Tijuana Tries To Rid Police Department Of Corruption

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The Mexican city of Tijuana has been at the epicenter of an four year old war between government forces and the drug lords. Host Jacki Lyden speaks with Associated Press reporter Elliot Spagat, who spent eight months on special assignment following Tijuana's public safety chief Julian Leyzaola, who was on a mission to fight drug trafficking and clean the police force from corruption.


And now we continue our conversation about the ongoing drug war in Mexico with Associate Press reporter, Elliot Spagat. He spent eight months on special assignment, following Tijuana's public safety chief, Julian Leyzaola. Tijuana has been ground zero in the war between the Mexican drug lords and the army with killings occurring almost on a daily basis. Elliot Spagat joins us on the telephone from San Diego which is just across the border, of course, from Tijuana. Welcome to the show.

Mr. ELLIOT SPAGAT (Reporter, Associated Press): Hi, thank you.

LYDEN: Before we get to details of your actual reporting, why did you want to shadow this one specific person, Chief Leyzaola, for so many months?

Mr. SPAGAT: I just became fascinated with him. When I first interviewed him in April, we talked for about 90 minutes. I was intrigued by a few of the things he was doing. He was putting military commanders, or recently retired military commanders in charge, kind of the sect of the midlevel tier. I was intrigued by that. I was intrigued by how he was sort of going zone by zone in trying to, as he put it, recapture the city.

So I requested an interview having not too many expectations and I walked out just absolutely fascinated by the way he thinks, a very tactical mind. He thinks five steps ahead, as he likes to put it. He's a chess player. He likes chess because it requires to think so far ahead. He went to the equivalent of Mexico's West Point. So, he is a very strategic thinker. He, of course, talked about how he was purging the police force of corrupt cops. There were about 2,500 officers on the force when he started. Now, it's down to about 2,000 and that's largely because they have either been jailed or forced out.

LYDEN: If I can break in for a moment. You start your piece with that, you said behind every crime is a corrupt cop and his mantra is that he is going to go after them.

Mr. SPAGAT: That comment that he made to me. I quoted him saying, no delinquent can survive without help from the police. His plan is basically, as you would expect from a lieutenant colonel, third generation army man. It's very strategic. He wants to go zone by zone. He has divided the city up into 11 zones, moving from west to east. West is the safer part of the city, the east is the stronghold of a brutal killer named Teodoro Garcia Simental, and he's saving that for last because he doesn't think he is up for the job yet to take the eastern part of the city.

So, every three months, he goes from district to district and a key part of it, which he's had to put on hold, is this, sort of - I would call it a sort of a community policing, extreme community policing where instead of allowing officers to roam freely around, they get a 9, 10, maybe 20 block area. They have to introduce themselves to every person. You know, no one knew who the police where. People in general, you know, the police are held in very very low esteem. People don't call them because they're - they just figure they're, you know, with good reason that they are tied up with organized crime and it's just going to invite more problems than solutions and I'll just - I'm not even going to bother.

LYDEN: Elliot, let me ask you this zone by zone approach in parts of Tijuana, you say that back in the spring, there was a day of disaster when seven cops were killed in a single day.

Mr. SPAGAT: Yes. Seven cops were killed within a matter of an hour and this happens often in Mexico, the drug traffickers broke into the police scanners, and started playing their drug ballads. And three days before these killings, they had - they were broken in and said, you know, we're going after you, Leyzaola. A vast majority of the 32 officers who have been killed during first Leyzaola's first year in office were targeted because of Leyzaola. He, of course, you know, travels with a heavy coterie of bodyguards. He lives in the army barracks. He's heavily guarded. So, they go after cops sometimes unarmed.

LYDEN: Tell me what it looks like in these kinds of zones. I've been to Baghdad a number of times. Does this look like a war zone with heavy policing at checkpoints or not?

Mr. SPAGAT: Not at all. I mean, it doesn't - I haven't been to Baghdad, but I can imagine it looking anything like that. You know, my understanding is that Juarez is a little more of a garrison-type environment. But, you know, the army is definitely the game in town, but they're not that public invisible.

LYDEN: How has this climate affected the lives of ordinary people in Tijuana? Do they ever see bodies on the streets or things like that?

Mr. SPAGAT: Yeah, sure. I mean, you wake up, there have been 66 killings so far in the first half of December that was a spike. It's been much quieter this year at well. I think the latest tally is close to 600 deaths this year compared to about 900 or 850 last year. So, it's slowed down a little bit, but it's still so - every so often to see a, you know, in the newspaper with a photo of a body hanging from a bridge. That happened a few months ago. It was a horrible thing that happened.

Again, I think a few weeks ago, decapitations, things like that. But, you know, life does go on. It's not - it is largely, you know, according to Mexican authorities, 90, 95 percent of the victims are street level drug dealers. The turf war, just like we have - compared to The Blood and The Crips according to a DEA official.

So, if you're not selling drugs, if you're not - if you're going about doing your business, you'll probably be okay.

LYDEN: Did you feel safe while you were patrolling? And what happens in 2011 if the police chief's plan hasn't had what's perceived as success?

Mr. SPAGAT: Well, now, you know, I did feel a little bit unease. You know, I wore a bulletproof vest when I was out patrolling with them and so forth, but and I did feel at unease. It was funny. I was in a - at a convenient store and looking at the clerk, and she kind of, you know, looking at her through the window, and she kind of liked wiped her brow when we were driving away, kind of a joke. But, you know, a lot of these police officers have been killed in front of these convenient stores.

So, I felt a little nervous just kind of standing outside in front of the police station, a lot of them feel like sitting ducks, but it was fine. And, you know, the big problem of course with reforms in Mexico has been that -there has been term limits, you know. The president is out after six years. The mayors are out after three years. The police chief here, Leyzaola - whose boss is the mayor - who will be out of office in December 2010.

And one of the more interesting things he told me, I said, how do you know that you might be out of a job in December 2010? He said, well, I've gone to Mexico City. I've spoken with high level defense ministry officials and interior ministry officials, and they've assured me that I will stay in the job. So, that would be like the police chief of L.A. or New York going to the White House and asking for job security. So, pretty unusual, but he's, you know, he's also quietly campaigning with civic groups, business leaders, and gaining support.

LYDEN: The fact that not everybody in Mexico is affected, the relative peace that's enjoyed in most parts of the country, does that amount to a complacency that allows the drug lords to operate with impunity?

Mr. SPAGAT: I don't know. I mean there's the - Calderon - President Calderon of course is under a lot of pressure to go back to the status quo, which is kind of reach an agreement and understanding with the drug lords that as long as they don't let things get too out of hand and disrupt, you know, ordinary life, they can go about doing their business. And there's certainly, you know, an element of that in Tijuana and I'm sure in Juarez, and other border cities.

LYDEN: Elliot Spagat is a reporter for the Associated Press. He joined us on the phone from San Diego. Thanks very much.

Mr. SPAGAT: Thank you.

LYDEN: And if you want to read Elliot Spagat's reports on Tijuana, you can go to npr.org and select TELL ME MORE on the program page.

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