InSight: Can Tijuana’s Top Cop Clean Up Juarez?

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The appointment of retired colonel Julian Leyzaola, the controversial former head of Tijuana’s police force, to lead a security crackdown in troubled Juarez raises questions about whether he is the best – or the worst – man for the job.

Leyzaola is a larger-than-life character who makes for a great magazine profiles. He is credited with “cleaning up” Tijuana’s police, mostly by appointing former military officials to high-ranking positions. Under his watch, from 2007 to 2010, security conditions in Tijuana saw some relative improvements: murder rates peaked at over 800 in 2008, then began to steadily drop. Last year, the municipality of Tijuana saw 472 homicides related to organized crime. Not a desirable number by any means, but moderate levels compared to other northern border municipalities, including Ciudad Juarez (2,738 murders), Chihuahua (670) and Culiacan (587).

Leyzaola has been criticized for his hardline methods, allegedly sanctioning the use of torture during interrogations. A better question is how much did Leyzaola’s reforms, which mostly consisted of forcing the sacking of hundreds of corrupt cops, have anything to do with the improved security in Tijuana.

Violence in Tijuana reached a boiling point in 2008 partly because of the same reason why things are so gruesome in Juarez today. That is, the major cartel operating in the city split into rival factions. In Tijuana, a top commander of the Arellano-Felix organization, Teodoro Garcia Simental, alias ‘El Teo,’ split from the Arellano-Felix organization, allegedly with support from the Sinaloa Cartel. Street battles, beheadings, and bodies hung off of bridges soon became the norm. Similarly, in Juarez, violence intensified after a mega cartel, formed by a Juarez-Sinaloa alliance, split apart.

In January 2010, Garcia and his two fight-hand lieutenants were arrested, and a relative calm in Tijuana soon followed. But it is difficult to tell how much this tranquility had to do with Leyzaola’s efforts — which included the firing of hundreds of officers from Tijuana’s 2,000-man police force since 2007 — and how much of it had to do with the dynamics of the drug-trafficking gangs active in the city.

Tellingly, in Ciudad Juarez there have also been multiple efforts to “purge” the security forces, including the recruitment and training of about 2,000 police officers since 2008. There are an estimated 10,000 military and federal police officers currently deployed to the city. But this has had little effect on the staggeringly high murder rate.

The violence in Ciudad Juarez has less to do with the need for police reform (still an urgent priority) and more to do with street battles between gangs who readily sell their services to whichever cartel, be it Sinaloa or Juarez, is the highest bidder. These groups and more are carving up the city block by block, seeking territorial control not just of drug exports to the U.S., but also of the city’s domestic market. It is similiar to the kind of fractured gang violence currently being seen in Colombia, in cities like Medellin or rural areas like Bajo Cauca.

Going into Juarez, Leyzaola has some explaining to do about his record, especially concerning allegations of human rights abuses. Arguably, his “take no prisoners” approach may prove to be what Juarez needs. But to some degree, the violence still being seen in Juarez, Tijuana and across Mexico is the inevitable collateral damage caused by the government’s strategy, which prioritizes the take-down of top cartel leaders, leading to the fragmentation and splintering of the DTOs. Tijuana may be seeing a relative period of calm, but this could almost be in spite of Leyzaola’s efforts, not because of them. 

Mexican Official: ‘Familia’ Paying for ‘Rights’ to Use Tijuana Corridor

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A Mexican security official in the state of Baja California said the Familia Michoacana, once one of Mexico’s strongest drug cartels, pays the rival Tijuana Cartel to use the border city of Tijuana as a staging point to transport drugs into the United States.

According to El Mexicano newspaper, Daniel de la Rosa Anaya, Baja California’s security secretary, said the Familia had a “transitory” or temporary presence in Tijuana, using it only to move drugs to the United States.

De la Rosa made a distinction with the Sinaloa Cartel, which has been fighting with the Tijuana Cartel for control of the region, and which he said has a permanent presence in what remains one of the most important crossing points for drugs and migrants moving north, and guns and cash moving south.

The statement came on the heels of the Mexican army’s capture in Tijuana of Rigoberto Andrande Renteria, alias “El Rigo,” an allegeded Familia operative. 

De la Rosa’s comment presents a confusing picture of a place that remains very much in flux after a vicious battle within the Tijuana Cartel in which one of the group’s top lieutenants, Eduardo Teodoro Garcia Simental, alias “El Teo” or “Tres Letras,” defected to the Sinaloa Cartel. Garcia was captured in January 2010, but the Sinaloa Cartel remains strong in the area.

Authorities say the record siezure of 134 tons of marijuana last November belonged to Sinaloa leader, Ismael Zambada, alias “El Mayo.” But the concentration of such a huge amount of drugs in what was two adjacent warehouses makes it seem as if Sinaloa does not have a commanding presence in a big enough part of the city to spread the load to various staging points. 

Many analysts have surmised that the Tijuana Cartel is on the wane. However, this latest statement that the Familia is paying for the “rights” to move product through its territory, paints a very different picture.

The Familia is one of Mexico’s most ruthless and sophisticated cartels. And while it is reeling after the death in December of its spiritual leader, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, alias “El Mas Loco,” it remains a powerful player in the underworld.

Indeed, what is called in Mexico “derecho de piso,” which roughly translates as the “right to rent,” requires significant control of territory, including the ability to enforce the rules and prices one establishes for its competitors to use the corridor. It is also one of the ways traditional powerhouse cartels operating along the border with the United States have made money.

If Tijuana can collect from the Familia, it could be a sign that it is returning as a major player in the criminal underworld in Mexico.

Tijuana’s Controversial Public Safety Secretary Dismissed

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Julian Leyzaola, Tijuana’s outgoing Secretary of Public Safety, has been dismissed of his duties as a result of human rights concerns, reports El Universal.

Leyzaola, who has held his post since 2008, carries a mixed legacy, with his supporters praising his “get tough” approach to the cartels in the region, and detractors denouncing him as a strongman whose heavy-handed tactics have violated basic civil liberties. Despite the criticism, one thing is clear: Tijuana under Leyzaola has experienced a dramatic decrease in crime.

Leyzaola began his campaign with a series of sweeping reforms, replacing career police officers with former military men and ramping up investigations of corrupt cops in his department.  Partially as a result of his efforts, President Felipe Calderón declared Tijuana a “success story” last month, citing decreased levels of violence.  

However, not everyone in the Mexican government views Leyzaola so positively.  In August of this year the Mexican human rights ombudsman, Heriberto Garcia, issued a report charging that Leyzaola tortured and beat suspected cop killers during investigations. Jorge Sanchez, a police officer who charged with corruption but was later acquitted, is cited in a recent Miami Herald article as saying that a plastic bag was placed over his mouth while his eyes were covered with tape during investigations, and that he was punched in the stomach several times.  As a result of these allegations, Leyzaola will step down, and will be replaced by Gustavo Huerta, his top deputy.

Tijuana Cartel Leaves Ominous Message in Sinaloa Heartland

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Three warning banners were hung yesterday in various locations around Culiacán, the capital city of Sinaloa, each them mocking Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” and Ismael Zambada García, alias “El Mayo,” and signed by the Arellano Félix Organization, also known the Tijuana Cartel, the Sinaloan daily Noroeste reports.

Local police forces received simultaneous anonymous tips reporting the whereabouts of the banners, at which time they were taken down.  One of the banners was hung in front of a military base, representing a symbolic jab at the Sinaloa Cartel, which is rumored to have connections with the Mexican army in some areas.  The banners were hung just days after the Mexican Army freed Zambada’s niece, along with two other female relatives of his who had been kidnapped and held for 20 days in Tijuana.

The message does not bode well for Tijuana, a city that the government has recently touted as a success story in lowering violence and slowing drug traffickers. The Tijuana and Sinaloa Cartels have feuded for 20 years, and there were reports the two had reached a working arrangement in the city just across the border from San Diego. Unfortunately, these banners may point to a new battle brewing.

 

Mexico Army Raids Tijuana Cartel Safehouse

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Acting on an anonymous tip, the Mexican Army cracked down on a safe house used by the Arellano Félix crime syndicate, also known as the Tijuana Cartel, arresting four cartel agents in the operation, reports the Mexican magazine Proceso.

Among those arrested was Julio César Magaña, a cousin of Armando Villarreal Heredia, alias “El Gordo,” who is considered to be a top leader of the Tijuana cartel.  In addition to the arrests, officials have recovered 502 kilograms of marijuana, twelve M-14s, a machine gun, a Barrett M82 rifle capable of firing through light armor, smoke grenades, helmets and several bullet-proof vests.  The discovery comes at a relatively peaceful time for Tijuana, with the government increasingly flaunting the city as a success story in its efforts to stem drug-related violence.

Tijuana Cartel

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The Tijuana Cartel, also known as the Arellano Felix Organization, is based in one of the most strategically important border towns in Mexico, and continues to export drugs even after being weakened by a brutal internal war in 2009.

Edgardo Leyva Escandon, alias ’24’

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Edgardo Leyva Escandon, alias “24” has worked with Mexico’s Tijuana Cartel, also known as the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO), since 1994, and is a specialist in arms and security. The United States has been seeking his capture since at least 2009.

History

Edgardo Levya Escandon, alias “24,” began working with the Tijuana Cartel as an enforcer in 1994. US officials have alleged he was the group’s main ammunition and firearms supplier. He has been on the run since the capture of the Tijuana Cartel’s leader, Javier Arellano Feliz, in 2006.

24 Factbox

DOB: September 17, 1969 Group: Tijuana Cartel Criminal Activities: Assassination, arms trafficking Status: At large Area of Operation: Tijuana, Mexico  

Criminal Activities

According to the United States government, 24 has worked as a sniper, contract killer and arms supplier for the Tijuana Cartel.

Geography

The Tijuana Cartel primarily operates in the city of Tijuana along the US/Mexico border, using its location to smuggle drugs into Southern California.

Allies and Enemies

While the Tijuana Cartel is suspected of having a truce with the Sinaloa Cartel, reports have suggested the two groups may now be at odds.

Prospects

24 is wanted by both the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives and the Drug Enforcement Administration. In October 2009, his assests were frozen under the Kingpin Act, and the US Department of State has offered a $2 million reward for information leading to his arrest.

Fernando Sanchez Arellano, alias ‘El Ingeniero’

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Fernando Sanchez Arellano, alias “El Ingeniero” or “Fernandito,” was the enigmatic head of the Tijuana Cartel, until his capture in June 2014. El Ingeniero is the son of Enedina Arellano Felix, who is the sister of the Arellano Felix brothers – original founders of the Tijuana Cartel.

History

El Ingeniero was born in Tijuana, Mexico in 1977. He is thought to have worked closely with his mother Enedina and was involved in a wide range of criminal activities including drug trafficking, extortion, robbery and kidnapping.

Following the death or captures of many of his brothers, Eduardo Arellano Felix ran the Tijuana Cartel until his own arrest in 2008. Upon Eduardo’s removal the organization split with one faction headed up by El Ingeniero and another by Eduardo Teodoro Garcia Simental, alias “El Teo” or “Tres Letras.” El Teo sought an alliance with the Sinaloa Cartel, while El Ingeniero reportedly allied himself with the Zetas. A bloody feud ensued, but following the arrest of El Teo in January 2010, the organization appeared to consolidate again under El Ingenierio.

El Ingeniero Factbox

DOB: 1977

Group: Tijuana Cartel

Criminal Activities: drug trafficking, extortion, robbery, kidnapping

Status: Captured June 23, 2014

Area of Operation: Tijuana, Mexico

El Ingeniero inherited an organization far weaker than at the height of its power in the 1990s and early 2000s. He also reportedly had trouble keeping his troops from defecting to powerful rival the Sinaloa Cartel, which by then had begun moving into Tijuana in force.

On June 23, 2014, El Ingeniero was arrested in Tijuana by the Mexican Army, leaving his mother Enedina in charge of the cartel. He was captured without a single shot fired. He currently resides in Mexico’s only supermax prison El Altiplano, as his trial continues.

Criminal Activities

El Ingeniero was involved in a wide range of criminal actives but primarily focused on smuggling narcotics from Baja California into Southern California.

Geography

Born in Tijuana, El Ingeniero continued to operate there until his capture.

Allies and Enemies

El Ingeniero feuded with rival Tijuana Cartel faction head El Teo, until the latter’s arrest. He also competed with the Sinaloa Cartel, but the two cartels were thought to have eventually reached a truce.

Prospects

It is highly likely El Ingeniero will receive a lengthy sentence in Mexico and may even be extradited to the United States, as several of his uncles have been.