MEXICO CITY - Mexican drug cartels looking to diversify their businesses long ago moved into oil theft, pirated goods, extortion and kidnapping, consuming an ever larger swath of the country's economy. This month, federal officials confirmed the cartels have even entered the country's lucrative mining industry, exporting iron ore to Chinese mills.
Such large-scale illegal mining operations were long thought to be wild rumor, but federal officials confirmed they had known about the cartels' involvement in mining since 2010, and that the Nov. 4 military takeover of Lazaro Cardenas, Mexico's second-largest port, was aimed at cutting off the cartels' export trade.
That news served as a wake-up call to Mexicans that drug traffickers have penetrated the country's economy at unheard-of levels, becoming true Mafia-style organizations, ready to defend their mines at gun point.
In this Aug. 14 photo, Mexican army soldiers enter the iron ore mine in the town of Aquila, Mexico. A resident of Aquila, said that since 2012, the Knights Templar cartel demanded residents hand over part of the royalty payments from the local iron ore mine operated by Ternium, a Luxembourg-based consortium.
Three Michoacan state detectives were wounded in an ambush earlier this week when they were traveling to investigate a mine taken over by criminals. When reinforcements arrived, those officers were also ambushed, part of a string of attacks on police in Michoacan on Wednesday and Thursday that left two officers dead and about a dozen wounded.
The Knights Templar cartel and its predecessor, the La Familia drug gang, have been stealing or extorting shipments of iron ore, or illegally extracting the mineral themselves and selling it through Pacific coast ports, said Michoacan residents, mining companies and current and former federal officials. The cartel had already imposed demands for "protection payments" on many in the state, including shopkeepers, ranchers and farmers.
But so deeply entrenched was the cartel connection to mines, mills, ports, export firms and land holders that it took authorities three years to confront the phenomenon head-on. Federal officials said they are looking to crack down on other ports where drug gangs are operating.
"This is the terrible thing about this process of (the cartel's) taking control of and reconfiguring the state," said Guillermo Valdes Castellanos, the former head of the country's top domestic intelligence agency.