How to direct Mexican fury over gang killings

The gang killings of 43 students sparks outrage over local organized crime and President Peña Nieto’s security policies. Yet at least three cities have set models for how to curb gang violence and increase respect for rule of law.

People at the Monterrey Institute of Technology in Monterrey, Mexico, light candles around the photographs of students from the Ayotzinapa teachers' training college allegedly killed by a gang in the city of Iguala.

After gang violence erupted in many American cities two decades ago, Boston set a model on how to curb it. Local pastors and police worked together to reach troubled young men. Perhaps something similar can now happen in Mexico. The country is in an uproar over the killing of 43 college students in the city of Iguala, allegedly by a local drug gang in collusion with local officials.

Fortunately, Mexico already has a few models in at least three cities – Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez and Monterrey – that have recently reduced gang violence. These models deserve attention even as public outrage over the student killings is directed at President Enrique Peña Nieto for not doing enough to curb local organized crime.

Since 2006, Mexico has made remarkable progress against the once-powerful drug cartels. Drug-related homicides are down. Even more remarkable are economic reforms approved during Mr. Peña Nieto’s two years in office. But local gangs still survive, which may account for the rise in kidnappings. 

Some experts say more than half of municipalities are in collusion with local gangs. Iguala’s mayor and his wife, for example, were arrested in connection with the student killings, along with dozens of others. Obviously, Mexico’s efforts at reforming its judiciary and police have not reached that southern city. One big reason may be that local business and civil activists have yet to join hands and change the culture and politics.

In a few cities such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, however, public outrage over gang violence sparked grassroots reform. Juárez was once the most dangerous city in the world. But massacres there helped galvanize a civic movement that resulted in a sharp drop in homicides. Reform in these cities was aided by money from both the United States and Mexican governments, directed at rebuilding communities through social programs. In addition, local journalist were trained to ferret out corrupt activities.

In an academic article last year, Andrew Selee of the Woodrow Wilson Center explained a larger shift in thinking among Mexicans since their democracy was fully restored in 2000: 

“A series of reforms to allow citizens access to information about public decision making, which has taken place over the past decade, have been helpful in generating greater accountability,” he wrote. “Citizens who have experienced positive outcomes expect more of their politicians and, in Mexico, they now have some of the tools to hold their leaders accountable for their decisions.”

Since the Iguala killings in September, Mr. Peña Nieto has promised a grand effort “to undertake fundamental change, strengthen our institutions and ensure full respect of the rule of law in our country.” His leadership is welcome. But most critical to any crackdown on local gangs and corruption would be a shift in thinking among local civil society and business groups. They need only look at models in a few other Mexican cities.

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