The Benefits of a Paramilitary Force in Mexico

Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the Baker Institute blog as part of its Viewpoints series. It is republished with permission.

The benefits of a Mexican gendarmerie

Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto is starting his six-year presidential term with plans for a new paramilitary police force. The Gendarmería Nacional will initially consist of 10,000 officers. Originally proposed during his campaign with a target of 40,000 officers, the current plan was announced during a session of the National Security Council (Consejo Nacional de Seguridad) and the force is slated to police the contested plazas and regions impacted by insecurity.

Mexico’s security situation

Mexico has been embroiled in a complex drug war leading to a mix of high intensity crime and non-state armed conflict. Started under Vicente Fox, the conflict accelerated in 2006 under the administration of Felipe Calderón.  Drug cartels and gangs threatened civil order, challenged state forces and embraced extreme violence and barbarism to ward off interference from the state. High casualty rates—with deaths perhaps exceeding 100,000—combined with brutal beheadings, dismemberments, social cleansing leading to about 20,000 missing and a combination of refugees and internally displaced persons, were accompanied by direct infantry assaults on the police and military from cartels.

Car bombings, narco-tanks, and military-style tactics led to a situation where the civil police were outgunned. The military (both the army and Navy known by their respective Spanish acronyms, SEDENA and SEMAR) were deployed to stabilize the situation and contain the de factocriminal insurgency.’ Corruption, impunity, and human rights violations complicate the situation. Kidnapping, extortion (collection of street taxes), and murder threaten the civil peace.  Police, corrections and judicial reform have become complicated and slow-moving necessities.  The Federal Police under the Secretary of Public Security (SSP) has been the primary federal law enforcement entity to respond, but military-style assaults and street battles waged by the gangsters have led them to become more of a formed police unit or gendarmerie than a community oriented law enforcement organ.  Similarly, the military and naval forces deployed to the conflict lack police skills, and have been accused of human rights violations.  Local and state police are often inadequately prepared and have lingering corruption and transparency challenges. Relations between the military and police are complex and sometimes strained in this complex conflict environment.

Why a gendarmerie?

Skeptics may ask “why a gendarmerie?”  The new 10,000 strong force will draw most of its initial complement from the military with the army (about 5,000 soldiers), and navy (about 2,000 sailors) contributing the bulk, require new statutory authority, and cost about $1.5 billion Pesos (US$ 117.4 million) for start-up in 2013 alone. Is this worth it? Indeed, respected security analyst Alejandro Hope, writing at InSight Crime, suggests that a gendarmerie may not be the right solution for Mexico’s security gap.  Hope notes that the new Gendarmería Nacional, as described in commitment #76 of the “Pact for Mexico” (the president’s new security plan), would create “a territorial body that allows the exercise of the sovereignty of the Mexican State [federal government] in all corners of the country regardless of their distance, isolation or weak state.”  Hope then outlines three objections to the new force: 1) there is no need for a rural police force, 2) there are insufficient potential qualified recruits for the force which would compete for resources and personnel from other police agencies, 3) It would create dual, competing national police forces (i.e., fragmentation).

Gary Hale, a drug policy fellow at the Baker Institute and former chief of intelligence for the Houston field division of the Drug Enforcement Administration , also questioned the rationale for a Mexican gendarmerie in previous Baker Institute Viewpoints blog.  For Hale, the question is will the force be effective, will it sap resources from other initiatives, and can it be made combat effective in enough time?  Hale also raises questions about command and control and relations with other police forces (at state, local, and federal levels). He concluded that if “properly trained, equipped and commanded, National Guard [i.e., gendarmerie] units in Mexico could serve to augment the offensive military forces that are needed to complement federal and state police forces.”

Filling the “security gap”

The police and military have different roles and core capabilities in democratic societies. The military frequently is challenged by the ambiguities of community policing.  On the other hand community police are challenged by intense combat.  Police are generally structured to work in one or two-person patrols and often lack the capacity to work in the formed units needed to counter armed, infantry-style assaults.  The Mexican military (both army and naval forces) has been used in the drug war to fill the gap in high intensity crime and in combat against non-state actors. This was a necessary step, but at best, a short-term solution. Military forces are not configured for policing (as allegations of human rights violations attest).  They are designed to fight other militaries, not investigate complex conspiracies or police the streets of a community. On the other hand, police are ill suited for addressing armed insurrection and military-type operations.  This ‘security gap” where neither police nor military are ideal is essentially the “missing mission.”

Modern formed police units (FPUs), also known as Stability Police Units (SPUs) like the French Gendarmerie or Italian Carabinieri fill the interstitial void in capabilities found in complex situations at the intersection between crime and war.  As defined by the US Institute of Peace, “Stability police are robust, armed police units that are capable of performing specialized law enforcement and public order functions that require disciplined group action. They are trained in and have the flexibility to use either less-than-lethal or lethal force, as circumstances dictate. They are rapidly deployable, logistically self-sustainable, and able to collaborate effectively with both the military and the police components of a peace mission.”  These are far from just ‘rural police,’ they are effective social control and security organs for operating in contested zones—both urban and rural–where there is a need to bridge policing and military operations.  The value of these forces was recognized in the Balkan conflicts and these modern gendarmerie units have played key roles in peacekeeping, order maintenance, counter-terrorism and anti-mafia operations.  The flexibility afforded by these units has led to the creation of the European Gendarmerie Force (EUROGENDFOR) comprised of contributing units from France, Portugal, the Netherlands, Italy, Romania, and Spain.

Conclusion: Flexible, agile response

Gendarmeries have flexible, expeditionary capabilities and can effectively bridge the demands of community policing, complex investigations, and military (light infantry) operations. Duplication and lack of coordination among other police services can be mitigated through joint training, staff rotations, and effective oversight.  A Mexican gendarmerie is not a replacement for the development of effective community police and state and municipal levels or the Federal Police, but when integrated with these forces as part of a ‘full-spectrum’ capacity, it can be an effective adjunct to eradicating cartel and gang violence and a viable tool for security sector reform.

Please see also this video on "Mexico, Drugs, and a Possible Way Forward."

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Tags : cartels, drugs, El Centro, Mexico, narco-insurgency, paramilitary

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