Last call

VICTIMS OF CORRUPTION: Relatives of the 43 murdered students are seen arriving for a mass in Mexico City in October.
VICTIMS OF CORRUPTION: Relatives of the 43 murdered students are seen arriving for a mass in Mexico City in October. AFP/Getty Images

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto last week proposed a major reform of the country’s police structure in a belated response to a series of events that have turned into a crisis of legitimacy testing the young president’s ability to govern effectively.

The disappearance and subsequent murder of 43 students from a teachers’ college after a protest in the southern city of Iguala have shaken the country like no other event in decades. The revelation that local police forces and drug criminals colluded in the massacre, acting under the orders of the local mayor, enraged Mexican citizens, who have focused their anger on Mr. Peña Nieto’s government and a political system that tolerates rampant police corruption.

For years, Mexico’s police have been an object of public derision and contempt for unprofessional behavior and corruption. The numbers bear them out: Only about 2 percent of crimes in Mexico result in convictions, according to a variety of sources. Bribery is commonplace, and abuse of detainees often is denounced, though rarely punished.

Even worse, collusion between drug traffickers and police forces, as in the Iguala incident, has become a national disgrace. The government says the students were murdered and their bodies incinerated after police handed them over to a drug gang on orders of the local mayor, who has since resigned and is now in custody.

“Mexico cannot continue like this,” Mr. Peña Nieto said in a speech to an assembly of political leaders. He’s right, of course. This seems to be the last call for Mexico, at long last, to create an effective system of law enforcement that can earn the public’s respect.

The question is whether Mr. Peña Nieto is up to the task of channeling the public’s indignation in a way that produces positive and much-needed change in Mexico even though it challenges the established political order.

His proposal is to form a national police force, which is easier said than done. Mexico has a bewildering variety of police forces in hundreds of municipalities, 31 states and the capital of Mexico City. In most places, the police chief is beholden to the local political leader or governor for his job. Most forces are characterized by poor training and salaries as low as $100 a week, which makes them easy prey for gangsters needing protection.

Obviously, the restructuring Mr. Peña Nieto is proposing in an initiative to Congress represents a major undertaking, but a necessary one. “After Iguala, Mexico has to change,” he said last week, noting that the reforms aimed to create a new law against infiltration by organized crime and redefine powers in the penal system.

The stakes for Mexico are all important. Mexico’s jaded public has time and again been promised a reform of the public-security sector, but it has yet to take place. This time, however, the Mexican public truly appears to be fed up and will not be mollified by transparently phony political stagecraft or meaningless rhetoric. Mr. Peña Nieto must lead a real change in direction that improves the security of the Mexican people or face increasing public anger.

The stakes are high, as well, for the United States, where immigration is a front-burner issue. The bulk of the undocumented immigrants in this country come from the country on our southern border. Until Mexico can raise its living standards and its people can trust their own police forces, seeking a better life north of the border will remain, for many, the best option for a better future.