Lazaro Cardenas port has boomed in recent years, including as a hub for cartels. Now Mexico's government hopes to cut them off.
By Richard Fausset, November 7, 2013
Mexican troops are among the federal forces who have taken over control
of Lazaro Cardenas port from municipal police. A government spokesman
said officials had received tips about “acts of corruption” and
collusion with drug cartels.
MEXICO CITY — The city of Lazaro Cardenas is a scrappy Mexican success story.
industrial port, between Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco, has grown
significantly over the last decade, using cheap domestic dock labor and a
direct railroad connection to Texas to attract international cargo
ships that might have otherwise gone to the Port of Los Angeles.
But it also has earned a darker reputation.
Precursor chemicals for methamphetamine
are widely known to be smuggled in to Lazaro Cardenas in multi-ton
batches on ships arriving from Asia: One typical bust in December 2011
netted 1,600 barrels that had originated in Shanghai. The drug barons of
Mexico's wild western states are known to use Lazaro Cardenas as a
receiving point for cocaine shipments from Colombia and Peru, and to
ship drugs north to the United States.
The government of President Enrique Peña Nieto this week took its
boldest step yet in its effort to solve the problems plaguing Mexico's
second-busiest container port, sending in the military and federal
police to take over security functions from the municipal police force.
Federal officials hope to cut off a key source of profit for the
cartels, particularly a group known as the Knights Templar, whose reign
of terror has plunged much of the surrounding state of Michoacan into
Experts suspect that Peña Nieto's hand was forced by the
deteriorating security situation across Michoacan, an important
agricultural state just a few hours' drive from Mexico City. In numerous
mountain villages, the powerful Knights are locked in a vicious
struggle for control of drug routes with a competing cartel and are
battling a wave of armed peasant vigilante groups.
On Oct. 27, assailants believed by many to be cartel members blew up
at least nine electric power plants in Michoacan and bombed a number of
federally run gas stations. The attacks amplified the growing concern
that the state has devolved into something worse than a mere distraction
for a president who took office in December hoping to downplay the drug
war and focus on the economy.
"Now it's open terrorism, and clearly the state is out of control,"
said Jorge Chabat, a Mexico City security expert. "As a government, you
can't allow that. If Michoacan becomes ungovernable, soon your
neighboring states become ungovernable, and you lose the country."
A federal government security official told The Times in June that
Lazaro Cardenas had essentially fallen under the control of the Knights
Templar, which had branched out into a number of legal and illegal
business dealings that may have eclipsed its earnings from drug
shipments at the port.
This week, the newspaper Milenio, citing federal sources, described
what it called "a true gold mine" of commerce under Knights Templar
control, including trade in cattle, Chinese-made fashion knockoffs, and
pirated CDs and DVDs. The cartel is said to demand extortion payments
from tiny bars, tortillerias and multimillion-dollar companies alike.
And yet this wide-ranging corruption appears to have done little to
stymie the legitimate business of the port, which saw the number of
containers it handles yearly jump from 1,646 in 2003 to more than
950,000 in 2011, according to government figures. In November last year,
the Dutch company APM Terminals began construction on a $900-million
deep-water container terminal at Lazaro Cardenas.
Eduardo Sanchez, Peña Nieto's security spokesman, said this week that
the government had descended on Lazaro Cardenas after receiving tips
about "acts of corruption" and collusion with the drug cartels. The
Mexican navy is now charged with controlling the port area, and the
federal police and army are patrolling the streets. Sanchez said the
army would also "evaluate, and train, where appropriate" the municipal
Peña Nieto had already sent thousands of troops into Michoacan in
May, and the new deployment at the port further jeopardizes his ability
to make good on a campaign promise to move away from relying on the
military to fight the nation's drug war — a strategy that was favored by
his predecessor, Felipe Calderon.
"What's evident is that this idea that the security crisis could be
confronted without the army hasn't worked," Chabat said this week.
What is less evident is whether the troops will be capable of
bringing a long-term solution to the port. In December 2006, Calderon
kicked off his own war against the narcos of Michoacan by sending in
thousands of troops to the most troubled areas of the state, including
The mission, a navy official said at the time, was to "practically
seal the coasts of Michoacan to avert the trafficking of narcotics."