Violent Welcome For New Juarez Police Chief Julian Leyzaola beat down drug cartels in Tijuana, but faces daunting new challenges in Mexico's deadliest city. He says narcos are criminals who should be viewed as just criminals. And to restore respect for the law, he's even cracking down on pirated DVDs.

Violent Welcome For New Juarez Police Chief

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Mexico's deadliest city, Juarez, has a new top cop. It's the same former army officer who's credited with beating down the drug cartels in Tijuana. Julian Leyzaola gained notoriety for using an iron fist to reduce the violence in Tijuana's streets. He was also accused of using torture. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports that the new police chief plans to directly attack the Juarez cartels.

JASON BEAUBIEN: On the day Leyzaola arrived, thugs left him a greeting on 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.

JULIAN LEYZAOLA: (Through Translator) 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.

BEAUBIEN: Leyzaola plans to convert this force into a team capable of taking on some of the most powerful and brutal cartels in the hemisphere. He acknowledges that the criminal gangs in Juarez demand extortion payments from most businesses. They've carried out some of the worst massacres in Mexico's incredibly bloody drug war.

They move hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of narcotics across the border into the U.S. every year. And 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.

LEYZAOLA: (Through Translator) In the end, the criminal needs to be overpowered; he needs to respect the authorities. 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.

BEAUBIEN: 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 truck loads of federales with massive assault rifles patrol the streets, yet much of Juarez remains out of the hands of the authorities. When Leyzaola arrived three months ago he says the criminals would not allow his patrols to enter El Centro, the bustling markets in the center of the city.

LEYZAOLA: (Through Translator) 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.

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

The allegations from Tijuana that Leyzaola tortured corrupt cops continue to dog him here. He, however, 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.


BEAUBIEN: Leyzaola has a multi-year plan to take back control of Juarez one neighborhood at a time by attacking crime at its roots. He's 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 in Juarez 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.


BEAUBIEN: A few days ago, 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 in the area, says vendors are selling pirated products just to make a living and feed their families.


BEAUBIEN: Tell me, in what part of Mexico, in what part of the world do they not sell pirated goods, Barraza says. He says the new police chief's strategy is all wrong.

The challenges facing Leyzaola are huge. El Centro is just the first neighborhood he's attempted to clean up, and he understands the personal risks too. In the four years of Mexico's drug war, numerous police chiefs, including the country's top federal cop, have been assassinated. Leyzaola has received several threats since arriving in Juarez, one on his personal cell phone. He says he takes the threats against him seriously.

His family is in the United States. He eats all of his meals inside the police station. Every day, he changes his routine. Leyzaola says he knows that one of the key elements of his plan to restore security in Juarez is that he stays alive.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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