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Facing unabated anger over students, Mexico leader vows police overhaul

The abduction and apparent murder of 43 college students has forced President Peña Nieto's hand. On Thursday, he promised sweeping security reforms. But many doubt if he can break a culture of impunity.

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Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced a new anti-crime plan at the National Palace in Mexico City on Thursday.

Eduardo Verdugo/AP

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Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto vowed Thursday to overhaul local policing and more firmly establish the rule of law across the country, his strongest response yet to the apparent massacre of 43 students.

The president’s announcement comes two months after a drug gang working with local police allegedly abducted and killed the students in the southwestern city of Iguala. His new anti-crime plan highlights the growing pressure from protesters to end impunity and brutality by law enforcement officials.

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Mr. Peña Nieto suggested his plan was influenced by the Iguala tragedy in a wide-ranging televised address, noting its "cruelty and barbarity have shocked Mexico,” The Associated Press reports.

"Mexico cannot go on like this," he said. "After Iguala, Mexico must change."

The plan outlined by Peña Nieto would allow Congress to dissolve local governments infiltrated by drug gangs. It also would effectively disband the more than 1,800 municipal police forces and put them under the control of the 31 state governments. A national 911 system would be installed, and jurisdiction confusion among the nation’s police, which often gets in the way of investigations, would be clarified, The New York Times reports.

The reforms, some of which would require constitutional changes, will be formally presented next week.

“These acts of violence demand that we redouble efforts to achieve the full application of rule of law,” Peña Nieto said.

The plan focuses first on four of Mexico’s most impoverished, crime-ridden states: Jalisco, Tamaulipas, Michoacan, and Guerrero, where the abduction took place. It calls for more police to be sent to the “hot land” region overlapping Michoacan and Guerrero.

But as The Christian Science Monitor reported last week, achieving lasting reform is unlikely to happen overnight, especially in Guerrero:

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For Guerrero, one of the poorest states in Mexico, preventing the next Iguala-like scenario would require an unprecedented level of outside resources. Guerrero has overwhelming illiteracy rates, with over 15 percent of the population unable to read, and a heavy infiltration of organized crime in the local government.

“The state does not exist,” [says Alejandro Orozco, a Mexico City-based security consultant with FTI Consulting]. "The power is in the hands of the cartels.”

Earlier on Thursday, authorities announced they had found the decapitated, partly burned bodies of 11 men dumped on the side of a road in Guerrero – a brutal reminder of the challenges ahead.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the president’s 40-minute speech “represented a marked contrast to his usually upbeat picture of Mexico, acknowledging widespread poverty, inequality, violence and corruption.”

Peña Nieto's address to the nation from the National Palace was aimed in part at showing him in control after several missteps. But it was unlikely to appease his many critics in a society that has become increasingly enraged and cynical since the students were last seen being led away by police Sept. 26.

Indeed, some of the president’s predecessors pursued similar reforms, including placing local police under state authority, only to see them fail in Congress. Many Mexicans have since grown skeptical of such sweeping announcements as a result.

“What everyone wants the government to do is to make sure that its security and justice systems are fair and safe,” Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center for International Scholars, told The Monitor. “No one expects things to be fixed overnight but [the government] needs to show progress on its justice reform, police reform, and the transparency of its institutions.”