Latin America
8:32 am
Sun June 12, 2011

Juarez Police Chief: Drug Cartels Aren't Invincible

The new top cop in Mexico's deadliest city, Juarez, gained notoriety for using an iron fist to reduce the violence in Tijuana's streets. And Julian Leyzaola now plans to use that fist to beat down the drug cartels in Juarez.

On his first day, thugs left Leyzaola a greeting on a tortured, duct-taped body. It said, "Welcome to Juarez, Julian Leyzaola. This is your first little gift and it's going to keep happening." It was signed, the Sinaloan cartel.

Leyzaola also quickly encountered problems inside the police department. In the three months since he took over the force, more than 160 officers have either quit or been fired. Six others have been arrested.

"It was a police force with a very low morale, infiltrated by criminals, unable to regain control of its territory, unable to regain its prestige or the respect of the citizens," he says.

Leyzaola plans to convert this force into a team capable of taking on some of the most powerful and brutal cartels in the hemisphere.

The criminal gangs in Juarez demand extortion payments from most businesses, he acknowledges. They've carried out some of the worst massacres in Mexico's incredibly bloody drug war, and they move hundreds of millions of dollars worth of narcotics across the border into the U.S. every year.

For the last four years, they've held Juarez in a state of siege. But Leyzaola refuses to talk about these powerful organized crime syndicates with even a hint of respect. He calls them "disorganized" and "just criminals."

"In the end, the criminal needs to be overpowered; he needs to respect the authorities," Leyzaola says. "There's all this structure and paraphernalia around the narcos, as if they are invincible people, or indestructible people. We have to get rid of this. In the end, the criminals need to go back to being viewed just as criminals."

Facing 'Anarchy'

Last year more than 3,000 people were murdered in Juarez, making it the murder capital of Mexico and one of the deadliest cities in the world.

The Mexican government has thrown tens of thousands of federal police and soldiers at the problem with limited success. Pickup truckloads of federales with massive assault rifles patrol the streets.

Yet much of Juarez remains out of the hands of the authorities. When Leyzaola arrived, he says, the criminals would not allow his patrols to enter "El Centro," the bustling markets in the center of the city.

"It was total anarchy. It was chaos in this area. You could buy whatever you wanted. They were selling drugs like they sell tortillas. They were lining up to sell drugs," he says.

Leyzaola says he's beginning to regain control of El Centro.

Allegations that Leyzaola tortured corrupt cops in Tijuana continue to dog him. He says he never tortured anyone, and several human rights advocates in Juarez say they're willing to give him the benefit of the doubt — at least for now.

Crackdown On Contraband

Leyzaola has a multiyear plan to take back control of Juarez one neighborhood at a time by attacking crime at its roots.

He is particularly irked by the sale of pirated movies, CDs and other goods on the street. He views it as a flagrant example of criminals openly flaunting the law.

Thus Leyzaola has flooded El Centro with police, some in trucks, some on foot. The officers stroll past grimy bars with signs on their doors saying, "No Minors, No Drugs, No Weapons." Prostitutes linger in front of low-rent brothels. Street vendors sell cheap plastic shoes, fake designer handbags and pirated DVDs.

Earlier this week, merchants in El Centro shut down in the middle of the afternoon to protest Leyzaola's new crackdown on illicit goods.

Leopoldo Barraza Gonzalez, who sells T-shirts and magazines, says vendors are selling pirated products just to make a living and feed their families.

"In what part of Mexico, in what part of the world, do they not sell pirated goods?" Barraza asks. He says the new police chief's strategy is all wrong.

Personal Risks

The challenges Leyzaola faces are huge. El Centro is just the first neighborhood he's attempted to clean up.

He understands the personal risks. In the four years of Mexico's drug war, numerous police chiefs — including the country's top federal cop — have been assassinated. He's received several threats since arriving Juarez, one on his personal cellphone.

Leyzaola takes the threats against him seriously. His family is in the United States. He eats all of his meals inside the police station. He changes his routine every day.

He says he knows that one of the key elements of his plan to restore security in Juarez is that he stays alive.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.