A lot has been said about the increasing militarization of the police in America in the wake of the overwhelming force shown in Ferguson, MO over the last few nights. Equipped with high-caliber sniper rifles, flashbang grenades, and armed personnel carriers, and dressed in camouflaged fatigues, actual military veterans have said that the police were better armed on Wednesday night than they were during the invasion of Iraq. And the treatment of civilians last night, including reporters, shows that they had far less training in crowd control and how to properly use those weapons.
In the United States, the military has actually done a better job of mitigating racial tensions than state and local police. It’s no coincidence that during times of racial strife, Eisenhower called out the National Guard, who were seen as neutral in the conflicts taking place in the southern towns and cities blocking racial integration. The South is the whole reason the Posse Comitatus Act was passed through Congress to prevent the use of local law enforcement officials from drafting the military into serving whatever ends the locals required. Coming at the end the military’s Reconstruction-era occupation of the South, the Act both effectively prevented local officials from shoring up their support through the military and in practice has come to be effectively a ban on the military from serving as a police force unless ordered by the president.
While that sounds good in light of the events in Ferguson, many of the countries with a gendarmerie — a hybrid of the military and police — or national police force have in their history systemic abuse and violations of human rights. Here’s a look at a couple of those countries:
The very term “gendarmerie” comes quite clearly from the French, who boast the most famous version of the military-police hybrid. Along side the gendarmes are the national police, with the former charged with more rural environments and the latter responsible for major cities. Though highly trained and professional today, their history has at least one major black spot: the Paris Massacre of 1961. “On Oct. 17, 1961, Algerians who were protesting for independence were killed in a bloody repression,” French president Francois Hollande said last year, breaking an official silence from the French government on just what happened on that day.
At the time, France was locked in war with Algeria, which wanted its independence despite French opposition. A peaceful protest of French-Algerians gathered in Paris to protest peacefully and in defiance of a curfew that had been placed. As many as 30,000 marched that day — the death toll still remains uncertain. “Thousands were rounded up, crammed into waiting buses and dispatched to holding centres,” Radio France International wrote of the incident decades later. “Following the massacre, the mutilated and disfigured bodies of Algerians were found dumped in the river Seine.”
Brazil has often been held up as the prime example of a military police that goes much too far in carrying out its duties. Every year, Amnesty International said last year, the Brazilian police is responsible for the deaths of 2,000 civilians. When the police cracked down on gang violence in 2012, the rate of violence skyrocketed. “Several drive-by shootings with multiple victims were thought to have been carried out by police as indiscriminate revenge for killings of their own comrades,” the Economist wrote. Likewise, 837 Brazilians reported being injured at the hands of the police or military while taking part in protests in 2013.
This can be seen as due to a few root causes, including Brazil’s history as a military dictatorship, which infused the police with a sense of invincibility when it comes to carrying out beatings and “disappearing” troublemakers. They also aren’t well trained to actually handle large crowds and protests. “A recent study revealed that 64 percent of respondents in the military and civil police admitted that they were not adequately trained to handle protests before those of 2013,” VICE reported earlier this year.
Mexico has been locked in a struggle against a vast network of cartels controlling the drug trade in the country for over a decade now. In waging that war, however, both the military and the Federal Police have proven to be part of the problem. One of the few branches of security in Mexico that’s seen as highly trusted is the Navy, hence their involvement in the death of one of the country’s most notorious drug lords. In campaigning for office, Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto in 2012 first proposed the idea of a force of 40,000 troops to replace the military and Federal Police in carrying out the day-to-day struggle against the cartels. That plan proved overly ambitious for the opposition political party in Mexico, leading to the launch last month of the newly created National Gendarmerie to help protect industry in Mexico, including limes that earlier this summer were experiencing a shortage thanks to cartel activity.
“The revised role of the force also suggests the government is reacting to recent evolutions in organized crime and security, and in particular the rise of vigilante movements,” analyst Marguerite Cawley wrote at InSight Crime. “The extortion of lime and avocado farming and mining by the Knights Templar in Michoacan was one of the main factors spurring the growth of self-defense militias, suggesting 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, which have challenged the state’s authority.” Whether the new force will see the same sort of corruption that has been endemic in Mexico’s other security forces remains to be seen.
Within the People’s Republic of China, the internal police are known as the People’s Armed Police Force, a group distinct from the rest of the People’s Police. Officially formed in 1982, when the government merged together parts of the People’s Liberation Army and the Ministry of Public Security’s units, no law governed precisely what they were supposed to do until 2009. “Armed PAPF officers will patrol China’s municipalities, provincial and regional capitals during periods of unrest, and take responsibility for the security of major transport lines and important public facilities,” Xinhua, one of China’s state-run news agencies, said at the time on the group’s newly defined role. One of the largest changes that the law provided was that local officials could no longer summon members of the PAPF, an effort meant to prevent abuse and the use of the police to carry out local vendettas.
This doesn’t mean that the PAPF’s hands have been clean in the run-up to their newly defined roles. A large part of the duties the force’s units have taken over the years is “riot control,” or the suppression of internal dissent. Members were deployed to Tibet in 1989 to help quash protests after Beijing declared martial law. And the People’s Armed Police were the first given the duty to clear Tienanmen Square in 1989, before the full army was brought in to devastating effect.