The Mexican military has taken control of the port of Lazaro Cardenas
The port, on the country's Pacific coast, is one of the busiest in Mexico
The goal of the operation is to thwart smuggling and corruption
One of Mexico’s most important seaports is now under the control of the military in a show of force as the government fights corruption and drug cartel violence.
The port of Lazaro Cardenas lies on the country’s Pacific coast, in the troubled state of Michoacan. While violence has tapered off in some parts of Mexico, Michoacan continues to be a hot spot of violence between cartels and, more recently, vigilante groups.
The Mexican navy, army, federal police and attorney general’s office swept into both the port and city of Lazaro Cardenas on Monday, relieving local law enforcement of its duties, a government spokesman said.
The objective of the operation is to “strengthen the rule of law, as well as the legality of the daily commercial activities of the port,” government spokesman Eduardo Sanchez said.
The use of the military is notable because it is strikingly similar to the approach favored by the previous administration. President Enrique Pena Nieto has been critical of his predecessor’s military approach to combat crime, but his own drug strategy keeps many aspects the same.
The Knights Templar cartel has long terrorized residents of Michoacan as it expanded its activities from methamphetamine production to extortion. The cartel has been known to go on the offensive against police. In one series of attacks this summer, 22 people were killed.
Given the violence in Michoacan, Pena Nieto has had little choice but to follow the strategy of former President Felipe Calderon, said George W. Grayson, a professor of government at the College of William & Mary and expert on drug cartels.
A number of factors have made Lazaro Cardenas an attractive port for smuggling.
For one, many of the young men who worked for the port and found themselves unemployed during the recession became prime recruits for the cartels, Grayson said. A selling point for legitimate commerce – that the port is in a central location – also attracted smugglers, he added.
Corruption has grown to the point that Michoacan became a “sewer of corruption and violence,” Grayson said.
According to Sanchez, the navy will be in charge of the port, and the army will provide protection on the city’s streets, with the aid of federal police.
The problem’s facing the port and city are not limited to criminal groups.
As the military moved in, the city’s entire police was disarmed and detained, Sanchez said. The officers will all be evaluated.
All of the public servants who oversee the port will be gradually replaced, he said, in order to “prevent collusion by and between officials.”
Lazaro Cardenas is one of Mexico’s key ports, handling the second-most volume of any port.
CNNMexico contributed to this report.