Mexican President Says Restoring Peace Is Country's Top Priority

  • Pena Nieto addresses violence in State of the Nation address
  • ‘Much to do,’ he says amid spread of organized-crime killings

President Enrique Pena Nieto on Saturday called for Mexico to redouble efforts against violence, saying that restoring peace to the nation is the biggest demand of society and top priority of his government.

Pena Nieto delivers a State of the Nation address on Sept. 2.

Photographer: Pedro Pardo/AFP via Getty Images

After falling in the first years of his administration, the rate of killings is on the rise again. That requires improvement in security forces at the local level across the country, Pena Nieto said. He urged Congress to pass an overhaul to turn 1,800 local police forces into 32 state units, an initiative that has been stalled for years, saying that the nation can’t depend on federal forces to permanently provide security in towns and municipalities.

"We still have much to do," Pena Nieto said in a nationally televised speech to his cabinet and hundreds of guests at the National Palace in Mexico City. "Today a great part of homicides aren’t related to organized crime but with common crimes, for which states and municipalities are responsible. It’s imperative that we address this weakness and the historical lags that exist in our local security forces."

Homicides have soared this year, reaching the highest rate this century, as drug cartels spar over trafficking routes. The drug war has also spread to top beach resorts like Cancun and Los Cabos, triggering a U.S. State Department travel advisory for both resorts and endangering a tourism industry that generates $20 billion annually.

Election Issue

The president’s reference to the spiraling violence signals the severity of the problem, and its likely importance in the upcoming presidential election to choose his successor next July.

While the Pena Nieto administration is credited with passing key economic reforms that have ended the state’s oil monopoly and triggered a plunge in prices for mobile-phone service, its record on security has been widely criticized. Successes at taking down drug kingpins like Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman may have only backfired by triggering bloody battles among traffickers fighting to replace them.

One of the biggest blots on the administration’s security record is its inability to resolve the case of 43 students almost three years after they disappeared at the hands of police -- who handed them over to heroin traffickers in the state of Guerrero.

In the speech, which lasted just more than an hour, Pena Nieto touted the administration’s economic achievements and advances in education and development. He also focused part of his speech on the U.S., drawing his biggest applause by saying that Mexico "won’t accept anything that goes against our dignity as a nation." 

Trump’s Wall

U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly demanded that Mexico pay billions of dollars for a border wall to keep out undocumented immigrants, some of whom he has called criminals and rapists. Mexico’s government has consistently said that paying for the wall is out of the question.

Pena Nieto expressed Mexico’s desire to strengthen the North American Free Trade Agreement, with the second round of negotiations to update the accord taking place in Mexico City through Sept. 5.

The Mexican president also voiced his support for immigrants illegally brought to the U.S. as children. Trump plans to announce on Sept. 5 whether he’ll scrap protections for them as he comes under new pressure from top congressional Republicans and hundreds of business leaders to keep the program. The young immigrants are known as "dreamers" after a proposal to shield them from deportation.

— With assistance by Andrea Navarro

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