CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — Ciudad Juárez, the world’s deadliest city a decade ago, just got a new police chief. And one of the first promises he made was to protect residents—from abuses by the police.
César Omar Muñoz, 44, who began his second term as the city’s police chief on Wednesday, arrives with baggage: a history of allegations that he has committed human rights abuses and that he has ties to criminal organizations.
He was reappointed by the city's new mayor, who called him an “admirable and respected man” for his work. Muñoz, a lawyer with a master’s degree in citizen security, has a long career in police investigations for the city and the state of Chihuahua, home to Ciudad Juárez.
In 2016, during Muñoz’s first term as police chief, the department became the first in Latin America to obtain a certification from the Institute for Security and Democracy (INSYDE) that guarantees that the department complies with 52 national and international law enforcement standards.
But the recent praise from Mayor Cruz Pérez Cuellar glossed over Muñoz’s troubled history: Human rights organizations have accused him of torture and abuse of power, and he was arrested in 2008 by Mexico’s defense ministry and accused of collaborating with drug cartels.
Muñoz was detained for a couple of hours and then freed after much pressure by Chihuahua’s state attorney general at the time, Patricia González.
The appointment by Pérez Cuellar, who is a member of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Morena party, raises red flags for human rights groups, who say they fear that Ciudad Juárez could return to the dynamic of human rights abuses by police forces that occurred during Muñoz’s first term.
From 2008 to 2011, Ciudad Juárez—which is across the border from El Paso in the U.S.— was known as the murder capital of the world, after homicides surpassed 133 per 100,000 inhabitants. In 2010 alone, there were more than 3,000 killings inside the city limits.
After 2011, homicide rates began to descend steadily. There were several theories behind the fall. Some experts said the Sinaloa Cartel won the turf battle for the city against its enemy, the Cartel de Juárez, while others said the decline was the result of the gangs’ fragmentation, which led to a de facto truce when it became clear that no single group could dominate the city’s drug trade.
But while Ciudad Juárez has for the most part left its history of violence behind, the new police appointment has brought back ugly memories.
In 2014, the Paso del Norte Human Rights Center accused Muñoz of maintaining “a policy of unjustified imprisonment, forced entry to private homes, torture, sexual assault, and an arrogant attitude,” during his first year as police chief.
Diana Morales, who served as the lead lawyer in charge of the center from 2013 to 2019, said that the human rights group, along with the Human Rights Commission for Chihuahua state, registered an increase of 500 percent in complaints against the local police for human rights abuses.
“Muñoz has been one of the violence generators in Juarez,” Morales told VICE World News. “We had 150 complaints a year against them [local police], and what worries me is that we will be seeing this all over again.”
One formal complaint against Muñoz and his police force accused them of “kidnapping, threatening” and taking people to “unknown facilities” after a protest in Ciudad Juárez in 2016, according to a report by the state human rights commission. The protest took place during a Mexican May Day celebration to demand better labor conditions in the city, especially for the workers in its hundreds of manufacturing plants.
In response, Muñoz denied any abuses by his police officers and blamed the protesters for “inciting violent acts.” Despite the violations in the complaint, the human rights commission did not recommend legal action against Muñoz or any of his officers.
Although Ciudad Juárez’s city council voted on Friday to approve Muñoz’s appointment, Amparo Beltrán a council member from the conservative party National Action Party, said his party would request that Muñoz “avoid abusing human rights as part of his job as the new chief of police.”
In a press conference after taking office, Muñoz acknowledged the complaints. “We will work on it,” he said in response to a question from VICE World News. “My first instruction to my team was to first protect themselves, and to respect all human rights of our citizens. My main effort will be to bring the city security, and that’s what my office will do,” he said.
An FBI special agent in El Paso who asked not to be named because he isn’t authorized to speak to the media confirmed to VICE World News that Muñoz was investigated in 2008 by his office and again in 2016 for “alleged torture and links to criminal organizations in the region.”
“We can’t act against” Mexican officials, the agent said. But U.S. investigators can “collect information on any politician accused of corruption, human rights abuses, or working with criminal organizations,” the agent said.
Ciudad Juárez has a history of problematic police chiefs.
From 2010 to 2013, Leyzaola, a former lieutenant colonel in the Mexican army, served as chief of the Ciudad Juárez police after wrapping up a bumpy term as police chief in Tijuana. In 2015, during a short visit to Ciudad Juárez, Leyzaola was shot twice, including once in the head. He survived the attack and, from his hospital bed, he accused Muñoz's second in command of being behind the attempted murder.
Speaking to local media outlets, Leyzaola said that the gunman shouted as he fired that he was sending “a message” from José Antonio Reyes Ramírez, who was then Muñoz’s chief of operations at the police force.
Muñoz denied the accusation in statements to the media and he backed Reyes Ramírez, saying he’d always operated within the law.
But Chihuahua’s state congress called for a resolution to remove both Muñoz and Reyes from their positions. The legislators said that Muñoz had been “investigated by the U.S. government for serious human rights violations,” although they could have been referring to a routine vetting procedure that appeared in a WikiLeaks report.
In 2008, another Juárez chief of police was arrested across the border in El Paso on drug trafficking charges.
“I know every new mayor is looking to solve the security issues we have faced year after year,” said Morales. “But they are all looking to fight violence with knockout punches, and it obviously hasn’t worked.”