MEXICO CITY – Mexico launched a special 5,000-strong police force Friday to combat industrial, farm and business crime that has extended throughout the country's economy, strangling commerce in some regions.
Drug gangs have long penetrated some Mexican mining and agricultural sectors, but officials now reveal that everyone from fishermen to tourist resorts to banana growers have been hit by the wave of extortion, kidnapping and thefts by the gangs.
In some cases, like the western state of Michoacan, the cartels and gangs cut down trade so much that "even the barbershops weren't serving customers. The whole social fabric broke down," said National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido.
The new force, known as the gendarmerie, is made up of fresh recruits whose average age is 28 and who have never served on another police force. Its officers were trained by the Mexican army and its commanding officers got training from police forces from Colombia, Chile, Spain, France and the U.S.
Gendarmerie members will be a division of the federal police and will be sent to areas where there is an organized crime presence and there is no economic activity because production is being restricted by the criminals.
"The officers of the new gendarme force ... are trained to serve the population on foot, and on horseback, in rural, urban, tourist and border zones," President Enrique Pena Nieto said.
Most Mexicans had long been aware that parts of the country had such problems, such as Michoacan, where the Knights Templar cartel told farmers when to plant and took a cut on every product and even ran the iron ore industry. In the northern border state of Tamaulipas, demands for businesses to pay protection money have been common.
Mexico's national statistics institute estimated that in 2012, the latest figures available, that crime cost the country about $16.5 billion, or 1.3 percent of GDP.
But the breadth of problems that authorities have now acknowledged is staggering.
Luis Montoya Morelia, the head of federal police in Tamaulipas, said the hyper-violent Zetas cartel had threatened fishermen on the Gulf coast, forcing them to sell their catch to the cartel for just 7 cents per kilogram (3 cents per pound). The gang would then apparently take the fish to market and sell it for full price.
Rubido said cattle ranchers in southern Mexico were buying sorghum abroad because nobody would rent harvesting machines to sorghum growers in Tamaulipas, apparently fearing the cartels would burn or steal the equipment. This year, under police and military protection for every stage from harvest and packing to distribution, Tamaulipas was able to bring in a bumper crop.
Banana growers in the steamy southern Gulf state of Tabasco also have come under gang pressure. When the banana harvesting season comes around, extortion and kidnappings rise to some of the highest rates in Mexico, Rubido said.
On the southern Pacific coast, gangs threaten the resorts of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo, though Rubido did not offer specifics on the threat there.
Michoacan offers the most extreme example of the cartels' Mafia-style control, especially with the region's main crop, limes. "The planters, pickers, packing houses and distributors all had to pay a cut for the right to operate or ship to the criminals," Rubido said.
It wasn't immediately clear how the small gendarmerie force will be used to attack such widespread problems. The task to date has largely fallen to soldiers and marines, whose tactics have spawned continuing complaints. But it doesn't appear the new gendarmes will be numerous enough to replace military units in a broad range of law enforcement roles.
"It is naive to think that just by creating a new force with people who haven't been in the police before ... things are going to change," said Miguel Moguel, a researcher at Mexico's Fundar think tank.
"We have been creating new police forces for decades — armored police, 'incorruptible, super-trained police,'" but with disappointing results, he said.
This year, the government even took the unprecedented step of providing guns, uniforms and salaries for former vigilantes in Michoacan, recruiting about 2,000 of them into the newly created "Rural Force." But critics say that force has little oversight and training.
Mexico hopes the gendarmerie will help break the cartels' economic stranglehold, but Rubido said it won't be easy. "Many times they have attacked with grenades," he said of the cartels.
Associated Press writer E. Eduardo Castillo contributed to this report.