevertheless, Leyzaola was again able take credit for pacifying the city, even if the main causes were outside his control. When an assassination attempt left him in a wheelchair in 2015—two years after retiring—it seemed confirmation of his incorruptibility and unwillingness to yield to criminals. He recovered quickly enough to recount his accomplishments to filmmaker Charlie Minn, who labeled him Mexico’s bravest man in a 2016 documentary.
For all Leyzaola’s success in sustaining his fame as an effective crimefighter, his methods fail to create sustainable peace. Violence in both Tijuana and Juárez has surged in recent years, and while Leyzaola blames this on corruption and a lack of political will, there are reasons to believe the abusive practices he encourages may be at the root of the problem. Three aspects of his approach are particularly troubling in this regard. First, his tendency to promote criminalization and his use of arbitrary detention; second, his use of torture and open disregard for human rights; and third, his rejection of restorative justice principles.
In both Tijuana and Juárez, Leyzaola’s officers targeted vulnerable populations as part of crackdowns on low-level offenses, a strategy that amounted—in many cases—to the criminalization of poverty. According to journalist Sandra Rodríguez Nieto, Leyzaola acknowledged that many arrests were made “based on appearances.” This included targeting and arresting migrants, deportees, drug addicts, “vagrants and graffiti artists,” unlicensed sex workers, and those selling pirated DVDs. In many cases, arbitrary detention extended to activists and poor children. During his first year in Juárez, police detained an average of 8,200 per month, only 1 percent of whom ever saw a judge. Though many were released with a warning or fine, many others were paraded before cameras as criminals despite never being formally charged.
Aggressive detentions were part of a broader strategy. Leyzaola famously told journalists that he spent his nights “hunting” criminals, patting a pistol to suggest he was not speaking metaphorically. In one case, in Juárez in 2012, members of a municipal police special forces unit linked to Leyzaola detained five youths in a park on suspicion of criminal involvement, drove them around the city, then extrajudicially executed four of them. Journalists and human rights activists have repeatedly accused his police forces of manufacturing criminals.
Leyzaola is generally unrepentant about such practices, telling one reporter that “a crime is a crime. If you are willing to sell pirated goods to feed your family, what's stopping you from kidnapping or killing to feed your family?” One profile noted that he looks to French counterinsurgency operations in Algeria as a model for urban security strategies. His military training—including time at the School of the Americas—seems to reinforce this confrontational approach.
Leyzaola sees the concept of human rights as an impediment to his work. When asked why booking photos showed suspects who appeared to have been beaten, he replied that “arrests aren’t pillow fights.” This shock-and-awe brutality is an intrinsic part of his policing approach, and one that he believes should not be questioned. As he told the BBC, “When the drug traffickers were not able to win the war on the streets with their narco-culture, they went and used human rights organizations. It’s a defense strategy.” In the most recent mayoral debate, he went so far as to suggest that human rights defenders themselves be investigated.
He is similarly flippant about the serious allegations of torture that have long trailed him. The longest standing complaint describes how police officers accused of corruption were illegally detained and taken to a military base, where they were beaten, suffocated, and shocked into signing false confessions and accusing other officers of also collaborating with criminals. Some reports claim Leyzaola was present during the torture. Another allegation claims Leyzaola beat prisoners in a Juárez jail with a board. By his account, these charges are politically motivated, and without merit.
Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of Leyzaola’s approach, when considering he is running for public office and not for a public security position, is his rejection of any sort of restorative justice approach. In his Manichean worldview, criminals cannot be incorporated into law-abiding society. The city has a cancer, he says, and the treatment will be painful. During the first mayoral debate, he railed against social reintegration policies, and mockingly asked an opponent whether he believed such programs were a feasible response to violence. An empathetic response to crime was, he said, moronic, a tontería: criminals must be vanquished.
Even his policy proposals are underpinned by an ideology that establishes an impermeable boundary between criminals and citizens. His belief that criminal involvement is linked to culture, and that youth are seduced by the appeal of easy wealth and status, led him to ban narcocorrido singers Los Tucanes de Tijuana from performing in their home city in 2009. As a mayoral candidate, he now promotes youth sports as a moral bulwark against criminal involvement, not a means of rebuilding Tijuana’s social fabric.
In Tijuana, Leyzaola’s message resonates. Upwards of 70% of residents report feeling insecure, 74% no longer let their children leave the house because of crime, 63% report frequently hearing gunshots, 70% distrust the municipal police, and 80% consider it ineffective. While murder is no longer a major downtown concern, overall homicides have increased, particularly in poorer, peripheral neighborhoods. Negative press coverage of the violence has also again begun to dampen the panorama for the city’s business elites. Tourism has not slumped, but officials are clearly concerned about perceptions.
One of the more remarkable aspects of Leyzaola’s political strength is that it is almost entirely based on his personal popularity: he is running on the PRD ticket, a party that has almost no machinery in Baja California and won less than 2 percent of the vote in the last municipal election. His main opponents—Arturo González from MORENA and Juan Manuel Gastélum from the PAN—enjoy far more developed campaign operations. MORENA in particular seems to have captured the support of formerly PRI-affiliated unions, and dominated local races last year, in part on the coattails of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s sweeping victory in the presidential election. Despite the PAN’s traditional strength in Baja California, Gastélum faces an uphill battle in his reelection effort, dogged by corruption scandals and widely blamed for failing to address crime.
Over the course of the short official campaign, which began on April 15, Leyzaola has concentrated on reminding tijuanenses that he is the candidate of law and order, the one who understands the problem and has the experience to fix it. He has left little doubt about his platform: at his campaign kick-off event, he did not hide the pistol tucked under his leg. His Facebook page contains an entire video series recounting his confrontations with organized crime, another video is simply 20 seconds of police sirens followed by the message: “I’m back. Law and Order in Tijuana.”
But Leyzaola’s methods threaten to deepen the city’s security crisis, even if they produce the short-term gains he has promised. A report last year from the University of San Diego’s Justice in Mexico project noted that Tijuana’s current violence needs new strategies that build trust between communities and police. Moreover, the report’s authors stress the importance of developing targeted interventions to help the city’s marginalized young men and providing meaningful rehabilitation and recovery programs for drug addicts. Neither of these recommendations square well with Leyzaola’s record.
Tijuana today also faces a uniquely difficult situation due to U.S. immigration policies. In 2019 alone, the city has received more than 14,000 deportees. Often lacking identification documents, sometimes speaking little Spanish, and frequently lost in an unfamiliar city, deportees are among Tijuana’s most vulnerable. While an extensive network of nonprofit aid groups attempts to alleviate the crisis, there is insufficient shelter space and deportees are consistently preyed on by criminals and harassed by police. This is unlikely to change under a Leyzaola administration: in 2010, human rights advocate Victor Clark observed that municipal police detained a quarter of all deportees, claiming they were delinquents.
There is also the issue of the more than 5,000 asylum-seeking migrants—many from Central America—who are forced to wait upwards of two months for screening interviews with CBP officers. Many of these migrants fear for their lives in Tijuana, even as new “Migrant Protection Protocols” have returned more than 240 asylum seekers to the city to await hearings. Leyzaola has said that these migrants should “be treated warmly, made to feel welcome, taken care of, they should not feel rejected or alone,” but at the launch of his campaign vowed that the city would not spend a single peso to care for those who were not tijuanenses.
A career soldier, who credits the military academy with forming his sense of mission and patriotism, Leyzaola is in some ways a prototype for the militarized security strategy that the Mexican government has adopted. His effectiveness as head of Tijuana’s public security was in large part due to the support he enjoyed from the armed forces, with whom he had better communication and greater trust than his predecessors. Yet it is telling that the most documented abuses from that period—the torture of police officers suspected of corruption—occurred at a military base and with the cooperation of military authorities.
Yet the most important lesson from Leyzaola is not that military officials are incapable of protecting human rights while serving in a law enforcement capacity, but rather that the public security approach they develop tends to be inflexible and emphasize confrontation. That strategy helped make Tijuana and Juárez one-time models for security, but in the process criminalized many residents in both word and deed. Treating criminals as enemies produced short term results but undercut an effective institutional response to crime and violence. What a careful examination of Leyzaola’s record most clearly shows is that his brand of mano dura failed to create the foundations for lasting peace. Ignoring that history is risky for Tijuana, and dangerous for Mexico.