The PRI ruled Mexico for 71 years, until the PAN won in 2000. Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa described the PRI's rule as "the perfect dictatorship" because it was "a camouflaged dictatorship" operating a corrupt government under the camouflage of fervent nationalism and fraud-ridden elections.
Though Pena portrayed himself as the leader of a reformed PRI, a PRI presidency might bring back the Bad Old Days. The PRI's legacy of systemic corruption helped fuel the rise of today's criminal cartels. Mexicans feared Pena's PRI might renew its cozy ties with crime.
Pena insisted he would continue to fight the cartels, but do so differently from Calderon. The gendarmerie was his seemingly concrete political proposal, a commitment to fight the criminal organizations, but with a different instrument.
As a political proposal in the midst of a high-intensity political campaign, Pena's gendarmes proved to be a media success. The suggestion certainly sounded like a new idea, one that would appeal to a public weary of years of brutal violence waged by well-financed criminal syndicates. Yes, of course, well armed paramilitary police, deployed in units with a cool French name!
Pena won the election with 38 percent of the vote.
But a brilliant political ploy doesn't necessarily translate into more successful means of fighting Mexico's wealthy, well-armed and politically protected criminals.
Mexico's current federal police force has gendarme-type capabilities. Mexico's military has units schooled in stability operations, which is a gendarme function, and already fields outstanding special operations units. The federal police have problems with corruption, but why not reform the federal police instead of creating a new organization? Gendarme SWAT teams will likely be manned by military special operations personnel, so why re-invent the capability?
The answer to that question is: but then Pena wouldn't have had a nifty campaign gimmick that helped him get elected.
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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