~ This article was originally published by Semanario Zeta on March 31, 2015 ~
The shootout in Jalisco, that left five federal police dead, laid bare the institutional weakness of the National Gendarmerie that was designed to support the states. It was born prematurely, incomplete, and it has not had good result in the eight months since its creation, in the opinion of experts. Gendarmes are lodged in hotels and some of their vehicles lack communication systems, they say. In Guerrero, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas, they have been unable to reduce violence.
The five flag-covered caskets of federal agents, new shootouts across the country, and spiking crime statistics all show that the government’s security policies are not as effective as the authorities believe.
For five members of the new National Gendarmerie—the “star” police program of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration–the cost of confronting organized crime in Jalisco was their lives. These agents, who were trained to provide basic security, are now fighting “major league” criminals.
Another seven members of the new force who were hurt in the ferocious shootout in Ocotlán, Jalisco on the night of March 19 have been released from medical care, but the marks of the battle will remain on their bodies.
It was the first terrible experience for the rookie police, who in their first eight months have gone from place to place like nomads, sleeping in city or hotels or on the highway, due to the fact that the much hyped initiative was born prematurely and incomplete.
The successes of the National Gendarmerie have been limited to overseeing public gatherings and emergency response work, as in the cases of Hurricane Odile in Los Cabos, where they reestablished order following an episode of looting, and in the case of the [explosion at the] Cuajimalpa Hospital, where they carried out rescues and established a security perimeter.
Of the medals that have been hung around the necks of the gendarmes, there is faint recollection of actions such as the rescue of nine Guatemalans held by human traffickers in September, 2014; the arrest of ten municipal police from Iguala in January of this year; and the capture of two suspected drug traffickers from the Cartel of the Sierra in Guerrero last February 18.
Among the Gendarmerie’s less proud moments have been the much criticized detention and abuse of youths during Independence Day celebrations last September 15, and the theft of a female agent’s sidearm, money, and tablet computer during a monitoring operation at Acapulco’s airport this past February 10.
An Imperfect Birth
Their expectations high, officials rushed the launch of the National Gendarmerie, planning to create a police force of 40,000 members. The project took its first step on August 22, 2014, with only 5,000 officers—that is, 12.5% of the projected total. “It is only a first stage,” was the authorities’ justification.
During the press conference, President Enrique Peña Nieto declared that the Gendarmerie represented a new model of policing, citing its military training, connection to society, and its geographic mobility that allows it to begin operations wherever there is extreme institutional weakness.
What had been planned as a grand elite police force, has become a simple division of the existing federal police. They were intended to help in areas where there were no police, or to be deployed temporarily “based on the criteria of criminal activity and socioeconomic indicators,” according to the national security commissioner, Monte Alejandro Rubido.
With five thousand members, it represents scarcely 1.13 percent of the 440,000 police officers at all three levels of Mexico’s government, in other words, almost nothing. That was how the heralded “new chapter in the country’s history” began, with the dispatching of federal gendarmes to Valle de Bravo in the Estado de México, five days after the presidential announcement.
At the start of September, agents were sent to other states where there was the requisite “institutional weakness”: Baja California, Chiapas, Guanajuato, Jalisco, and Tamaulipas. Resentment and criticisms from academics and the political opposition followed shortly behind.
At most it was possible to send 300 officers to each state. In Michoacán, the former state commissioner for security, Alfredo Castillo, asserted that the new police were unnecessary; nevertheless, a few weeks later the National Security Commission sent a group of gendarmes to strengthen the search for Servando Gómez Martínez ‘La Tuta,’ the leader of the Knights Templar cartel. In Jalisco, the agents gathered information on the Jalisco New Generation cartel.
The Gendarmerie’s orders have been changed. To the missions of providing citizen security and protecting economic activity has been added—outside of protocol—the task of supporting the struggle against organized crime. Nevertheless, as soon as they begin work in one place, they are ordered to another. That is what happened in September with the arrival of Hurricane Odile in Baja California Sur, then with the military parade in which they had to participate, and then with the tragic events of the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa Normal School students in Iguala, Guerrero.
Neither Here nor There
While a unit of approximately 300 gendarmes found stability in Jalisco, staying at the Hotel Posada Guadalajara on Avenida López Mateos in Guadalajara, where most were permanently stationed, in other states the officers were moved frequently.
After the events of Iguala, federal forces took control of the municipality. The gendarmes were tasked with patrolling the city, searching the hills, caves, and San Juan de Cocula river for the disappeared students, and later they were ordered to guard the family members of the victims.
Warnings about violent conflicts forced the relocation of officers to Michoacán and San Luis Potosí, as well as to reinforce those already in Tamaulipas. Insecurity gripped the port of Acapulco, where another group of gendarmes was sent to create confidence among residents and, above all, to provide security in schoolyards gripped by delinquency.
The presence of the newest federal police force was of little use in these places. Violence did not cease, and in some cities, such as Acapulco, the bloodshed increased: in under two months, there were more than 70 murders after the National Gendarmerie arrived.
In Michoacán, on December 16, 2014, there was a brutal shootout between two groups of self-defense forces in Buena Vista Tomatlán (La Ruana). One faction was headed by Hipólito Mora and the other by Luis Antonio Torres, aka “The American.” The Gendarmerie witnessed the events without intervening, though some ex-community police alleged that the gendarmes had opened fire and were responsible for some of the 11 fatalities, among them Hipólito’s son, Manuel Mora.
The guardians of order were relocated for the Christmas security operation, and in January this year were sent back to Acapulco’s schools. That same month, certain missions ended, including that of guarding the families of the missing Ayotzinapa students. In Tamaulipas, they picked up their things and left. After the explosion of the Cuajimalpa Hospital in Mexico City on January 29, 200 officers were sent as support.
Criminal activities in the state of Tamaulipas caused the return of the Gendarmerie on February 7, and, at the end of March, 200 officers and 90 cars were dispatched to bolster security at the National Banking Convention in Acapulco.
The Shootout in Ocotlán
While Guadalajara still had a good number of gendarmes idling at the hotel, watching their vehicles and guarding the door, bored from watching cars and people pass by, in the Ciénaga region, at the border of Jalisco and Michoacán, there was an ambush on the night of March 19.
Suspected members of the Jalisco New Generation cartel who had noted the presence of a group of gendarmes near Ocotlán, lured the federal officers by forcibly disarming several municipal police. The federal agents, traveling in seven vehicles, took the bait and went in search of the delinquents.
On the streets of the San Juan neighborhood, ten vehicles of gangsters began mercilessly firing on the public servants, initiating a confrontation that lasted a little less than half-an-hour. When the gunfire finished, the toll was shocking: eleven dead, five of them from the National Gendarmerie, four civilians—among them a woman and a child—and two supposed criminals.
At the scene of the crime, authorities counted more than two thousand shell casings from weapons of various calibers, .223, 9mm, 7.62×39, among many others used by the Jalisco New Generation cartel.
Damages were reported to 31 residences and 29 vehicles were hit by bullets, seven of those belonging to the gendarmes, three to the criminals, and the rest to those living in the zone.
Police seized ten handguns and 18 rifles, two MK2 and MK67 fragmentation grenades, and the casings from two 40 caliber grenades detonated by special forces from the Jalisco attorney general’s office.
Although the state attorney general began the process of ordering the first forensic and police investigations, the federal attorney general subsequently took control of the case. Several days later, it has barely advanced.
The region where the shootout occurred is the same where a little more than a year ago 74 bodies were found buried in unmarked graves in the municipality of La Barca. The discovery came after two federal agents were kidnapped in Michoacán by Vista Hermosa municipal police and gunmen from the Jalisco New Generation cartel.
Guillermo Zepeda Lecuona, a professor at the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente (ITESO) and an associate at the Centro de Investigación para el Desarrollo (CIDAC) laments that in the case of the National Gendarmerie “the full potential that was announced has still not been developed and they have not managed to fully incorporate the work of police intelligence to effectively and strategically combat organized crime.”
The academic believes that in the case of the much-hyped police force, it was nothing more than a semantic change to a new name, a project that “lamentably, changed none of the root issues affecting the police’s ability to reduce the criminal sphere.” Despite the improved public perception of police officers, there is still evidence of abuse and corruption, Zepeda indicated.
Researcher Fernando Espinoza de los Monteros remarks that “they rushed the creation the Gendarmerie and it is taking a huge portion of the budget, and without results. We do not have the evidence of efficiency that was promised, and they are not performing the tasks that were assigned. It is the same as the Unified Force in Jalisco. What has it achieved? Nothing.”
Espinoza de los Monteros criticized the cost of lodging federal police in hotels instead of in designated barracks. “We have them there in the Hotel Posada Guadalajara with a bunch of patrol cars, but at the moment when they were needed in Ocotlán, they were ambushed and defeated,” he remarked.
The researcher concludes that, “We see that the police force is not even technically well organized. Although they have the best weapons, they are not organized. I have heard that some patrol cars do not even have communications systems. They are sent to war without a rifle. I think the Gendarmerie was poorly conceived, and it is having some results, but the results are negative, because it is not meeting expectations.”Translation by Michael Lettieri, Trans-Border Institute