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Mexico Swears In A New Police Force, But Many Aren't Impressed

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The president of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto, is in California this week. After meeting with Mexican-American leaders in Los Angeles, he'll go to Sacramento to address the State Assembly. Pena Nieto prefers to keep his public discussions focused on business and the economy, but border security will undoubtedly come up. Last week he swore in a 5,000-strong gendarmerie, or, police force. But it's not the 40,000-strong force that he promised while he was running for president and it's just aimed at protecting industry and agriculture.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports that experts worry it won't do much to solve the country's security problems.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Since taking office, President Enrique Pena Nieto has brought down some of the country's top cartel bosses. From a leader of the vicious Zeta drug gang, to the world's top crime boss, Joaquin Chapo Guzman. However, officials say as a result of those takedowns, gangs have splintered and branched out into other crimes, including extortion, kidnapping and increasingly, industrial theft from mines, oil pipelines and even farm fields.

National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido says the new gendarmerie, with its young, educated recruits, will protect everything from the lime crops of Michoacan state to the sorghum fields of Tamaulipas. Official estimates put the cost of crime in the country at more than $16 billion, a little more than 1 percent of GDP.

MONTE ALEJANDRO RUBIDO: (Spanish spoken).

KAHN: The goal is tranquility for our citizens, says Rubido. And in order to get that tranquility, we must safeguard all environments, including the workplace.

DAVID SHIRK: This, in my view, is just another pouring of old wine into new bottles and not a substantive change in the way that policing is going to work for the foreseeable future in Mexico.

KAHN: David Shirk is a security expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He says over the past three decades, every president who's come into office adds a new police agency and gives it a fancy name. Shirk says politically, Pena Nieto had to create the gendarmerie to fulfill his campaign pledge, but he says a true fix of Mexico's security issues would be to professionalize the police, purge corrupt officers and promote good ones on merit, not loyalties. Crime advocates agree and want more attention on the recent surge in kidnappings. Last year, more than 1,600 people were abducted, the highest number on record.

Isabel Miranda de Wallace, of the Association to Stop Kidnapping, says her group counted nearly twice that number - up to eight kidnappings a day.

ISABEL MIRANDA DE WALLACE: (Spanish spoken).

KAHN: And she says the targets have changed. It's not just the rich anymore, now working-class people, small-business owners and even students are being kidnapped. Americans too; as many as 70 reported so far this year. That and a rise in carjacking and robberies prompted the U.S. State Department to issue a new warning earlier this month about traveling in some parts of Mexico.

Officials here have objected strongly to the advisory. They point to a recent drop in homicides and the formation earlier this year of a new anti-kidnapping unit as proof of an improving security climate.

Anti-crime advocates counter that the decline is too recent and too small to claim victory just yet.

Crime victims agree. Monica, would only give her first name out of safety concerns, helps run a family business in Mexico City's huge central wholesale shopping district. Last year her husband was kidnapped.

MONICA: (Spanish spoken).

KAHN: Kidnappers called at 12 at night and said if she didn't give them money, they would cut her husband's finger off and send it to her. She says that the wholesale market, where most transactions are done in cash, she knows of five people who've been kidnapped in the past year, including a box boy, abducted for just 1,000 pesos - about $80.

Her husband was released after the family paid a sizable ransom, but she hasn't felt safe since. She thought about moving to the U.S., but says she wants to stay and fight for a better Mexico.

MONICA: (Spanish spoken).

KAHN: I keep working for Mexico, she says, but the government - what do they give me? Security? No. I don't have it.

Carrie Kahn. NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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