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Mexico's Peña Nieto outlines overhaul of local police forces

Mexico's Peña Nieto proposes to overhaul local police, improve justice, create economic zones for poor

Careening from one crisis to another, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on Thursday announced a sweeping overhaul of local police forces, a package of constitutional amendments aimed at better meting out justice and the creation of special economic zones in the poorest parts of the country.

The president has been under fire for what many Mexicans consider his government's poor handling of the abduction and suspected massacre of 43 college students in the state of Guerrero. The federal government blames local police, who it says are in cahoots with politicians and drug gangs, for the disappearances, which in turn exposed a wide network of corruption and impunity throughout the country.

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.

On the same day he spoke, 11 more bodies turned up in Guerrero, burned and headless. Reports have surfaced in recent days of at least 50 other people kidnapped and missing from that state in the last year alone.

"Two months ago, Mexico suffered one of the most cowardly and cruel attacks by organized crime," Peña Nieto said. "The inhuman and barbaric acts … have shocked the entire nation.... The gravity of the moment must make us innovate and propose what has never before been tried."

He offered a 10-point program addressing many of the areas that he has been accused of neglecting since assuming office two years ago, such as promoting transparency and clean government. Peña Nieto says that security has been a main priority of his administration, though until recently he rarely spoke publicly of violence or drug trafficking, preferring to concentrate on the economy.

His 40-minute speech Thursday represented a marked contrast to his usually upbeat picture of Mexico, acknowledging widespread poverty, inequality, violence and corruption.

Perhaps the most significant of the measures offered by the president would dramatically streamline police forces in Mexican states. Currently, he noted, the country has a hodgepodge of nearly 2,000 police agencies. He proposed reducing and unifying police bodies into a single corps per state, meaning there would be 32 agencies.

That step alone, he said, would make for more professional, efficient and honest law enforcement in Mexico.

In addition, he announced the creation of a 911 emergency telephone system like the one that exists in the United States. Currently, there are dozens of numbers Mexicans can use to report different emergencies.

Peña Nieto also proposed changes in the constitution that would allow federal authorities to intervene in any municipality where local police or municipal governments are believed to be infiltrated by organized crime.

"Federal intervention in municipalities is a thermonuclear bomb" so powerful it might not be usable, security expert Alejandro Hope said. He added via his Twitter account that there would have to be strict standards and controls determining the levels of collusion before the federal government could intervene.

Overall, Hope said, many of Peña Nieto's proposals have been offered by previous governments to no avail, while the lack of details in Thursday's speech made it difficult to know whether they would succeed this time.

To fight corruption, Peña Nieto said, detailed information about contractors who take on government projects would be made public and contractors and builders who break the rules would be fined.

The president in recent weeks has been embroiled in several controversies involving a major building contractor who was awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in projects in the state of Mexico while Peña Nieto was governor there. It was later revealed that the same contractor built a $7-million mansion for Peña Nieto's wife, a former soap opera star, and lent her the money to pay for it. Around the same time the same contractor was part of a Chinese-led consortium that won a $4-billion bid to construct a bullet train out of Mexico City. That deal was revoked because of the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Peña Nieto did not address those specific cases in his speech Thursday.

Juan Pardinas, director of the Mexico Institute for Competitiveness, a think tank, attended the president's speech and then spoke on television about it. He praised some elements of Peña Nieto's program, such as the creation of special economic zones in the poorest states of Oaxaca, Chiapas and Guerrero. But he said the president needed to strike a more self-critical tone to win over any of his critics.

"The problem for the government now is a major lack of confidence," Pardinas said.

Twitter: @TracyKWilkinson

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

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