MEXICO CITY — Mexican avocados, on their journey to guacamole bowls the world over, often first pass through cartel-controlled farmlands, where extortion can raise prices, drag down the economy and put farmers at risk.
The same goes for limes from Michoacan, sorghum from Tamaulipas, shrimp from Sinaloa.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on Friday announced the inauguration of a new police unit intended to protect the production chain and take on other unorthodox assignments.
Nieto said Friday that the new force will “serve and protect Mexicans in areas where it is needed, or where institutions are weak.”
Since his 2012 inauguration, Peña Nieto has sought to fulfill a campaign promise for a new police force to shore up law and order in Mexico. Over that time, the 5,000-man gendarmerie has changed shape and suffered delays in its inception.
The early concept was that the gendarmerie would be far larger and made up of military personnel. But now it has shrunk and been subsumed into the civilian federal police and will serve as one of its seven divisions.
Critics of the project have argued that there isn’t much need for a primarily rural-based force, as the majority of crime takes place in urban areas — and that its mission will be difficult to distinguish from those of other security forces.
In addition to protecting rural commerce, officials say the gendarmerie will be called upon as needs arise, such as guarding mines or boosting security at tourist beaches. Community outreach in troubled areas is also an aspect of the plan.
“The end goal is the tranquility of the citizens, and to give them that tranquility you have to safeguard families, schools, workplaces,” Mexico’s national security commissioner, Monte Alejandro Rubido Garcia, told reporters this week. He added that it is “fundamental” that “we improve the image of the police.”
Corruption and infiltration by cartels have been recurring problems for Mexican police, particularly at the local level. Mexican officials say the gendarmerie will be better trained and educated. In establishing the force, they have worked with police from France, Colombia, Chile, Spain and the United States. Mexican officials said that more than 100,000 people applied for the 5,000 positions.
Since Peña Nieto took over in December 2012, official statistics show that violence has fallen from its highs in the previous administration. Last year, for example, the number of homicides fell by 15 percent. But large swaths of the country still live with the intimidation of organized crime. In many places, local police have worked in tandem with the cartels.
“The difference is that this will be a highly specialized group, with good training, with good salaries,” said Raul Benitez-Manaut, a researcher at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City. “The government has to show that the gendarmerie will do their jobs well.”