Nation & World

Mexico hails new militia as bulwark against drug cartels

President Enrique Pena Nieto on Friday launched a highly mobile 5,000-member militia, known as the National Gendarmerie, claiming it would be a potent tool in protecting industry from being looted by crime groups.

The force, a scaled-down version of what Pena Nieto originally proposed, is the latest effort by Mexican authorities to create a corruption-free branch of police.

“The Gendarmerie will contribute to the protection of Mexicans, their assets and their jobs when these are threatened by criminals,” Pena Nieto said from a reviewing stand before formations of the newly trained agents.

What the Gendarmerie won’t apparently do – because of its small size – is allow Pena Nieto to fulfill a campaign pledge to pull tens of thousands of soldiers from the streets of regions afflicted by organized crime, where many have been accused of human rights abuses.

Pena Nieto thanked six foreign nations – France, Spain, Colombia, the United States, Italy and Chile – for helping to train the recruits to the Gendarmerie, which he said would help contain organized crime.

The Gendarmerie will comprise a seventh division of the Federal Police, a force of 36,000 officers, said National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido. He noted that the addition of 5,000 new gendarmes would increase the “operational capacity” of the Federal Police by “18 percent.”

Pena Nieto has sharply reduced the scope of the National Gendarmerie since he first proposed it during his 2012 campaign. Originally envisioned as a force as large as 40,000, Pena Nieto said in December 2012 that deployment of the Gendarmerie would allow for the gradual retreat of soldiers back to their barracks.

Pena Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderon, began deploying soldiers to help combat runaway drug cartels in late 2006, and an average of 30,126 soldiers have been on the streets monthly since then, according to the Fundar Center of Analysis and Research, a think tank in the capital.

But its mission has evolved from directly combating drug gangs to what Rubido described as protecting “production cycles” of the economy so that “crime groups are not collecting turf tax or transit fees that only serve to increase prices.”

Asked for examples of where the gendarmes might be deployed, Rubido, speaking in a briefing earlier in the week, said they could protect sorghum growers in Tamaulipas, mining companies in Sonora and Michoacan states, tourism clusters along the coasts and multinational companies with long supply chains.

One independent security analyst, Jorge Kawas, said the new militia may be partly designed to reassure foreign investors now that Mexico has formally opened up its massive oil and gas industries to direct foreign investment.

“With the energy reform, this seems to make sense as the government needs to be seen as confronting insecurity, just to generate confidence among investors,” Kawas said.

Mexico has a recent history of disbanding law enforcement units, renaming them or creating new ones in an effort to battle endemic corruption and to gain citizen trust.

The federal law enforcement agency was once known as the Federal Judicial Police, then the Federal Preventative Police, and finally adopting the name Federal Police in 2009. It was then that authorities did away with the Federal Investigation Agency, 20 percent of whose members were believed to be controlled by organized crime.

Mexico has around 440,000 police at the municipal, state and federal levels, Rubido said. Drug corruption has entirely corroded city police forces in areas with a strong presence of drug cartels, forcing scores of them to be dismantled.

Pena Nieto said earlier Friday that his government has brought down murder rates, noting that intentional homicides fell 27.8 percent in the first seven months of the year compared with the same period in 2012. He said cases of extortion and kidnapping are also beginning to drop.

Some security experts say the downward trend may be overstated.

Fueling their skepticism is official flip-flopping on the number of Mexicans who have gone missing in recent years, their fates possibly decided by the brutal drug war among crime groups or by rogue soldiers and police.

On Thursday, a deputy attorney general, Mariana Benitez Tiburcio, acknowledged that authorities tally 22,322 people as missing. She said 12,532 of them went missing during the final years of the Calderon presidency, while 9,790 vanished during Pena Nieto’s 21 months in office.

As recently as May, Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong put the total figure of missing at 8,000 people.