Across Mexico, the human toll of the drug wars over the past few years is thought to be nearing 30,000. In Tijuana alone, almost 500 people were killed in just the last three months of 2008, many of them strung up in public as a warning to others.

The killings haven’t stopped. But their numbers have dropped and, as journalist William Finnegan writes in this week’s New Yorker magazine, “the great Tijuana drug war” seems to be over. Much of the credit may go to police Chief Julián Leyzaola Pérez, a retired Army officer who wields so much machismo that he once punched the corpse of a dead drug trafficker in the face.

But, as Finnegan writes, Leyzaola’s own hands may not be clean.

I interviewed Finnegan by phone about Tijuana’s violence, allegations of torture in the police force and the threat looming over the city’s future.

Who’s affected the most by the violence in Tijuana?

The death toll was so high a couple years ago, and it’s still quite high. It’s largely among people involved in drug trafficking and other parts of organized crime.

But obviously, there are passersby who can get hurt in some of these shootouts and when the crimes extend to kidnapping for ransom, for instance, or extortion of businesses. That’s how it reaches straight into the general population: through families and businesses who have nothing to do with organized crime.

On this side of the border, we think of organized crime through the prism of Chicago in the 1920s and The Sopranos. Is it different in Tijuana?

In essence, I don’t think it is different.

The drug trafficking organizations, the big cartels, have branched out into a lot of areas of criminal activity that don’t involve drugs: human smuggling, money laundering, prostitution, murder for hire, kidnapping for ransom, extortion of businesses. They’ve diversified, and some don’t even make the majority of their profits from the drug business. In the end, they look a lot like the organized crime here.

But they have tremendous reach into government, probably more than we probably ever experienced in the U.S.

Public corruption is essential to success in organized crime. They’ve managed to corrupt many branches of government with their tremendous wealth.

What’s different now than a couple years ago?

What’s changed in Tijuana and makes it unusual in Mexican cities, particularly among border cities, is that public security has improved over the past couple of years.

The city was caught in a full-fledged gang war in 2007 and 2008, a level of danger that was really off the charts with whole restaurants being taken hostage. That’s no longer true. It’s considered the rare success story in the general context of rising drug violence.

You focus on the police chief. Has he made a big difference in people’s lives?

Some people give him a lot of credit — the big businessmen in Tijuana who were moving their families to the United States. They really tend to credit Leyzaola with the improvement of public security.

In general, my man-on-the-street survey didn’t turn up the kind of support I expected to find. People were more cynical. They agreed the streets had gotten safer, but people didn’t tend to credit him as much as I thought they might.

In a Hollywood version of the drug wars, he’d be a hero. But people tended to tell me that the cartels were fighting among themselves, there were different gangs sorting out their differences, and that the greater peace is a sign that some of the more violent characters had been removed from the scene.

You write that the police chief has become a very public face of law enforcement. But at the same time, his actions within his own department have raised questions.

He personally put himself on the line by publicly challenging the narcos. He had a lot of success: he managed to stay alive and make it uncomfortable for the narcos to parade around in their armored SUV convoys waving their AK-47s.

He said his most important achievement by far was an anti-corruption campaign within the police. The depuración, or purification, of the police has been a big project: He told me he’d smoked out 600 bad cops, arrested them or forced them to resign, out of a police force of 2,000.

But there was very little if any serious investigation of police corruption, and the whole process seemed to proceed by torture. In the end, I did believe the testimony of the torture victims I talked to.

Despite all the violence in Mexico, border cities like San Diego and El Paso have low crime rates. Why hasn’t violence crossed over to the U.S.?

It’s pretty striking, especially because of all the noise you hear in politics about the violent crime associated with illegal immigration and so on.

But that isn’t to say that Mexican mafias with extensive drug trafficking operations in the United States aren’t in a very rough business, and there’s not plenty of violence associated with that business.

It’s sometimes said that cartels based in border cities, like the Arellano-Felix organization in Tijuana, are careful not to perpetrate violent crime in the neighboring U.S. cities because they tend to have their families living there. I can’t prove that’s the pattern, but that’s a theory I’ve often heard.

Has your work given you any insight into what would happen if marijuana was legalized in California?

It would depend a lot on the form of legalization and the scope.

If the United States as a whole was to legalize marijuana to some extent and regulate production and distribution in a serious way, the way that is done with alcohol and tobacco, that could really hurt the Mexican cartel’s business. Their product would remain illegal, and they would certainly be completing with an affordable and legal product.

With the kind of piecemeal legalization you see going in the U.S., half-legal here and semi-legal there, you could still end up with a situation where the Mexican drug trafficking organizations are supplying marijuana to American users who are in a situation where there’s been some legalization, and they may be getting high quite legally. That doesn’t mean that pot hasn’t gotten some blood on it from the long trail from its production to its ultimate sale.

This has been a brutally violent week in Tijuana. What’s the future of violence in the city?

There have been predictions that the Sinaloa Cartel, the most powerful trafficking cartel in Mexico, sees the Araellano-Felix cartel as having been weakened — which it has — and is now planning to make a major move on Tijuana the way they did on Ciudad Juarez, leading to incredible violence. God forbid that should happen.

• • •

The New Yorker also has a podcast of Blake Eskin talking with Finnegan about his story.

Interview conducted and edited by Randy Dotinga, who can be reached at Follow him on Twitter:

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at and follow him on Twitter:

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