Juarez City police chief Julian Leyzaola replaced a top security aide considered one of his most trusted confidants, although he said the decision had nothing to do with a recent surge in violence that left three police officers dead the past week.
Juarez Municipal Public Security Secretary Alejandro Rodriguez Zepeda will be replaced with the current director of the city police academy. Leyzaola cited stress as a reason for the change in command, telling city newspaper El Mexicano that Rodriguez was given "a little vacation, he needed a break, he spent a lot of time [in the postion]." Zepeda held the position for a year.
The dismissal came after Juarez saw one of the most significant series of attacks against police officers since March, when five police were ambushed and killed. The past seven days have seen a total of six attacks, with three agents killed and at least another four injured, according to El Diario de Juarez's count. The attacks started on December 7, when Leyzaola left Juarez for the weekend and left Rodriguez in command.
Juarez Cartel enforcer gang La Linea have been blamed for the recent violence. A source told the El Paso Times that the current violence is a "confrontation" between the municipal police and a faction of La Linea still loyal to former commander Jose Antonio Acosta Hernández, alias "El Diego," who is currently in a US prison.
Rodriguez will reportedly continue working for the Municipal Public Secretariat in some capacitiy, although it is not yet clear in what role. He was a member of Leyzaola's inner circle in Tijuana, where Leyzaola once served as the Secretary of Public Security, and is credited with cleaning up the local police force and bringing down violence rates. Zepeda was among 16 officials chosen to accompany Lezaola when he was appointed chief of security in Juarez in 2012.
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While Leyzaola said that Zepeda's dismissal was unrelated to the police attacks, the fact that violence spiked in Juarez during Leyzaola's brief absence may feed the impression that Leyzaola's presence alone helps keep a relative calm in the city. Violence in Juarez has been steadily decreasing since 2010, a trend which appeared to accelerate after Leyzaola took office. However, it is debatable how much that decrease in violence is due to pressure from law enforcement, and how much of it is due to the fact that the Sinaloa Cartel now controls Juarez.
The series of attacks against police is reminiscent of the threats made when Leyzaola arrived in Juarez earlier this year. Several banners signed by criminal organizations promised to murder one police officer a day until Leyzaola stepped down, prompting the city to temporarily house the municipal police force in hotels out of safety concerns. The current rash of killings could arguably be interpreted as another challenge to Leyzaola's authority, who presents himself as an aggressive hardliner against the cartels.