Enjoy Margaritas? Raise a Toast to Mexico’s New ‘Gendarmerie’

Paramilitaries ready to defend limes against cartels

Enjoy Margaritas? Raise a Toast to Mexico’s New ‘Gendarmerie’ Enjoy Margaritas? Raise a Toast to Mexico’s New ‘Gendarmerie’
Gendarmeries are odd groups. Not quite police, not quite military—they combine features of both to handle problems neither the police or army are supposed... Enjoy Margaritas? Raise a Toast to Mexico’s New ‘Gendarmerie’

Gendarmeries are odd groups. Not quite police, not quite military—they combine features of both to handle problems neither the police or army are supposed to deal with. Now Mexico’s newly-created gendarmerie is preparing for its first mission.

To stop the cartels from messing with the country’s limes.

This month, the National Gendarmerie will begin operations protecting key crops—including limes in the state of Michoacan—from organized crime groups. The initial force is around 5,000 troops, according to the newspaper Vanguardia, with plans to eventually double that number.

The cartels are not just interested in drugs. Everything from human trafficking to cattle rustling and extorting lime farmers are opportunities for ill-gotten gains.

Michoacan—one of Mexico’s prime lime-growing regions—is also home to one of the longest-running conflicts in the country. The parties include the creepy Knights Templar cartel, government troops and self-organized citizen militias.

Until recently, the cartel effectively controlled the state’s important lime industry, and took to hijacking trucks as they rumbled north to the border while imposing a 10 percent tax on farmers.

Making matters worse, bad weather and resulting crop failures slashed lime production in other regions. The resulting spike in lime prices—as much as quadruple the price for a case of limes in the United States—led to some restaurants north of the border to temporarily stop serving the fruit.

However, the shortage appears to have eased as Mexican troops pushed back against the Knights Templar this year. Lime production in other parts of Mexico have bounced back, too. Now Mexico is sending in the gendarmeries to keep it that way.

Salvaged army

A gendaremerie is a cross between a military and police force. Although a bit antiquated in the age of highly-trained police forces with beefed-up SWAT teams, the idea is to have a force that is capable of police work, while also guarding key infrastructure from heavily-armed domestic terrorists and criminals.

The French and Italian gendarmeries are some of the most famous, but they exist in South America, Asia and West Africa as well. Standing armies have the weapons and discipline for this work, but not necessarily the training to operate in a domestic policing role. Using armies for this role is often counter-productive.

Mexican Pres. Enrique Pena Nieto proposed the gendarmerie during his 2012 election campaign. As a solution to the country’s cartel problem, the plan appeared fresh and innovative.

But a force of 5,000 troops guarding limes is a drastic reduction in what Pena intended. The initial plan called for a force of 40,000 troops that would effectively replace the military and Federal Police on Mexico’s streets.

In theory, this would free up the Federal Police to do what it’s supposed to do—investigate crimes. It would also reduce the government’s reliance on regular army troops for what are, in effect, civilian policing jobs.

But the opposition National Action Party criticized the force as redundant—with resources better spent on training and equipping the Federal Police rather than creating an entirely new force. A coalition of NGOs also criticized the plan as excessively militaristic.

So the government whittled down the gendarmerie. Yet it’s found a new role for them in defending limes. Mexico City is also trying to get a handle on the civilian militias that have sprouted up in Michoacan.

“The government may now be using the gendarmerie to address the root causes of the vigilante movement—or at least win some political capital—in an attempt to deter the formation of more such groups,” wrote Latin America crime analyst Marguerite Cawley at InSight.

While the militias are effective at defending communities against the cartels, the government is wary of handing security over to armed men outside its control. But America needs its limes, and Mexico needs its lime exports—so someone has to guard them.

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