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AP IMPACT: Tijuana's drug war focuses on police

EDITOR'S NOTE: AP reporter Elliot Spagat follows Tijuana's new public safety chief, Julian Leyzaola, for eight months as he launches the city's most aggressive police reform to date, in the middle of a raging drug war.

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TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) — Behind every crime is a corrupt cop.

That's Public Safety Chief Julian Leyzaola's mantra as he storms Tijuana with its most aggressive police reform to date, a mix of counterterrorism and community policing. If it works, it could be a model for other hotspots and a huge breakthrough in a drug war in Mexico that has taken more than 14,000 lives in the last three years.

But the job is as monumental as turning around Al Capone's Chicago. Cops in this border city and many others nationwide now serve as the eyes and ears of drug lords. And those who fight the cartels often end up dead.

The Associated Press followed Leyzaola for eight months as he rallied troops, consoled officers' widows and appealed to jaded residents for support. The AP joined commanders and officers on patrol, at target practice and in training classes, tracking firsthand Leyzaola's intended reforms.

Leyzaola, 49, joined Tijuana police in 2007, after 25 years in the army and stints running Baja California's state prisons and police. A year ago, he became head of the largest police force in Baja, where 90 percent of officers surveyed last year failed federal security checks.

"Listen well," the retired military officer says with his trademark certitude. "No delinquent can survive without help from the authorities. If you do not clean up the police, you will never get rid of drug trafficking."

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The march to recapture the city starts in early 2009 and expands to a new district every three months. The plan is to end in 2011 in the east, the city's most violent section, where Teodoro "El Teo" Garcia Simental wages a vicious campaign to take over Tijuana's drug trade.

Leyzaola draws his strategy from many sources, including French counterterrorism operations in Algeria in the 1950s and Colombia's war against its cartels in the '90s. He has $7 million in federal funding this year.

The plan for each district: Make a slew of arrests. Then replace beat cops with officers who pass intensive background checks and put in former military officers as commanders. They patrol small areas in new pickup trucks and are responsible for whatever happens in their area.

First up is downtown Tijuana.

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Felipe Gandara, 37, is one of 400 Tijuana officers who passed the new training and background checks for downtown. In March, he begins by introducing himself at every bank, foreign-exchange business and restaurant.

"It's important to lose your anonymity," Leyzaola says. "I believe police abused their positions because no one knew who they were."

Gandara likes Leyzaola's approach.

"It was a complete change, a lot more responsibility," Gandara says. "Every crime is your responsibility."

Victor de la Cruz, the former Air Force officer appointed to oversee the launch, estimates a 40 percent increase in people reporting crimes in little more than a month.

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The same month, Leyzaola's bodyguard of 18 months, Ricardo Omar Medina, is among 130 officers caught in an anti-corruption spree.

Medina receives a call late one March night to report to Leyzaola at 8 a.m. for a new radio. When he arrives, his boss demands his vest, badge and other equipment.

"I've lost trust in you," Leyzaola tells him.

About 250 were fired or pressured to resign. When Leyzaola suspects cops are dirty, he puts them on patrol in the palm trees outside police headquarters — a job that humiliates most into quitting.

According to court documents, one of the officers arrested in March said he got $500 a month from El Teo's gang to keep streets clear of cops during murders and kidnappings. If he refused, his family would be killed. Another officer said he was paid $300 to $500 each time he released criminals at El Teo's command.

Leyzaola likes confronting them personally — in his office, at their stations, even on patrol. He sometimes drives them himself to the army barracks, where they are held.

Families of the officers come forward immediately with allegations of torture — electrocuted genitals, near-suffocation, severe beatings Leyzaola says he is not responsible for what happened to officers in army custody.

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The threats start on April 24, broadcast over Tijuana's old police radios that drug traffickers routinely commandeer: If Leyzaola doesn't resign, cops will die.

Three days later, Officer Luis Izquierdo, Gandara's former partner and mentor, is on the night shift, patrolling the San Diego border with three other cops. He walks into a convenience store just as a caravan of black SUVs drives by. Men get out of the vehicles and pump Izquierdo and three others with more than 200 bullets.

The police scanners hum with a "narcocorrido," or a drug ballad. Three more officers go down in synchronized attacks across the city.

Gandara picks up the radio traffic and calls his wife.

"Luis is dead," he says.

She calls Izquierdo's wife to break the news: Seven officers killed in 45 minutes.

It is the department's deadliest day.

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The next day, Leyzaola stops the community policing, less than two months into the program. His officers are too exposed. They turn to patrolling large areas in convoys of as many as six trucks.

The department's 2,000 officers get two-week courses on securing crime scenes, surveilling suspects and other basic policing techniques.

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The tip comes in early June: Drug trafficker Filiberto Parra Ramos — wanted for killing two federal agents and for his role in one of Tijuana's deadliest shootouts — is spotted in Playas de Tijuana. The army already is out looking.

Leyzaola joins the massive search for him.

After a false alarm, Parra is cornered at a shopping center near the airport. Leyzaola personally makes the arrest — nabbing one of El Teo's top assassins without firing a single shot.

The hits ramp up in July.

The body of Officer Geronimo Calderon, pumped with bullets, is left with a note: "If you don't resign, Leisaola (sic), I'm going to kill 5 x week."

That night, a Tijuana cop survives an assassination attempt as he stands unarmed outside a grocery store. An officer dies in drive-by shooting the next day while guarding a Mexican Red Cross center, and a third is killed five days later in an ambush.

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By September, funerals are part of Leyzaola's routine.

Leyzaola is also quietly campaigning to keep his job after his boss, Mayor Jorge Ramos, is forced out by term limits in December 2010.

"We're really only in our first year," he says. "In two years, Tijuana will see a real difference."

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After the September killings, Leyzaola moves his campaign to Playas de Tijuana three months earlier than scheduled.

The district gets new radios and 58 new Ford F250s. They had 14 patrol vehicles before.

All over the city, cops are scared. They routinely patrol with their rifles drawn.

Officer Mario Pena, who worked the district where Izquierdo died, stops wearing his uniform to work and alternates his routes home. He quits meeting officers for coffee on the job, stops socializing with them on weekends for fear they will be recognized and gunned down.

But he says the killings are a sign that Leyzaola is succeeding.

"We are finishing off the mafia," he says.

El Teo has other plans.

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By the end of September, the Mexican army gets another tip: U.S. authorities say a weapons purchase north of the border indicates a plot is afoot to kill Leyzaola.

The intelligence leads soldiers in October to a Tijuana shoe shop, where they arrest Edgar Zuniga, one of El Teo's men. Zuniga leads them to a ranch on the eastern outskirts, where the assassins' vehicles are being painted in camouflage to trick Leyzaola as they approach.

The plan calls for 12 men to approach Leyzaola in a fake military convoy as one takes him out with a .50-caliber rifle. The execution would be videotaped, set to a narcocorrido and posted on the Internet.

Soldiers surprise the planners Oct. 31 in a shootout at the ranch, arresting 13 suspects. They seize more than 3,400 bullets, plus the camouflaged vehicles.

The foiled hit had been personally ordered by El Teo for Nov. 1.

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In Leyzaola's first year as public safety director, 32 officers died, more than in the previous five years total. Dozens went to jail and the department shrunk from about 2,200 to 2,000 — forcing him to extend patrol shifts from eight to 12 hours.

His community policing plan is still on hold.

But Leyzaola already is looking to next year, planning to hire 150 new officers, send 50 at a time to train with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and issue new bulletproof vests, each backed by a manufacturer's $50 million guarantee. He hopes to restart community policing early in 2010.

He avoids speculating on what would have happened if the plot had gone through. Leyzaola is a man who only moves forward.

"God protects me," he says.

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