Mexico's gendarmerie will be launched with 5,000 officers

With Mexico preparing to launch one of President Enrique Peña Nieto's signature security initiatives -- the gendarmerie -- a new report questions whether the force can have a genuine impact on the country's security situation.

The report, The Debate over Security Policy, Democracy, and Human Rights: the Case of the New National Gendarmerie, was written by Miguel Moguel, a human rights expert at the think tank Fundar Mexico. Moguel examines the gendarmerie from top to bottom, focusing on its justification, the context in which it was launched, and challenges it has faced, ultimately settling on a list of problems complicating the agency's contributions to a safer Mexico.

The gendarmerie was first proposed during the Peña Nieto presidential campaign in 2012, as the years-long explosion in murders under Felipe Calderon was finally stabilizing. The timing and lack of justification for the need for a new police force smacked of a campaign gimmick, but Peña Nieto and his security team have continued in the pursuit of the creation of the gendarmerie in the years since. The force is expected to become active by the end of July 2014.

The gendarmerie was initially painted as an alternative to the armed forces being active in domestic security activities, and its creation was the first step toward lessening Mexico's reliance on the army and the Marines. As Peña Nieto himself said in support of his proposal, "it would imply the gradual withdrawal of the armed forces to their barracks". More recent reports indicate that the gendarmerie will have an explicit focus on protecting strategic regional industries.

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The initially ambitious plans for 40,000-troop gendarmerie, which theoretically could have the capacity to take the heat off of the military, have been radically scaled back; the force expected to take to the streets in the coming days is expected to number no more than 5,000, composed both of transfers from the Federal Police and new recruits.

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While the gendarmerie may yet have an impact in the future, such a paltry number is highly unlikely to result in any modification in the basic circumstances determining public security in Mexico

Even beyond the size of the force, Moguel points to a number of conceptual errors preventing the gendarmerie from having a positive impact. One such problem is the continued militarization of Mexico's domestic security policy. As noted above, 5,000 of the new recruits come from the Federal Police, a highly militarized department itself, which is largely dependent on former soldiers to fill its ranks. Even if the gendarmerie were to be successful in easing the military off the stage, it's not clear that this would represents a practical improvement for the many Mexicans -- not least of them the president -- who hope to demilitarize the country's criminal conflict. 

Related to the militarized nature of the gendarmerie, the agency has little background or apparent interest in human rights. This is particularly important because the deployment of the military in Mexico sparked a massive uptick in cases of human rights abuses by government agents, as amply investigated by groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. These abuses include torture, murder, and forced disappearances, which were a major source of the unpopularity -- and by extension, the unsustainability -- of Calderon's policies, as well as one of the purported differences of Peña Nieto's agenda.

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Yet there is little in the formation of the gendarmerie that promises a revamped human rights focus. On the contrary, as Moguel notes toward the end of his report, "The models of security put forth until now have advanced a vision that emphasized the protection of the state and its institutions above the security of people."

A final issue mentioned by Moguel is the lack of real distinction between how the gendarmerie conducts itself and the approach of other agencies. "The history of the security forces in Mexico is full of examples of "incorruptible forces" that fall into the same pattern as their predecessors. It doesn't matter how 'corruption-proof' they have been designed, because the security forces do not exist in a vacuum and are susceptible to the same forces that corrupted their forerunners."

This complaint essentially harks back to problems built into the agency at its conception during the 2012 campaign: as in previous cases of new agencies being promised to much fanfare, it isn't clear why a new police body with a new name is a better solution than cleaning up the existing body. This is doubly true when, as is the case with the gendarmerie and other police bodies, the personnel filling out the new agency is largely recycled from previously existing departments. In such cases, the energy and political capital spent reorganizing resources on a massive scale would have been far better spent bolstering and cleaning up the resources already deployed. 

Otherwise, the creation of a new organization amounts to little more than window-dressing. At this point, it is hard to see Peña Nieto's gendarmerie as much more than that.