Small Wars Journal

Wilson Center Publication: Building Better Gendarmeries in Mexico and the Northern Triangle

Wed, 07/10/2019 - 1:07am

Wilson Center Publication: Building Better Gendarmeries in Mexico and the Northern Triangle

Michael L. Burgoyne

The following is a summary of a study entitled Building Better Gendarmeries in Mexico and the Northern Triangle published by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. The full study is available here.

Mexico and Central America are facing a serious security crisis caused by powerful criminal gangs and transnational criminal organizations. With little hope for an immediate resolution of militarized criminal violence, some countries are turning to hybrid organizations, mixing police and military capabilities.

Despite more than ten years of security sector reforms and initiatives, Mexico suffered a record 33,341 homicides in 2018.[1]  Likewise, in the Northern Triangle of Central America, composed of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, homicide rates are an astronomical 37.8 per 100,000 citizens.[2]  By comparison, there are 5.3 murders per 100,000 people in the United States.[3]  Faced with criminal threats beyond the capability of their police that not only endangered public security, but the national security of their countries, governments turned to military forces. Military forces have the firepower and training to defeat criminal groups in combat, but lack many of the skills that make police effective in maintaining the peace.

Bridging the gap between the military and police, Stability Police Forces (SPF) can operate in non-permissive environments, such as those found in Mexico and Central America.[4]  SPFs provide an answer to internal threats that defy responses from standard police forces. Highly capable SPFs, like the French Gendarmerie Nationale, Spanish Guardia Civil, and the Italian Carabinieri, share common characteristics that should inform policymakers creating SPFs and U.S. security cooperation professionals supporting their development. These characteristics include: a powerful historical narrative, community policing experience that provides unique military capabilities, organic investigative powers, and a symbiotic relationship with prosecutors.


The Gendarmerie, Guardia Civil, and Carabinieri have long and storied histories within their countries. These forces are embedded in the culture of their populations and enjoy a strong perception of legitimacy. Obviously, these unique historical experiences are not easily replicated. However, organizational change models could be effective in enhancing unit narratives, as well as the use of military instruction which can instill a strong sense of professionalism and unit values on new personnel.

Today, military capacity varies among SPFs. However, in their early history, these units maintained a significant military capability to take on bandits and insurgents. The current criminal situation in Mexico and the Northern Triangle is comparable to the early experiences of European SPFs. Like European SPFs, new SPFs may require a more robust military capability until state consolidation occurs. SPF deployments to war zones indicate that the ability to operate in contested environments is critical if conditions are to be set for lightly armed community policing. Countering militarized criminal threats requires military training and equipment that standard police do not possess. Military capability is a distinct advantage and critical characteristic of an effective SPF.

Although often vilified as militarized police, the Gendarmerie, Guardia Civil, and Carabinieri spend the majority of their efforts in traditional community policing roles where they work with the community to “…address the causes of crime and to reduce fear of social disorder through problem-solving strategies and police-community partnerships.”[5]  This experience is seen as vital when they are required to operate in more dangerous environments with more robust military equipment. This dynamic is often misunderstood as politicians and security policymakers seek out powerful police units to take on militarized criminal threats.

Members of the Gendarmerie, Guardia Civil, and Carabinieri are entrusted with judicial investigatory power. This is possible due to the robust training plan and competitive recruitment process each force maintains. Without this capability, police become proximity police, no better than soldiers, only able to react when a crime is occurring immediately in front of them. Investigatory authority empowers officers and enables more effective policing. As investigators, SPFs work closely with prosecutors and the judicial system. Without this critical link to functioning courts, SPFs would have limited success.

Another common characteristic among SPFs is a focus on mentorship. SPF personnel have long career timelines and mentoring subordinates is an honored tradition. Carabinieri Lieutenant Colonel Diego D’Elia cautions, “You cannot create a Carabinieri by sending someone through a school. A Carabinieri is the combination of instruction, mentorship, and experience.”[6]


The French Gendarmerie, Spanish Guardia Civil, and the Italian Carabinieri effectively combine military capabilities with community policing experience and provide a potential response to militarized criminal threats. While not all of the characteristics of European gendarmeries are

applicable in Mexico and the Northern Triangle, they provide insights into a culture of mentorship and professionalism that can help guide SPF development.


Military capability and community policing skills are two sides of the same coin. Successful SPFs develop their personnel so they understand both skill sets. As such, U.S. security cooperation, whether Department of Defense, Department of State, or law enforcement agency led, should ensure both concepts are integrated into security cooperation strategies. Mentorship and experience are also critical components of SPF personnel development. The United States simply does not have this tradition or experience in its police agencies. Providing mentorship and experience opportunities will require the integration of NATO and European partners. Finally, investigative and judicial system development is a critical consideration. While U.S. expertise in SPFs is limited, the United States can make significant contributions to judicial system development and prosecutor training.

End Notes

[1] Secretaria de Seguridad y Proteccion Ciudadana, Victimas de Delitos del Fuero Comun 2018, Mexico City, 20 January 2019, .

[2] Chris Dalby and Camilo Carranza, “InSight Crime’s 2018 Homicide Round-Up,” InSight Crime, 22 January 2019,

[3] “2017 Crime in the United States,” Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation,

[4] Terrence Kelly, Seth G. Jones, James E. Barnett, Keith Crane, Robert C. Davis, and Carl Jenson, A Stability Police Force for the United States, Santa Monica: RAND, 2009, 1.,

[5] Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Community Policing,”, (accessed 29 January 2019).

[6] Carabinieri Lieutenant Colonel Diego D’Elia, Interview by author, Vicenza, Italy, 18 December 2018.


Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Michael L. Burgoyne is a former US Army Foreign Area Officer, he served in various policy and security cooperation positions in the Americas including assignments as the Army Attaché in Mexico, the Andean Ridge Desk Officer at U.S. Army South, and the Senior Defense Official in Guatemala. He deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in command and staff positions and served as the Defense Attaché in Kabul, Afghanistan. He is the co-author of The Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa, a tactical primer on counterinsurgency. He holds an M.A. in Strategic Studies from the US Army War College and an M.A. in Security Studies from Georgetown University. He is currently a PhD student at King’s College London.