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Police chief in Ciudad Juarez claims Mexican feds tried to kill him

Julian Leyzaola Juarez police chief

The police chief of Ciudad Juarez has alleged that officers with Mexico's Federal Police attempted to kill him during a chaotic operation on Monday night, ratcheting up an increasingly bitter turf war over who gets to police the troubled border city.

Police Chief Julian Leyzaola said that Federal Police officers fired on his vehicle without warning during a massive police response to a series of shootouts late Monday in the municipal prison. In a statement, the Federal Police said Leyzaola's vehicle had crossed a security line, "out of protocol," while federal authorities attempted to contain what they called a possible prison break.

One television news crew caught a federal officer saying "Who was that?" when Leyzaola's convoy passed, the El Paso Times reported.

"Why did they fire at me?" Leyzaola said during a news conference Wednesday (link in Spanish). "This was a secured zone. They had no reason to fire on me."

The spat suggests another breakdown of coordination among security forces in Ciudad Juarez, where more than 8,000 people have died since the flare-up of narco-related violence in 2008. It's not the first time such an incident has grabbed headlines; federal and local police officers have openly confronted each other at crime scenes in the past (link in Spanish).

Leyzaola, a former military officer, most recently served as "top cop" in Tijuana, where he was praised by U.S. authorities for significantly bringing down the crime rate. But for the international human-rights community, the chief is a red flag.

In Tijuana he faced allegations of routine torture of police officers suspected of corruption. Less than a month into the job in Ciudad Juarez, as The Times reported, he again faced claims from human-rights lawyers, this time for unlawfully rounding up and disappearing suspects.

Seventeen people died in the Monday night incident in Juarez, including one woman. Eleven of the victims were not serving sentences but in "preventive" detention, in most cases for just days or weeks before their deaths, reports El Diario de Juarez (link in Spanish). Surveillance footage from inside the prison showed masked gunmen with assault weapons firing into the temporary cell where those 11 inmates reportedly died. Six others were killed in other cells, reports said.

Leyzaola filed a court claim against the Federal Police on Wednesday. He's also calling for the federal force stand down and leave the local police work to him, but President Felipe Calderon's top national security spokesman said Wednesday that the agency has been successful in the city and will not be leaving.

In June, Leyzaola survived an alleged assassination attempt in downtown Juarez. He reportedly survived four assassination attempts during his time in Tijuana. In a U.S. diplomatic cable from 2009 that was leaked earlier this year, a U.S. official wrote of allegations that Leyzaola favored one cartel capo over another as they battled for Tijuana's smuggling route.

Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Lt. Col. Julian Leyzaola, former police chief in Tijuana, is sworn in Ciudad Juarez in March. Credit: Agence-France Presse.

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