Austin Bay
During last year's Mexican presidential campaign, then-candidate and now President Enrique Pena Nieto argued that Mexico needed a new, specially trained and heavily armed police force.

This organization, which Pena dubbed the National Gendarmerie, would have the military organization and equipment to win a high-intensity firefight with cartel gunmen. Its personnel would also be trained to police threatened communities, with the goal of reducing criminal violence.

Pena said these gendarme units would eventually relieve the Mexican Army soldiers and Mexican Navy marines of the complex task of battling the drug cartels. The military could then concentrate on national defense.

It appears Mexico will have its new paramilitary corps. Commitment 76 of Pena's national pact, issued in early December, says his new administration will establish a gendarme force as "a territorial control corps" with authority throughout the country.

Throughout the campaign, Pena's gendarme initiative attracted both praise and criticism from law enforcement officers and military experts. Community police can't handle the criminal violence plaguing Mexico. The threat hasn't (yet) reached the level of conventional military combat operations. Gendarmes might fill the niche.

Gendarme units are what security specialists call formed police units manned by policemen carrying military weapons and trained for military-type operations. Gendarmes can deploy in military formations (platoons, companies, etc). Local police usually respond as single officers or in pairs.

Several NATO nations field gendarmes forces, most notably France, Italy, Turkey and Spain. Pena said Spain's Guardia Civil was a good model for his gendarme corps. Italy's Carabinieri fought communist terrorist groups in the 1970s. Turkish gendarmes battle Kurdistan Workers Party guerrillas. Though Mexico's "high-intensity criminal insurgency" differs from Italy's and Turkey's internal security challenges, the drug cartels use terrorist and guerrilla tactics. In theory, Pena had a point.

The bottom line question nagging informed supporters of his proposal as well as its many critics was this: Why can't this force be created within existing police or military organizations?

The answer was, and still is, current forces could handle the mission -- but more on that in a moment.

Pena, however, faced a high-intensity political problem. Mexican voters, as disappointed as they were with President Felipe Calderon's National Action Party and unconvinced by the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), remained deeply suspicious of Pena's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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