Institutional Revolutionary Party presidential candidate Enrique Pena Nieto, the front-runner in the lead-up to Mexico’s presidential election in July, told Reuters last week that if elected, he would seek to increase the size of the current Mexican federal police force. Pena Nieto also expressed a desire to create a new national gendarmerie, or paramilitary police force, to use in place of the Mexican army and Marine troops currently deployed to combat the heavily armed criminal cartels in Mexico’s most violent hot spots. According to Pena Nieto, the new gendarmerie force would comprise some 40,000 agents.
As Stratfor has previously noted, soldiers are not optimal for law enforcement functions. The use of the military in this manner has produced accusations of human rights abuses and has brought criticism and political pressure on the administration of President Felipe Calderon. However, while the Calderon administration greatly increased the use of the military in the drug war, it was not the first administration in Mexico to deploy the military in this manner. Even former President Vicente Fox, who declared war on the cartels in 2001, was not the first to use the military in this manner. For many decades now, the Mexican government has used the military in counternarcotics operations, and the Mexican military has been used periodically to combat criminals and bandits in Mexico’s wild and expansive north for well over a century.
In recent years, Mexico has had very little choice but to use the military against the cartels due to the violent nature of the cartels themselves and the rampant corruption in many municipal and state police forces. The creation of a new paramilitary police force would provide the Mexican government with a new option, allowing it to remove the military from law enforcement functions. But such a plan would be very expensive and would require the consent of both houses of the Mexican Congress, which could pose political obstacles. But perhaps the most difficult task will be creating a new police force not susceptible to the corruption that historically has plagued Mexican law enforcement agencies.
Paramilitary Police Forces
The concept of a paramilitary police force is not new. Such police forces have existed for years in Europe in the form of the Carabinieri in Italy, the Guardia Civil in Spain and Gendarmerie Nationale in France. As the name of the Italian paramilitary police agency implies, such police normally were deployed in remote areas and armed with carbines, heavier arms than those employed by most urban police officers. Indeed, even the British, whose police officers were traditionally unarmed, created well-armed paramilitary police agencies in their rugged and remote colonial holdings.
Some of these organizations still exist, including the Pakistani Frontier Constabulary and the Indian Assam Rifles. In Latin America, the Chilean Carabineros have a long, and sometimes checkered, history. In 2006 the Colombian government established a modern paramilitary police force under the Directorate of Carabineros and Rural Security that was intended to help address the threats posed by the insurgent groups, former-paramilitary criminal bands (“bacrim”) and narcotics traffickers in Colombia’s hard-to-police rural regions.
Due to the Colombian government’s success in combating drug cartels and the country’s growing military proficiency, the Colombians increasingly have become involved in training personnel from other countries in a variety of skills, such as helicopter flying and long-range jungle patrolling. This Colombian training is very attractive to countries such as Mexico. For this reason, the Colombians have begun exerting a growing influence on Mexican counternarcotics thinking and strategy. In fact, the Mexican and Colombian attorneys general just signed an agreement April 17 to share information pertaining to narcotics smuggling. Because of this influence, it is likely that the Colombian Carabineros have played a big part in shaping the thinking of Pena Nieto’s advisers who suggested a similar paramilitary police force for Mexico.
Unlike military troops, paramilitary police are police officers and receive police training, which is quite different from military training. But paramilitary police officers are normally more heavily armed than regular police officers and receive supplementary military-type training, which involves things like fire and maneuver and patrolling. They also have law enforcement authority, which means they can conduct investigations and make arrests. Although paramilitary police have been accused of human rights abuses in some places, by and large they are better suited for dealing with civilians than are soldiers, and they tend to create less tension. Tensions arising from military actions can be significant: In 2011, the Mexican National Human Rights Commission received 2,200 complaints against the Mexican army and navy.
Pena Nieto also has called for the Federal Police to be expanded from 40,000 to 50,000 officers. Calderon submitted a police reform plan to the Mexican Congress in September 2008 that created the current federal police force. Calderon’s reform plan integrated the two existing federal law enforcement agencies, the Federal Preventive Police and the Federal Investigation Agency, into one organization called simply the Federal Police.
Other Recent Police Reforms
In addition to consolidating the federal police forces, Calderon’s 2008 police reform plan also called for existing agents and new recruits to undergo a much more thorough vetting process and to receive higher pay. The idea was to build up a more professional force less vulnerable to corruption and better able to fight the cartels. The 2008 reform plan also included consolidating municipal police departments — arguably the most corrupt institutions in Mexico — into unified state police commands under which officers could be subjected to better screening, oversight and accountability.
In an attempt to mitigate the problems created by the interaction of the population with the military, especially in urban areas, the Calderon administration also has used a combination of the Federal Police and the military. For example, in Coordinated Operation Chihuahua, Federal Police assumed all law enforcement roles from the military in the urban areas of northern Chihuahua, including police patrols, investigations, intelligence operations, surveillance, first-response and operation of the emergency 066 call center for Juarez (equivalent to a 911 center in the United States). The Federal Police also were tasked with operating mainly in designated high-risk urban areas to locate and dismantle existing cartel infrastructure using law enforcement methods rather than military methods.
The military then assumed a supporting role, patrolling and monitoring the vast desert expanses of the state’s rural areas and manning strategic perimeter checkpoints to help stem the flow of narcotics, weapons and gunmen. These roles and areas of operations were intended to better reflect the training and capabilities of each force. While the enhanced Federal Police are designed to operate in an urban environment and trained specifically to interact with the civilian population, the Mexican military is trained and equipped to engage in more kinetic operations in a rural environment. The new paramilitary police agency would assume this rural, kinetic role.
The Main Obstacle to Reform
The Calderon administration’s police reform process has faced several setbacks in weeding out corrupt elements. Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles was encountered right away in October 2008, when the drug czar-designate at the time, Noe Ramirez Mandujano, was found to have been receiving $450,000 a month from the Beltran Leyva Organization for providing information about the Mexican government’s counternarcotics operations. Since that time, there have been numerous instances in which these “new and improved” federal- and state-level police officers have been arrested for corruption. The military has not been immune to the problem of corruption either. Soldiers have been caught protecting loads of narcotics, and even a member of the military’s elite Estado Mayor Presidencial was arrested in December 2008 and charged with being on a cartel payroll.
If Pena Nieto were elected president, it would be difficult for his administration to create a new, incorruptible police agency. Certainly, the Mexican government has aggressively pursued police reform for many years now, with very little success. Indeed, the lack of trustworthy law enforcement was a major factor in the Mexican government’s decision to turn to the military to counter the power of the Mexican cartels. As noted above, this lack of reliable law enforcement has also led the Calderon administration to aggressively pursue police reform.
An examination of Mexico’s corruption reveals that the country’s ills go far deeper than just corrupt government institutions. The corruption seen in government institutions is really just a symptom of deeper, systemic and cultural problems. Quite simply, unless these deeper issues are addressed, reforming an institution or creating a new institution will not result in any meaningful change. In fact, the surrounding environment will ensure that the revamped institutions will soon be corrupted like the ones they replaced. This corruption of new institutions has happened repeatedly in Mexico and elsewhere.
The Guatemalan Department of Anti-Narcotics Operations, known by its Spanish acronym DOAN, provides an excellent example of how deep-seated corruption in the environment can affect a totally new institution created to be impervious to corruption. Created in the mid-1990s in response to rampant corruption in the Guatemalan police, DOAN was meant to be immune from corruption via the use of hand-picked “clean” recruits, who would receive proper training and be paid wages sufficient to support their families. The Guatemalan government received significant assistance from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, which helped the Guatemalans select, train and equip the DOAN officers.
Unfortunately for the Guatemalan government and its U.S. benefactors, providing state-of-the-art training, modern equipment and a living wage still did not ensure integrity when DOAN officers were placed into the Central American country’s (still) corrupt environment. Within a few years, the highly trained and heavily vetted officers of the DOAN had begun to torture and kill narcotics smugglers, then steal and sell their shipments. The DOAN was disbanded in 2002 because it had essentially become a drug trafficking organization.
Mexico also has a long history of law enforcement agencies being disbanded and folded into new agencies due to corruption. For example, the Mexican Federal Investigation Agency (AFI) that Fox created in 2001 was a replacement for an agency, the Federal Judicial Police, which was disbanded due to rampant corruption. The AFI was patterned after the FBI and was structured to block corruption from other agencies. Despite those safeguards, by late 2005 the Mexican Attorney General’s Office reported that almost 1,500 of the AFI’s 7,000 agents were under investigation for suspected criminal activity and that 457 agents faced criminal charges. Because of this corruption, Calderon’s 2008 police reforms disbanded the AFI and assigned its mission to the Federal Police in early 2009.
The Mexican AFI and Guatemalan DOAN demonstrate that even a competent, well-paid and well-equipped police institution cannot stand alone in a culture unprepared to support it and help maintain its integrity. Over time an institution will take on the characteristics of the society surrounding it. This means that the creation of a new paramilitary police agency by the next Mexican administration would help solve some of the problems affecting Mexico as far as deploying the military to conduct law enforcement functions, but it is not the answer to Mexico’s deeper problems.
Solving these deeper problems in Mexico will require a holistic approach reaching far beyond police and military institutions to address the country’s profound economic, sociological and cultural issues. Such holistic change will not be easy to accomplish. It will require a great deal of time, money, effort and — critically — leadership. Mexico’s next president will have his hands full.