As murders plummet in Juarez, controversial police chief earns praise

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico - In the first days of December, there were no murders reported in Ciudad Juarez, a remarkable change for a city that earned the title of Mexico's murder capital.

"Totally, 180 degrees," said Police Chief Julian Leyzaola.

In a candid interview at his office in police headquarters, the chief talked about his crime-fighting strategy.

"We had to clash with criminal groups, fight with them and show them we are stronger," Leyzaola said.

The chief said when he took the job in March 2011, cartel criminals controlled the streets. And his officers had to retake the city by force. He did this by dividing Juarez into sectors.

But he chief had another fight on his hands when he took the job: the battle to weed out corruption within the ranks.

"The first thing a commander has to do to effect real change is clean up the force," Leyzaola said.

He has fired 800 officers; Some were dirty cops on the payroll of drug cartels.

"And now that we have 800 fewer officers, crime is controlled," Leyzaola said. "It seems incredible."

There are now 1,800 officers on the force.

But as the murder rate fell, complaints about excessive force and human rights abuses have increased.

On Thursday afternoon, a small crowd gathered as police got into a scuffle as they tried to pick up two men and force them into the back of a police pickup truck along with an older woman. Witnesses said the men were drinking in public.

"Instead of protecting the city, they're abusing people," said Sandra Ortiz, while cradling her baby in her arms.

She was among the onlookers who were disturbed by the scene outside the cathedral and shouted at the officers.

In February, police wounded a nine-year-old boy when they mistakenly fired on the car he was riding in with his mother. Those offices faced charges after they allegedly tried to cover it up.

The chief said he won't tolerate excessive force, but makes no apologies for the treatment of criminal suspects.

"They're not angels," he said. "They're people who shoot at us, resist arrest."

He admits some criminal suspects complain about beatings and torture.

"When it comes to the use of force, it's a thin line between what is legal and illegal," Leyzaola said. And he said that thin line is not defined by Mexican law.

Leyzaola faced complaints when he was the police chief of Tijuana, but drug violence also dropped in that city when he was in charge of the police force.

Now that violent crime is down in Juarez, the chief says he's putting the second phase of his plan into action. Officers will shift to community policing and neighborhood committees will help evaluate their performance.

While the police chief has his critics, many Juarez residents who saw their city become a battleground for rival cartels give him credit for restoring law and order.

"There are more police on the streets, more security," said Minerva Gomez, as she watched her one-year-old daughter play near the fountain outside the cathedral.

"[The chief has] done a good job," Humerto Corral said.

But others question whether murders are down because one cartel won the bloody turf battle for the border city.

"What did they win? Because I've gone after both," said the chief, referring to the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels.

And he vowed to take on others if necessary.

"They can be called La Linea, Chapo, los Caballeros or the Zetas. They're all criminals," Leyzaola said. "I'm not interested in what they're called."

Leyzaola has faced death two threats. The former military officer sleeps at the army base in Juarez. His family lives in the U.S.

The first few days of December, there were with no murders in Juarez. Now that killings have fallen to their lowest level in years, other cities coping with violence want to hire the police chief.

He said his strategy can be replicated.

"It can be applied anywhere, and not just at the city level, but also state and federal," Leyzaola said.

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