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Spinning With Mexico's New Gendarmes

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
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).

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.

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