SAN DIEGO – Tijuana's mayor-elect said Friday that he will replace the border city's top cop, who launched an unprecedented campaign to loosen the grip of drug cartels on what has been one of Mexico's most corrupt police forces.
But in a sign of continuity, Julian Leyzaola will be succeeded as public safety secretary by his closest aide, Gustavo Huerta, when the mayor's term begins Tuesday.
Both men are retired military officers. As police director, Huerta stood alongside Leyzaola as he blanketed the western half of the city with vetted officers and new equipment and put career military commanders in charge. Leyzaola's cleanup strategy saw the purge of hundreds of allegedly corrupt cops.
Mayor-elect Carlos Bustamante picked the 42-year-old Huerta because he knows Tijuana well and is positioned to build on recent successes, said Bustamante's spokeswoman, Socorro Castillo. Bustamante announced the appointment at a meeting of top regional security officials at an army base.
Huerta has kept a low profile compared to Leyzaola, who relished in calling Tijuana's drug lords cockroaches, scum and dirty fat pigs.
Leyzaola, 50, took the helm in December 2008 when the city across from San Diego was in the throes of the worst violence it had ever seen, marked by daytime shootouts, beheadings and bodies hanging from freeway bridges.
He has won praise from Mexican President Felipe Calderon, U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pasqual, Tijuana's business elite and others who have held up the city as a model in the government's fight against drug cartels.
Not all is praise. Leyzaola has been dogged by allegations of police brutality.
The state human rights ombudsman, Heriberto Garcia, issued a report in August charging that Leyzaola participated in the beatings of suspected cop killers. Some police officers who were charged with corruption say they were badly beaten in army custody following their detention by Leyzaola or his underlings.
Leyzaola began his campaign to recapture Tijuana in early 2009, focusing on one district at a time. First, a strike force moves into an area, making a slew of arrests. Then, beat cops are replaced by officers who have undergone intensive background checks. Former military officers with no police experience take over as district commanders.
Leyzaola poured money into each district that got a makeover, sending in new patrol cars and radios less susceptible to being infiltrated by drug traffickers. Earlier this month, he launched his reforms in the sixth of the city's 11 districts.
Following Bustamante's election, Leyzaola said he expected to be replaced and offered to help a like-minded successor see his plan through.
"I know he doesn't want to keep me," Leyzaola said of the mayor-elect. He urged Bustamante to "at least put another military person, someone who speaks the same language as me."