Mexico’s New National Guard

By Randy Jackson

To some of us regular visitors to Mexico who have been away for a long pandemic year, the appearance of the National Guard (Guardia Nacional), around Huatulco and elsewhere is new. And, although a National Guard is new in Mexico, their appearance is just the latest chapter in Mexico’s journey to create an effective national law enforcement agency.

Mexican Policing: Preventive and Investigative

For most of modern Mexican history, there hasn’t been a federal police force (except for the Federal Highway Patrol and the Federal Fiscal Police). During the 71 years the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) ran Mexico, the government used the military for internal security and any federal police action deemed necessary. Law enforcement was (and is) largely the responsibility of state governments. Most criminal offenses, including capital crimes, are handled by state authorities. But drug trafficking, in particular, is a federal offence, one that requires significant national resources to combat. As drug trafficking and organized crime have increased in Mexico, each new federal administration has shifted its approach to national law enforcement. The latest of these shifts has established the Guardia Nacional.

An important distinction in understanding policing in Mexico is the difference between the preventive police and the judicial, or investigative, police. Preventive police are the most visible. They are uniformed officers, typically heavily armed and highly visible on the streets. Their role at the municipal, state and federal levels is to prevent and respond to crime. They do not have the authority or training to investigate crimes. Criminal investigation and arrests under a warrant are handled by the judicial police at the state and federal levels. These investigative police have separate command structures reporting to the offie of the Attorney General.

The vast majority of Mexico’s police force is preventive (this would include all the municipal police). At the federal level, this type of policing can easily be accomplished by military forces. Any additional training for the military to perform a preventive police role would be minimal, with men, weapons and equipment readily available. The military was the go-to organization in national police actions for all Mexican presidents up to, and including, President Ernesto Zedillo (1994 – 2000). Zedillo undertook the first major police reform in Mexico. This included steps towards an overall coordination of state and national police policy and strategy. He also initiated the first Policía Federal Preventiva (Federal Preventive Police) force by enhancing some powers of the Mexican Highway Patrol.

The Need for National-Level Policing

Under the Presidency of Vicente Fox (2000 – 06), the need for a civilian-led national security force was recognized, but as the first non-PRI president in 71 years, President Fox was up against long-embedded PRI institutions, notably the military. The main activity of the Mexican military since its inception (1913) has been internal security. Fox’s administration recognized that his 6-year term would be insufficient to establish a new federal police force from the ground up, so it pursued a hybrid solution. The Policía Federal Preventiva was supplemented by 7,500 troops from the military police brigade and the Navy’s infantry. To complement this federal preventive force, President Fox introduced a new institution intended to be similar to the American FBI. This new agency was called Agencia Federal de Investigación, or AFI. This force was to be a federal professional police service centred on a technical and scientific approach to policing.

Although President Fox’s initiatives never took hold, they set up the next administration, that of Felipe Calderón (2006 – 12), to make a serious attempt at creating a federal police force. By the time Calderón came to power, there had been a sizable increase in the organization, violence and criminal audacity of the cartels. Because it was recognized the cartels had significantly infiltrated civilian police services, Calderón ordered a full-scale assault on the cartels by the military, largely headed by the Naval Marines.

While the cartel assault was going on, Calderón’s administration initiated significant reforms to the federal, state, and municipal police services in Mexico. His administration pursued civilian oversight, evaluation and qualification of officers, higher recruitment standards, funding for municipal and state forces, and a national police database. He also sought to transfer the investigative police powers to the preventive police. These steps, along with criminal justice reform, had some but not widespread success.

Under the Calderón administration, the Policía Federal Preventiva was dramatically expanded in numbers, up to 35,000 in 2012, and was renamed Policía Federal. This new force absorbed the investigative division, the AFI, and had its own intelligence gathering. It was also substantially equipped to near military capability including Black Hawk helicopters and surveillance aircraft. This in large part was due to funding from the United States under the Mérida Initiative, an agreement between Filipe Calderón and President George W. Bush to aid Mexico (and Latin America) in fighting organized crime (this agreement was cancelled under the current AMLO administration).

A New Idea for the National Police

In 2012, the Mexican people returned the PRI to power under President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012 – 18). President Peña Nieto continued with many of the reforms to police services introduced by his predecessor, but his strategy towards a federal police force was very different. His plan was to follow the Colombia model for a national police service. He introduced a plan to develop a national gendarmerie, which has much in common with the community policing arms of American police forces. The División de Gendarmería de la Policía Federal was to be a middle force between the police and military, where a lighter armed military force would be appropriately trained for civilian law enforcement. The plan called for 40,000 members by 2018.

Against considerable opposition, the Gendarmería was created in 2014 with just 5,000 officers. Throughout the remaining term of the Peña Nieto administration, this force never got off the ground. At the same time the numbers of federal police, fraught with corruption scandals and desertions, declined to just 4,500 members.

This dramatic decline in the numbers of the Policía Federal was countered by the Army’s Military Police. By 2015 the Heroico Colegio Militar (the Army’s military academy) began training officers for a new national military police force with a goal to have 36,000 officers by 2018. After 20 years of initiatives and reforms attempting to establish a citizen-led national police force, the Mexican military was again fully in charge of national policing.

From Policía Federal to Guardia Nacional

The final blow to the Federal Police was delivered by the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). In his first year in office (2018) he abolished the Federal Police. President Obrador established the National Guard to be a new, non-military, national law enforcement agency.

The National Guard is a gendarmerie-style force (i.e., has community, police and military features). It was established as the fourth military force in Mexico, alongside the Army, Navy and Air Force. The creation of a national guard is allowed under the 1917 constitution, which stated it must be “civilian in nature.” AMLO’s stated intent is to transition the National Guard from a military organization to a civilian organization over time. The National Guard reports to a civilian secretariat.

The first phase of the development of the National Guard was to absorb the army’s military police, which had expanded under the previous administration. They would then expand further using military personnel who wished to transfer to the National Guard. Then the National Guard would eventually seek up to 50,000 civilians to join their ranks. There are currently 90,000 members of the National Guard.

The central objective for the National Guard is to support public security tasks in coordination with state and municipal authorities. The assigned responsibilities of the National Guard are extremely wide in scope, including preventive policing, investigative policing, civil protection in disasters and crises, kidnapping resolution, criminal surveillance, intelligence gathering, border protection and detaining undocumented migrants, and many other responsibilities. The National Guard would be assigned less lethal (semi-automatic) weapons and would support, but not lead, military special forces operations.

On May 11, 2020, under an executive decree, the National Guard (along with the other military branches), was given the same powers as the state and municipal police forces. This enables them to detain suspects and carry out arrest warrants. The Mexican military has never before had these powers.

One newsworthy use of the National Guard to date has been their deployment to Mexico’s north and south borders to control illegal migrants seeking to enter the United States. Under the threat by President Trump to impose high tariffs on Mexican goods, AMLO deployed 15,000 National Guard troops to the border areas. This has greatly reduced the flow of Latin American migrants to the US.

So the deployment, the role, and the success of the National Guard in federal policing of Mexico, remains a story in progress. A story some of us armchair (should that be beach chair?) observers will be following with interest.

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