LAZARO CARDENAS, Mexico — This strategic port has been a major moneymaker for the powerful Knights Templar drug gang, which extorts millions from the city’s businesses and smuggles in meth-making chemicals from Asia.
But President Enrique Peña Nieto’s decision last this month to deploy troops to Lazaro Cardenas marks a new attempt to sever the cartel’s economic lifeline by putting a stop to its criminal activities here.
By replacing hundreds of local police and customs officials, many suspected of collaborating with drug cartels, and installing soldiers in top port positions and at highway checkpoints, the government hopes to improve the international image of a port that in recent years has become a key transit point for Asian goods heading to the United States.
But some port officials and residents in this Pacific seaside city worry that the presence of the troops, patrolling roads and waterways in camouflage, could scare off trade and investors in the short term, at a time when port business is booming.
From his perch 145 feet above the waterways, control tower chief Mario Villalvazo oversees cranes and container-stacked freighters steaming in from around the world. Since the military moved in, Villalvazo’s view has changed quickly.
“Today, five. Yesterday, only three,” he said on a recent day, scanning his white-board tally of cargo ships, which had previously reached 15 to 20 per day. “Yesterday was the slowest day of the year.”
“For the city, this has been good. For the port, no,” Villalvazo said. “The port is an area of business, not a military area.”
Other port officials and businessmen hope the opposite ultimately will be true. They say the military intervention should improve the reputation of the port and ultimately attract more investors.
Over the past decade, cargo business to Lazaro Cardenas, the deepest port in Mexico, has more than doubled, reaching an estimated 36 million tons this year and putting it in the top 10 of Latin American ports. Japanese cars, Chinese clothes and toys, and giant steel beams are shipped in and run by train through Mexico, north to Texas. Ships laden with Mexican oil and minerals motor out to Asia.
But amid that trade, mafias have earned soaring profits from extortion and illicit business, in particular from moving precursor chemicals for methamphetamine, much of which makes its way to the United States.
The Knights Templar, a pseudo-religious group, is believed to wield the most influence at the port.
“The Knights Templar have enormous control over Lazaro Cardenas,” said a security official in Michoacán, the western Mexican state that contains Lazaro Cardenas, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the matter candidly. “They are less involved in drug trafficking than they are in charging for each container that enters.”
In April, two men walked into an import-export business at the port and calmly delivered their demand to a receptionist: $2,000 a month for protection, according to the business’ owner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the extortion attempt. When the company refused to pay, the men persisted, returning five or six times and calling so often that the owner said he changed the number.
“It’s very intimidating, that they would arrive directly to the office and demand money,” the owner said. “I think they’ve been coming to all the businesses.”
“This has always been a port with crime, but in the last few years it has gotten much worse,” he added. “The problem is the army can’t be here forever.”
On the city streets, soldiers now man checkpoints and patrol in camouflaged trucks. Navy officials now have the top jobs in port administration and security. Federal police have commandeered the Hotel Vina del Mar. Military patrol boats chase away fishermen who come too close to the docks. More than 100 municipal police were removed and sent away for training, and even more customs officials are to be replaced.
“We have been waiting for this for more than a year,” Michoacán’s governor, Fausto Vallejo, said of the troop deployment in an interview.
But locals worry that the changes may be more cosmetic than substantive, and that the Knights Templar’s ties to local business and government might be too deep to uproot. Taxis and buses here went on strike for two days to protest the military’s arrival, a move that some residents insist was ordered by the Templars.
“Fear is a business, and it is a good business,” said a journalist who lives in town and said he was afraid to speak publicly.
The recent slow days also might be a coincidence, other port officials said, or the result of rival ports up the coast trying to capitalize on the takeover by saying Lazaro Cardenas was closed.
A local manager for Kansas City Southern of Mexico, the branch of the U.S.-based railroad company that moved more than 20,000 containers out of the port last month, said customs inspections are now “a little more rigorous” than before. His boss, company President Jose Zozaya, visited the port last this week and came away impressed with the new security measures.
“I feel the port is going in the right direction, and these measures will only help to improve the image of the port,” Zozaya said. He noted that his company had not noticed any unusual decline in commerce.
The new port administrator, Vice Adm. Jorge Luis Cruz Ballardo, said it was “possible” that illicit drug products moved through the port, but so far the new customs officials have not found any. His goal, he said, is to keep moving goods as quickly as possible.
“It is not possible to inspect all the containers,” the mustachioed 41-year veteran of the Mexican marines said. “Nor is it convenient, because the flow of commerce would be greatly interrupted. Christmas lights and trees wouldn’t arrive until January.”
Washington Post correspondent Gabriela Martínez in Mexico City contributed to this report.
© 2013, The Washington Post