MEXICO CITY (AP) – Mexico's president announced a nationwide anti-crime plan Thursday that would allow Congress to dissolve local governments infiltrated by drug gangs and give state authorities control over often-corrupt municipal police.
The plan announced by President Enrique Peña Nieto came two months after 43 teachers college students disappeared in the Guerrero city of Iguala, allegedly killed and incinerated by a drug gang working with local police. Huge marches have been held to protest their disappearance.
Peña Nieto suggested his plan was influenced by the Iguala tragedy, noting its "cruelty and barbarity have shocked Mexico."
"Mexico cannot go on like this," he said. "After Iguala, Mexico must change."
As if to underscore the problem, authorities said Thursday that they had found the decapitated, partly burned bodies of 11 men dumped on the side of a road near another Guerrero city.
The president's plan would also relax the complex divisions between which offenses are dealt with at federal, state and local levels. At present, some local police refuse to act to prevent federal crimes like drug trafficking. It would also seek to establish a national identity number or document, though it was unclear what form that would take.
The plan would focus first on four of Mexico's most troubled states — Guerrero, Michoacán, Jalisco and Tamaulipas. More federal police and other security forces would be sent to the "hot land" region overlapping the first two states, where the government has already sent significant contingents of federal police and soldiers.
"My response to the police operation in the 'hot lands' is: 'What? Another one?'" said Mexico City-based security analyst Alejandro Hope, alluding to a string of previous anti-crime initiatives in the area. "The same as the others, for a limited time and without the right conditions?"
At a briefing for reporters later in the day, presidential chief of staff Aurelio Nuño said that within a year and a half the municipal police forces in those four states would be completely gone, replaced with state police under a clear command structure.
"What this case of Iguala has shown the government and I believe all of Mexican society, in a brutal and overwhelming way, is the level of weakness that exists especially in this part of the country in terms of security, justice and the rule of law," Nuño said.
The reforms, some of which would require constitutional changes, will be formally presented next week. They would include a single, nationwide emergency telephone number, which the president said could be "911," as in the United States. But Peña Nieto was vague in describing some of the proposals.
The focus on corrupt local governments reflects the shocking accusations made about the mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca. Prosecutors say he collaborated with a local drug gang and ordered the detention of the students by local police, who turned them over to gang gunmen.
Municipal governments currently enjoy high levels of autonomy and control their own police forces, something the president is now seeking to weaken. Nuño said an autonomous prosecutor's office would empowered to investigate municipal governments. If it found collusion with organized crime or other corruption there would be a mechanism, yet to be determined, that would allow the federal government to take control of the local government.
Similar broad, federal anti-crime plans announced in 2004 and 2008 brought some improvements in areas such as vetting of police officers, but failed to prevent some entire municipal police forces from being coopted by crime gangs. As a result, Mexicans have become skeptical of such announcements.
"More than announcements, the public needs to see concrete actions that make this rhetoric seem believable," said Pedro Torres, a law professor at the Tecnologico de Monterrey university's school of government. "There is definitely nothing new here that they haven't tried to implement before."
Peña Nieto began his administration in 2012 hoping to concentrate on economic and legal reforms and avoid the focus on drug-gang violence that dominated the term of his predecessor, Felipe Calderon.
Thursday marked Peña Nieto's first broad policy statement on the subject, a tacit acknowledgement that the issue had become unavoidable.