11/05/2014 05:21 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

How 'Mexico's Moment' Became 'Mexico's Murder'

An aloof President Obama angered many when he was caught playing golf moments after addressing the beheading of journalist James Foley at a press conference. Now imagine that some weeks after this incident, the following headline surfaces: "Martha's Vineyard police department on ISIS payroll, Feds take over the island." In Mexico there's no need to pretend; a version of this scenario happened.

On weekends, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto goes golfing at Ixtapan de la Sal, a touristy town about two hours from Mexico City. The municipality made recent headlines when the entire police department, comprising 80 agents, was detained by federal forces and taken to the military headquarters of the neighboring state of Tlaxcala for questioning. The very local policemen who had had to remain alert while the president golfed are now suspected of collaborating with Guerreros Unidos, the cartel splinter cell that triggered a national tragedy by allegedly kidnapping and executing the 43 Ayotzinapa college students.

The mayor of Iguala and his wife, accused by the federal government of masterminding the disappearance, were detained Tuesday.

The rampant police corruption that haunts Mexico has made many protesters aim their anger at the president. Some are calling for his resignation. This is a twist for Peña Nieto, who, during his first two years in office, benefited from the nation's rebranding through "MEMO" or "Mexico's Moment," a term renowned publications used to tout Mexico as the new and improved Brazil. "Whereas growth in the emerging world has slowed down, major developing economies like Mexico continue to boast solid foundations for future growth and social progress," President Peña Nieto wrote in The Economist.

Nonetheless, the judicial-system and law-enforcement crisis the Ayotzinapa tragedy unveiled has made the MEMO bubble burst.

The discovery of numerous mass graves, unidentified burned and mutilated bodies, all enabled by Mexico's fragile rule of law, has resulted in nationwide outrage and a new global perception that can now be coined as "MEMU," or "Mexico's Murder."

Impunity has now eclipsed Peña Nieto's set of approved reforms that tackle everything from telecommunications to energy. It has also obscured the recent high-profile captures of drug kingpins Hector Beltran-Leyva and Vicente Carrillo Fuentes.

Lack of security and trust in Mexican law enforcement is putting the Mexican economy -- Peña Nieto's media darling -- at risk. Mexico's Central Bank director Agustín Carstens recently admitted that this is taking a toll on growth. So did Peña Nieto's finance minister, Luis Videgaray.

Tourism, one of the primary components of the economy, is bound to be affected. Last month, police in Guerrero shot at a van and injured a German student. One can't help but think what this will do to Mexico's already declining university-foreign-exchange programs. In an article for Foreign Affairs Latin America, Francisco Marmolejo, an education specialist for the World Bank, points out that in the last 16 years the flow of U.S. students going to Mexico has decreased by 43 percent. Negative media coverage and American government-issued travel warnings have played a significant role.

Moreover, who would want to invest in a nation that cannot protect infrastructure? Fed-up demonstrators in Guerrero burned down the Ministry of Finance, the Municipal Palace, and several police buildings and looted shopping malls.

MEMO was a mirage. It is time for Mr. Peña Nieto to acknowledge this and understand that above energy, telecommunications, and finance, what Mexico really needs is judicial reform, one that cleans and strengthens law-enforcement institutions.

The Peña Nieto administration has demonstrated a keen ability to create political coalitions that have mobilized lawmakers across all parties, most recently evidenced in the consensus he shaped in Congress to pass his reforms. The president should now use these same skills to tackle impunity. He will have to devote all his energy and political resources to face organized crime and the rampant corruption it produces -- a task that will be much more complicated than passing the reforms and much less glamorous for his image.

But Peña Nieto can no longer pick and choose; establishing the rule of law has to be his legacy. The president acknowledged this when he told the press that the students' disappearance is a moment that will put Mexico's institutions to the test.

So far institutions are failing, at least in winning the hearts and minds of the public sphere. Justice is what Mexico craves. Peña Nieto needs to show some fire in his belly and rid federal, state and municipal institutions of corruption.

Only then can the president return to his favorite golf course and Mexicans can find some meaning -- a positive legislative outcome, perhaps -- in this brutal tragedy.