On April 14th the creation of the “Environmental Gendarmerie” was . This is a new police force tasked with preventing and fighting environmental crimes in Mexico’s Natural Protected Areas.
In contrast with other countries, Natural Protected Areas of Mexico (ANP is their Spanish acronym) are not public lands managed for the common good, rather they are a layer of regulation over a mosaic of private, communal and, sometimes, public lands. Nor are our ANPs’ park rangers currently armed or authorized to arrest environmental transgressors caught red-handed, which clearly limits their capacity to stop crimes such as illegal logging and poaching (see Conservación with Two C’s, part 1).
Facing such a reality it would seem that creating an armed force, devoted to protecting the natural resources of our country is a good idea… but is it really?
Although the verdict will have to wait until this force has had a chance to exercise its tasks, there are from the outset, several reasons to be worried by its sole creation.
What is the Gendarmerie?
Let’s start with the name and origin of it. The Environmental Gendarmerie will be a specialized group of the National Gendarmerie, a militarized and federal police force created in August 2014 in an apparent response to the nationwide demand to solve the problem of the infiltration by crime groups in state and municipal police forces. A problem that reached its lowest point with the forced disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, in the state of Guerrero, a month later.
In this case the militarized character of the National Gendarmerie is part of the strategy used in the past to disguise the establishment of a repressive State, with the argument of “we need a strong hand against crime\”. The strategy is enhanced with the new branding Gendarmeria to make it palatable by a society fed up with being unable to trust its own civilian security forces.
This latest policy was criticized from the beginning. People demand more accountability, more effective investigations and more actions that provide public and legal justice, not more police groups that will be either infiltrated by the mafia or used as tools for repression. It is striking to note that in the creation of the National Gendarmerie, opacity dominated, with no involvement of citizen groups, no establishment of counter or independent means to guarantee it behaves with integrity, while at the same time ignoring recommendations from independent foreign inspectors and Human Rights groups on how to proceed with grave cases such as the one in Guerrero.
Time and time again history has demonstrated that when the army (or militarized forces) is deployed internally it ends up becoming a mechanism to quash peaceful dissidence that opposes the economic policies of rulers. This is what’s happening in Mexico. The Mexican Centre for Environmental Defense (CEMDA) denounced in two separate communications the following:
Oct 24, 2014: “ …the Secretary of Treasury, Luis Videgaray, was questioned about how the Mexican government will promote security to investments in the country. His answer sent alarm signals to the organized citizen groups and indicates that the new Gendarmerie will be placed at the service of private companies that develop projects in Mexican territory.\”
: “The structural reforms of Enrique Peña Nieto’s government have become the greatest threat to environmental defendants in Mexico, of whom 11 have been murdered in the past 13 months.\”
The second statement was made during a press conference, and it’s based in CEMDA’s “Report on the Situation of Environmental Defenders in Mexico in 2015“, from which the information in the following two tables was also taken.
These examinations of recent attacks on environmental activists leave no doubt that those who oppose non-sustainable infrastructure “megaprojects\”, especially those related to water, become targets of violent reprisals directly executed by government agents or by those who enjoy the impunity these agents guarantee. To reiterate the information from the tables: only three cases of attacks on environmental activists were associated with identified criminals, whereas 37 were attributed to authorities.
Who does the Environmental Gendarmerie serve?
The link, from its birth, between the Gendarmerie and private interests behind controversial megaprojects, has a very obvious interpretation, but if you have any doubt take a closer look at the language used in a recent news release from the National Natural Protected Areas Commission (CONANP) to describe the agreement between the SEMARNAT (Environmental Ministry) and the National Security Council (NCS) through which the Environmental Gendarmerie was created:
May 31, 2016: “The objectives of the agreement are to safeguard the wellbeing of people; guarantee, maintain and reestablish peace and order in the federal Natural Protected Areas; as well as ensure the security of water installations in reservoirs, lakes and rivers.”
No mention of protecting wildlife. They are there to keep peace (watch out protesters) and protect water infrastructure.
Is it better than nothing?
Someone might argue: “They will protect wildlife, and to that end they will be trained in topics related with Protected Areas and threatened species” Yes they will… for a full week, as was announced by CONANP in the above news release, which we can suppose will mean at most 5 days of 8 hours in which they will have to become familiar with issues as diverse as environmental legislation, land tenure, threatened and endangered species, most common environmental crimes, international agreements, right to a healthy environment, rights of those living inside Natural Protected Areas, environmental criminology, restoration, connectivity, migration, mitigation, permitting for research, hunting and harvesting, roles of PROFEPA, CONAFOR, CONANP, DGVS, categories of NPAs, Areas Voluntarily Destined for Conservation, Environmental Management Units (see Conservación with Two C’s, part 1), mining and Agreements of Destiny. Not to mention that they will have to develop the skills to operate in wild areas, as I assume we all want them to be able to follow the tracks of a poacher through the Sonoran thorn-bush when it’s 104o in the shade, something they will have to do if they want to bring to trial those who kill jaguars today without fearing justice.
After that long week (or if they are lucky, after one or two additional weeks like that, before starting operations at the end of this year) they will be ready to exercise their duties and they will deploy, all 193 officers of the First Group of the Environmental Gendarmerie, on the 65,799,812 acres of Natural Protected areas at a ratio of one officer every 340,931 acres (in contrast Los Angeles covers 321,731 acres) or 1.09 officers for each of the 177 Natural Protected Areas. I can now sleep peacefully knowing wildlife will be protected…not really.
Is Conservation Strengthened?
The argument that environmental protection is strengthened fails to convince, it fails because the progress accomplished by CONANP in past years has been compromised recently by massive budget cuts that have led to the firing or resignation of many of the most senior employees of that agency, people who had built links of real trust with those living inside the ANPs, with members of non-governmental groups (NGOs), with researchers, and with visitors. CONANP is being dismantled to favor a militarized “environmental\” police manifestly favoring private interests associated with the extraction of natural resources. A police force that can move in and displace restless communities who oppose the building of aqueducts in their forests, because you need to remember we have to keep the peace and the water infrastructure.
While this happens many important processes are left in a bureaucratic labyrinth from which they may never exit, as is the case with new designations, management plans and the re-categorization of the Ajos-Bavispe reserve, a key area for the recovery of Mexican wolves, black bears, and jaguars in northwestern Mexico.
I am not convinced and neither should you be, that this is a step forward though I would hate to end this essay with a single critical tone, so I advance what I think could have been done:
In a first stage, groups of civilian police officers should have been formed by voluntary recruitment, in each state. Recruits would undergo a long and rigorous training in the Natural Protected Areas side by side with the current park rangers and subject to their same rules, prohibiting them to bear arms and forcing them to build ties within communities. This process, besides forging the right vision among the officers who complete it, could serve to discourage corrupt individuals used to easy extortions.
In a second stage two things should happen, the legal attributes of these officers should be expanded so they can serve as full law-enforcers equipped and authorized to carry out arrests, while at the same time current rangers should be invited to voluntarily join this new force after undergoing appropriate police training. Both forces, police and rangers would operate as a team under the command of the Natural Protected Area Directors, who would be given discretion to gradually incorporate armed officers into the communities with which they work.
Of course, the above is just a creative exercise, any model should really include ANP Directors, NGO members and communities in its design, from the beginning, my intent is to illustrate that there are alternatives and we should not buy into the argument that we need militarized forces in ANPs as soon as possible.
Right now all we can do is see how the Environmental Gendarmerie behaves and keep an eye on them so they don’t end up becoming the worst nightmare for genuine environmental defenders.