Creating a gendarmerie would change role of police

Mexico security analyst Alejandro Hope looks at the proposal by Enrique Peña Nieto's government to create a Gendarmerie, finding that efforts would be better focused on reforming and supporting the existing security force rather than adding another, outdated body to the mix.

It had already been announced a few months ago, but now it is in a national pact. The new government, with the explicit backing of the two main opposition parties, will seek to create a new federal police, named the National Gendarmerie. As described in commitment 76 of the Pact for Mexico, the gendarmes would be part of “a territorial control 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.”

My regular readers know that I’ve expressed reservations about this idea since it first appeared during the Enrique Peña Nieto presidential campaign. Nothing of what I’ve heard or read since then has managed to dispel my doubts. Now that the proposal is serious, I believe it is essential to reiterate my position:

1) What do we need a rural police for? Usually, a gendarmerie is defined as a militarized body that carries out police functions in rural zones and small towns. Nearly all that exist are a historical relic: the French one was founded in 1791; the Italian (the Carabinieri) in 1814 (originally in the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia); the Spanish (the Civil Guard) in 1844; the Portuguese in 1834; the Argentinian in 1938. That is to say, almost without exception these ideas come eras without good means of communication, where transport was difficult, and the majority of the population lived in the countryside. In those circumstances it made sense to have a national force, distinct from the urban police, permanently deployed in rural areas. But those are not the conditions that prevail today in Mexico: the country is urban and will be increasingly more so.

Also, the crime: 95 percent of crime and 80 percent of homicides are concentrated in urban areas. Additionally, with all the shortcomings of our infrastructure, the country is reasonably informed (certainly more so than Spain in 1844). In an emergency, it’s possible to deploy personnel quickly to nearly every territorial zone. There are also multiple remote monitoring tools (cameras, sensors, license plate readers, unmanned aircraft, etc.) that allow the police and armed forces to extend their reach.

Consequently, a permanent federal deployment is not required to guarantee “territorial control” or to exercise “the sovereignty of the Mexican state in all corners of the country.” In sum, the gendarmeries was a leading idea in 1800, but not in 2012.

2) Who could the gendarmes be? According to President Peña Nieto, the Gendarmerie “will be a military training and preparation corps, but under civilian control.” In other words, it would be comprised of armed forces personnel (by definition, no one else provides military training). What troops are we talking about? Those that are already involved in public security? If so, I don’t understand what a new body would serve: it would have the same number of soldiers, in the same places, doing more or less the same, with basically the same tactics, leadership and equipment it has had up until now, but with a different uniform. Unless the planned uniform is magical, I don’t know why they would expect different results.

Or might it be that they are not going to be in the same places? And then, who would replace them in localities like Monterrey, Veracruz, Reynosa, or Torreon? The Federal Police? They don’t have the numbers. The state police? Ideally yes, but for now they are not remotely ready. Or maybe it will be additional troops, soldiers and marines who are currently not involved in combating criminal groups? Maybe, but they couldn’t leave it to the overextended armed forces, could they?

There has been talk that the Gendarmerie would have 40,000 personnel: that is a fifth of the armed forces and probably a third of its operational personnel (you have to remember that there are doctors, nurses, engineers, custodial staff and other administrative employees in the army and Marines). With a reduction of that size, how could the armed forces still effectively carry out its other functions (assisting the population in the case of natural disasters, protection of strategic facilities, eradication of illicit crops, etc.)? Or would they take those functions away from them? Or maybe they’re thinking of forming with Gendarmerie with new recruits: probably for the best, but then, how soon would the new body have adequate operational capacity? In three years? Four? At the end of this presidential term?

The resources assigned to the Gendarmerie in the proposed 2013 budget (1.5 billion Mexican pesos (around $117 million)) allows for 2,000 gendarmes, more or less (at the cost of the Federal Police). Or will it be that they think about paying and equipping the gendarmes less than federal police agents (at the risk of generating a permanent conflict)? In sum, there doesn’t appear to be a quick and easy alternative to form the new body.

3) Why are two federal police forces needed? This is perhaps the key question. If it is deemed necessary to count on more police being in command of the country, isn’t it simpler to increase the size of the existing police force? Without doubt, the Federal Police has many problems, but why not then reform it?  Change the command, modify the structure, and establish internal and external controls? Regardless, it is something that needs doing.

Or is there some distinction that I am missing?  What would the Gendarmerie do that the Federal Police cannot? Monitor roads, protect strategic installations, provide support to state and municipal governments? The Federal Police already does, or can do that (whether it does it well or not is another matter).

Frankly, I do not understand the argument. I do not understand what they want to create zero-sum games for: one peso from the budget that one entity receives will be a peso that the other does not; an arrest made by the Gendarmeries will be one not made by the Federal Police. The relationship between the two bodies will be necessarily conflicting, since both would come under the Interior Ministry. Thus it will be, for example, like the relationship between the Civil Guard and National Police in Spain or between the Gendarmerie and the National Police in France. That’s why, in those countries (and in others) they are increasingly speaking about merging the various police forces.

Why would we therefore want to do the exact opposite? Why would Mexico want to go against global trends? And not only in terms of international practices: with the initiative to concentrate security functions within the Interior Ministry, the Peña Nieto administration is seeking to establish a unity of command at the strategic level. Why then does it want at the same time to fragment the operation and generate new coordination problems? To me, frankly, I find it incomprehensible. Wouldn’t it be a sign of mistrust toward the Federal Police? An attempt to counter it? Maybe, but if that is the case, it would be better to transform the Federal Police and not generate new areas of dispute within the security and justice apparatus. 

It is possible that all of these questions have satisfactory answers. We are only in the early days of the new administration, and there is still time for [Interior Minister Miguel Angel] Osorio or [Planning and Institutional Protection Minister Manuel] Mondragon to explain the reasons for creating a new police. But not much time: the request for 1.5 billion pesos for the Gendarmerie is already in Congress. Before approving it, legislators would do well to ask for all the necessary clarifications of the case being presented. Because public institutions, once created, have the devilish habit of growing and lasting, even if ineffective.

 P.S.: Indeed, nobody has said anything about the ministerial police (the federal and the state). No one cares or is there not one good idea regarding this in particular?

 

Translated and reprinted with permission from *Alejandro Hope, of Plata o Plomo, a blog on the politics and economics of drugs and crime published by Animal Politico. Read the Spanish original here. Hope is also a member of InSight Crime's Board of Directors.

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