At a campaign event earlier this month at a hilly neighborhood on Tijuana’s inland outskirts, people of all ages – and one stray dog – gathered around an SUV carrying Julián Leyzaola, the city’s former police chief who’s now running for mayor. He’s promising more safety and less corruption to a city that is yearning for both.

“If you don’t want to vote for me, don’t. But it’s important that you go out and vote,” Leyzaola told the small crowd.

Persuading people to vote is tough in Tijuana, where turnouts are usually low. The election is June 5. A victory for Leyzaola would be noteworthy for several reasons. Here are three things to know about him.

He’s infamously tough on crime.

If there’s one thing Leyzaola is known for, it’s the allegedly ruthless methods he used during tenures as police chief in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez to fight drug trafficking, crime and corruption.

A 2010 New Yorker profile probed claims of extrajudicial methods he used to quell corruption among police ranks. Police officers said they lost jobs, were locked up without trials and forced, under torture, to reveal the names of bad cops.

In 2011, Human Rights Watch issued a report that detailed Leyzaola’s  alleged abuses. It included praise from the then-mayor of Ciudad Juarez, who said he was aware of the torture claims, but not hung up on them.

“(W)hat matters is that (Leyzaola) is getting results, and we Juarenses are very happy with him,” Héctor Murguía Lardizábal said, according to the report.

Leyzaola has denied those and other claims. Now, fighting crime and corruption are two hallmarks of his campaign. “Tijuana con Ley” is his slogan, a play on words. The first three letters of his name spell the Spanish word for “law.”

On a break from a lunch with voters at an-all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet in southeastern Tijuana, Leyzaola said he’ll work with San Diego authorities to fight crime.

Photo by David Maung
Photo by David Maung

“The person who commits a crime in San Diego or the U.S. or does it in Mexico, for me it’s the same thing. Borders don’t make a difference to criminals,” he said in Spanish. “Criminals don’t pay heed to borders, so I don’t think authorities should, either.”

He said Tijuana’s oldest is problem is crime and violence. Its newest? Government corruption. Not that corruption hasn’t been around for a long time, but there’s a new intolerance for it, he said.

“Before, nobody focused on it. Like, ‘The government, yeah, whatever,’” Leyzaola said. “For the past five or six years, it’s like society has been evolving. People aren’t as gullible, they’re not these little lambs, they don’t let themselves be bought like they used to. It’s such an old problem, and we’re just starting to uncover it and realize it’s a real problem.”

A voter at the lunch event, Vera Valenzuela, a mother of two, applauded his “courage.”

“He has his own methods, methods that have been highly criticized, but they are valid,” she said.

She said she’s heard about his brutal track record, and doesn’t object. “If you ask them nicely, they won’t listen,” she said of wrongdoers.

A security guard working at Smart & Final near the border crossing, Oscar Orlando Ortiz, 49, is skeptical of Leyzaola. “He was with the police, and we know police are corrupt,” he said.

What about his promise to fight corruption? “That’s what he says, but who knows? I don’t trust him.”

Raúl Ramírez Baena, a Baja California human rights advocate, told a Mexican news outlet earlier this month that Leyzaola isn’t fit to govern based on what he called his moral failings. Ramírez Baena brought up alleged torture, disappearances, arbitrary executions and detentions and cover-ups of police misconduct.

The torture allegations “are varied and manifold, both against him and the police he was in charge of, and when human rights organizations investigated him, he then covered up and protected them,” he said.

In August, Ramírez Baena said that Leyzaola represents a military current that prioritizes “the use of force and repression” in the effort to stop delinquency and organized crime.

He’s a political outsider in an election where being out is in.

Tijuana’s political power has for the past 30 years wavered between two established national parties: the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI, and the Partido Acción Nacional, or PAN. This election stands out from others because for the first time, independent candidates are able to run.

Leyzaola isn’t an independent, but he is affiliated with the socially conservative Partido Encuentro Social party, which is newer and smaller than the country’s leading parties.

Gonzalo Manrique, a professor at the Universidad Iberoamericana Tijuana and an electoral official, said Tijuana voters are looking for less corruption, more transparency in the management of the budget, and more real decision-making.

The problem with so many candidates – 12 people are running – is that the vote ends up being divided, and it’s not clear if people are voting for candidates and their platforms or against the two-party system.

He has a new empathy for victims.

Last May, two hitmen shot Leyzaola. Leyzaola was in Ciudad Juárez at the time. One bullet damaged his spine and left him paralyzed. He now uses a wheelchair.

In the interview, Leyzaola  said the only thing that’s different about him following the shooting is logistics.

“As far as my personal identity – my way of thinking, my ideology, my philosophy – that didn’t change,” he said. “It changed my life in other ways. Physically. I can’t run anymore, I can’t do sports anymore.”

But after some reflection, he said his vision is more holistic, and the experience has made him more human.

Society invests a lot in rehabilitating criminals and forgets about victims, he said.

“Before, I regarded all crimes as an authority figure, not as a victim,” he said. “Now I view them from both points of view, as an authority figure and as a victim. Now I know what it takes to be an effective authority figure, so victims don’t feel abandoned, marginalized.”

At the campaign event in that hilly Tijuana suburb, people walked over to him as he stayed in the car. They brought up concerns about their colonia and complained about a stream that needs to be redirected.

“I’m not going there, because I can’t get through. Because of the issue with the chair,” he said. He urged them to share their concerns with a candidate running for a different position. “I can’t get there, but he can. Tell him.”

Leyzaola said people view him as a ticket to change. “People are putting their hopes in me,” he said. “You’re going to change things?” they ask him anxiously. “They’re worried they’re going to be betrayed.”

Photo by David Maung
Photo by David Maung

Talking about problems in their colonia, voters sounded eager and exhausted at the same time.

“We hope we’re going to have your support after the voting, because if things stay the same, there’s no point,” one woman told Leyzaola . “It’s that so many people have come here and talked, but they did nothing.”

Another woman said she’s tired of candidates’ lies.

“Whenever there are elections, they come and make promises,” another woman said. “I didn’t want to come to see the other parties’ people because I don’t trust anyone anymore. But people told me you’re a man of your word. So I came today.”

Roxana Popescu is a freelance reporter. She writes about real estate for The New York Times, investigative news for inewsource and she was previously a...

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