By Lizbeth Diaz
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A Mexican general took over all police and military operations in a chaotic western state on Thursday in a test run of President Enrique Pena Nieto's new security strategy to tame raging drug violence.
Alberto Reyes assumed control of all federal, state and city police forces, as well as military units in Michoacan, one of the most violent states in the country, after he was named the state's new security minister.
Big swaths of Michoacan have fallen under the sway of criminal gangs who are fighting among themselves and against authorities. Former President Felipe Calderon launched his military-led crackdown on drug cartels there in 2006.
Pena Nieto, who took office in December, has vowed to reduce the violence that has exploded in Mexico in the last decade by battling crime rather than hunting down drug lords.
He wants to create a new national police force and move away from Calderon's strategy of relying on the military, and he is clearly seeking to focus public attention away from violence and on to the economy.
More than 70,000 people have died in drug-related violence since Calderon began his offensive against the drug gangs. The government says the pace of killing has slowed since Pena Nieto took office in December, but thousands of people still died in his first months in office.
Calderon had sent out generals to lead operations in violence-racked states and cities such as Tijuana and Juarez, but they did not control the state and city police.
Michoacan has been grappling with civil unrest since April. Protesters repeatedly blocked major streets and highways in the capital and others cities. Compounding matters, vigilante groups have sprung up in the region this year, with masked militiamen claiming that state and federal police are not protecting them from criminal gangs.
Michoacan is a major center for methamphetamine production. Rival gangs are fighting over turf as they produce the drug in labs nestled among the poor state's rugged mountains, where marijuana and opium crops are also grown.
The state is known for brutal violence. In 2006, the feared La Familia cartel hurled five heads onto a cantina dance floor, setting off a wave of decapitations across the country that have typified many drug-related executions.
Earlier this year, seven bodies were set out on lawn chairs in the same town of Uruapan with a message for rival cartels.
"We want a more peaceful place," said Acting Governor Jesus Reyna at an event marking the general's new powers. "So that businessmen can do their work ... and citizens can go out in the streets in peace."
Pena Nieto says he wants to improve coordination among the country's different police forces, which have been subject to the unrelenting pressure of threats and bribes from the gangs.
"We are looking for a unified command with municipalities. This is going to be a minister with a lot of authority, with a lot of power," Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio said in a radio interview.
Many companies have shuttered operations or moved businesses in Michoacan amid the spike in violence in recent years, according to local media reports.
(Writing by Michael O'Boyle; Editing by Simon Gardner and Philip Barbara)