As Mexican drug cartels have grown in power and influence, they’ve also branched out. It is widely believed in Mexico that the cartels gradually took over the ports and customs facilities over the past 15 to 20 years. 

Now Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO to his supporters) has a bold and controversial plan to counter cartel influence and corruption in the ports: Legislation is being drafted to soon pass over control of ports and customs from the civil servants in the Transportation Ministry to the hands of the military. The story was first reported by Deutsche Welle (DW). 

AMLO has made it his vow since taking office to tackle corruption, drug and arms trafficking, and illegal timber and mineral trading. Because the civil government institutions, including the ports and customs services of Mexico’s maritime infrastructure, were under the cartel’s influence, he felt it was time to act.  

DW quoted Raul Benitez Manaut, a security expert at the Centro de Investigaciones sobre America de Norte (CISAN), a think tank, who said that it is well known that the ports and customs have widespread corruption. The cartels have gradually diversified their business operations from drug trafficking, murders, and kidnapping, into legitimate businesses ranging from logging, mining, and real estate.

Manaut added that, “President Lopez Obrador believes that the armed forces are less corrupt and can fight organized crime more effectively.”

The problem is well-known. In November 2013, the previous administration of Enrique Peña Nieto had placed the port of Lazaro Cardenas under military control, as local law enforcement officials had been infiltrated and corrupted by the cartels.

The ports are of strategic importance to both the Mexican government and the cartels: Illegal drugs and arms flow from the ports to all points of the globe, therefore control of the ports is hugely beneficial to the cartels. But with thousands of containers shipping in and out of the ports daily, stopping the illegal flows is much easier said than done, just like in the United States. 

Resultantly, the president is adamant about cleaning up corruption, “We will clean up and remodel the entire customs and port administration systems in the country,” Lopez Obrador said this summer. He even threatened to revoke the 100-year lease on the Port of Veracruz that is run by a private company. That declaration prompted dissension from inside his own administration and the Minister of Transportation resigned over it. 

It is universally recognized that the government has to step up its control over the ports and customs facilities to counter the corruption and influence of the cartels. Nonetheless, opposition leaders worry that the president’s plan is a recipe for disaster. 

Many believe that the Mexican military has neither the experience nor the training to run modern port and customs operations. Additionally, many in the maritime industry are worried that the decision could slow port operations thus undermining the economy.

Some opposition members worry that military control may lead to the military becoming business operators themselves and creating a monopoly in the procurement of maritime infrastructure. 

Opposition leaders also point out that one of Lopez Obrador’s campaign promises was to curb the rising influence of the military in every facet of government operations.

“The military budget is growing, and the army is taking over more and more state functions,” Obrador had said two years ago. But in essence, his actions are the exact opposite.

Others point out that this could potentially lead to corruption within the military. Currently, the plan features no checks and balances for the government to keep a watchful eye on the military to ensure that they too don’t become the exact thing that they are trying to stamp out.