A gunman Friday shot and seriously wounded a renowned former police chief who battled organized crime in two of Mexico’s most violent border cities, most recently in Ciudad Juarez on the Texas border where Friday’s attack occurred.
Gunmen in a trailing vehicle pulled alongside the parked white Jeep Commander of retired army Lt. Col. Julián Leyzaola shortly after noon, and one of them opened fire on the retired chief, spokesman Arturo Sandoval of the Chihuahua state attorney’s office said. Leyzaola was hit once in the neck and once in the back, Sandoval said in a telephone interview. His wife was in the vehicle but was not hurt.
Leyzaola, who brought a successful law and order campaign to both Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, was in “delicate but stable condition” at the city’s Angeles Hospital, Sandoval said.
The victim and his wife were parked outside a money exchange house in central Ciudad Juarez, preparing to cross the border into El Paso, Texas, when the attack occurred, Chihuahua state deputy prosecutor Jorge González Nicolás told reporters outside the hospital.
One of the assailants got out of the chase vehicle and “fired three times at him with the only three bullets he had in his gun,” which was a .380 pistol, González said. Two of the bullets hit the former police chief.
Leyzaola took over as the secretary of public security in Tijuana in 2008, and gained fame as a law-and-order commander unwilling to negotiate with organized crime bosses even as he was accused of tolerating police torture of suspected criminals.
He swept out corrupt cops on the Tijuana police force, considered one of the most corrupt in a nation of corrupt forces, and took on Baja California’s most feared crime boss, Teodoro “El Teo” García Simental, who was finally arrested in 2009 elsewhere in Baja. Leyzaola ridiculed García after his arrest, saying that he’d “acted like a woman” during his capture.
Three years later, amid a dramatically lower homicide rate in Tijuana, Leyzaola was brought in as police chief in Ciudad Juarez, then known as “Murder City” because of its sky-high homicide rate of some 3,000 killings a year.
Leyzaola served for more than two years, leaving the post in 2013. He oversaw the removal of hundreds of police officers who refused to take lie detector tests or were believed to be on the payroll of crime gangs. By the time of his departure, the homicide rate in the city had plummeted.
Today, Ciudad Juarez has sprung back to life. The city tallied 18 murders in April, the lowest monthly total in a decade, and a sharp reduction from the 10 or so murders a day at the height of the violence as rival drug trafficking gangs clashed in the city.
But charges that Leyzaola tolerated – and perhaps even orchestrated – human rights abuses have dogged the former army officer, who took over as head of a private security firm upon retiring in 2013.
Just this week, the quasi-official National Human Rights Commission said six municipal police officers under Leyzaola’s command executed four Juarez residents on April 24, 2012, and remain on the city’s police force because no investigation was ever opening into the killings.
Leyzaola made a lot of enemies along the border but the motive for his attack on Friday was not immediately clear. Authorities said they arrested two men in a Mitsubishi SUV near the crime scene, and said they suspected one of them, 33-year-old Alonso Cereniel Luna, of being the trigger man against Leyzaola. The driver of the Mitsubishi, 25-year-old Jesús Antonio Castañeda, was also arrested. A small amount of cocaine was found in their vehicle.
Sandoval said the two alleged suspects might have been ordered to kill Leyzaola without knowing his identity.
“A lot of people who are hired guns are told to go out and kill a person in such and such a vehicle,” Sandoval said, and simply carry out the order without caring for further details.