Border Report: Tijuana’s Tough Former Police Chief, Turned Fugitive, Will Return to Lead Cops

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In the tumultuous landscape of Mexico’s drug wars, one personality stands out: Julián Leyzaola, a retired army lieutenant colonel who led Tijuana’s police department from 2008 to 2010. As Tijuana’s tough-talking police chief and later secretary of public safety, he faced death threats head-on, relentlessly targeting criminals, responding to crime scenes, and purging hundreds of officers allegedly tied to drug traffickers.

While many hail him as a hero for his unwavering commitment to combating crime and corruption, dozens of suspects have accused him of unlawful arrests and even torture. Despite Leyzaola’s denials, human rights organizations have consistently criticized his tactics, both in Tijuana and later in Ciudad Juarez. Four years ago, he went into hiding after Baja California prosecutors charged him with torture, declaring him a fugitive.

Now, after nearly 14 years away, Leyzaola is poised to return to the helm of Tijuana’s municipal police force. Mayor-elect Ismael Burgueño has appointed him as the city’s new public safety secretary, effective later this year.

But can Leyzaola meet the high expectations?

Tijuana has transformed. The bloody cartel war between Sinaloa and Arellano Felix leaders during Leyzaola’s previous tenure has given way to smaller turf battles among neighborhood drug dealers. The once intense military-backed fight against drug traffickers now operates at a lower intensity.

Julian Palombo, president of the Tijuana Chamber of Commerce, expresses confidence in Leyzaola’s experience: “He’s not here to learn; that gives us assurance.” However, other business and civic leaders I queried seemed less certain, avoiding public statements.

Since leaving Tijuana in 2010, Leyzaola has faced setbacks. A 2015 attack in Ciudad Juarez left him paralyzed from the waist down. Returning to Tijuana, he narrowly lost the 2016 mayoral race to a candidate from the then-ruling National Action Party (PAN). In subsequent mayoral elections (2019 and 2021), Leyzaola again fell short, losing to candidates from President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s MORENA party.

In June 2020, under Baja California’s previous governor, Jaime Bonilla, state prosecutors charged Leyzaola with torture. His former deputy testified against him, alleging that Leyzaola tortured his own officers. Fleeing, Leyzaola lived in hiding while his lawyers fought the charges and criticized Tijuana’s current mayoral administration.

Last September, Leyzaola appeared in a taped interview with Baja California’s current governor, Marina del Pilar Avila Olmeda. She praised him as “a brave man” and credited him with reducing crime rates in Tijuana by over 70% during his previous tenure.

Zeta newsweekly reported that prosecutors dropped their case after Leyzaola secured two federal injunctions.

Before reclaiming his position, Leyzaola faces rigorous security clearance. In an earlier interview with Frontera, he criticized recent Tijuana administrations for lacking the political will to combat criminal groups, resulting in increased violence. As police chief, he aims to “reclaim the city” by targeting corrupt officers and enhancing technical capabilities.

Source: Voice of San Diego