Americans have made avocados the new cash crop for Mexico’s drug cartels

I have been loosely following the kidnapping of the well-known Mexican conservationist Homero Gómez González, who has made it his pet cause to protect the habitat of monarch butterflies who migrate to Mexico annually.

Left-leaning American news media like NPR have made it sound as if he was likely murdered by one of Mexico’s cartels for his conservation efforts. If you read the local papers in Mexico, however, it seems like he was simply another citizen kidnapped for ransom money. It’s makes a less interesting narrative and reinforces the point that Mexico is not as safe of a country as it used to be, which many take to be merely a Trumpian talking point rather than a physical reality. But it is worth withholding judgment until the facts are out.

Anyhow, thanks to my interest in this story, I have learned a lot about the avocado industry. People in the US take it for granted that an endless stream of avocados will be imported to Mexico to feed the new fad of putting avocado on virtually everything. I’ve even seen pajamas and blankets being marketed to the Millennial and Generation Z crowd that have avocados on them.

America’s demand for avocados has turned avocados into a multi-billion dollar industry in Mexico. This means that the cartels that would usually be trafficking in heroin and marijuana are now deforesting land in monarch preserves for … illegal avocado orchards.

Organized crime in Mexico and Central America has been diversifying away from drugs for a while now:

The cartel members showed up in this verdant stretch of western Mexico armed with automatic weapons and chainsaws.

Soon they were cutting timber day and night, the crash of falling trees echoing throughout the virgin forest. When locals protested, explaining that the area was protected from logging, they were held at gunpoint and ordered to keep quiet.

Stealing wood was just a prelude to a more ambitious plan.

The newcomers, members of a criminal group called the Viagras, were almost certainly clearing the forest to set up a grow operation. They wouldn’t be planting marijuana or other crops long favored by Mexican cartels, but something potentially even more profitable: avocados.

Mexico’s multibillion-dollar avocado industry, headquartered in Michoacan state, has become a prime target for cartels, which have been seizing farms and clearing protected woodlands to plant their own groves of what locals call “green gold.

More than a dozen criminal groups are battling for control of the avocado trade in and around the city of Uruapan, preying on wealthy orchard owners, the laborers who pick the fruit and the drivers who truck it north to the United States.

“The threat is constant and from all sides,” said Jose Maria Ayala Montero, who works for a trade association that formed its own vigilante army to protect growers.

After seizing control of the forest in March, the Viagras announced a tax on residents who owned avocado trees, charging $250 a hectare in “protection fees.”

But they had competition. Rivals from the Jalisco New Generation cartel wanted to control the same stretch of land — and residents were about to get caught in the middle of a vicious fight.

In May, a convoy of pickup trucks loaded with Jalisco fighters raced into the woods and an hourlong gun battle broke out.

Juan Madrigal Miranda, a 72-year-old professor who runs a small nature center in the area, cowered on the floor of his small cabin as bullets flew overhead.

His fear eventually gave way to anger at the growing power of the criminals, 10 of whom died in the forest that day.

“Around the country, the cartels want land, forest and water,” Madrigal said. “Now they are fighting for the keys to life.”

Homicides are at an all-time high in Mexico, which has long been home to the world’s most powerful and violent narcotics traffickers. Yet much of the killing today has little to do with drugs.

Organized crime has diversified.

In Guanajuato state, the homicide rate has nearly tripled over the last three years as criminals battle for access to gasoline pipelines, which they tap to steal and sell fuel.

In parts of Guerrero state, cartels control access to gold mines and even the price of goods in supermarkets. In one city, Altamirano, the local Coca-Cola bottler closed its distribution center last year after more than a dozen groups tried to extort money from it. The Pepsi bottler left a few months later.

In Mexico City, bar owners in upscale neighborhoods must pay taxes to a local gang, while on the nation’s highways, cargo robberies have risen more than 75% since 2016.

Compared with drug trafficking, a complex venture that requires managing contacts across the hemisphere, these new criminal enterprises are more like local businesses. The bar to entry is far lower.

This new approach to organized crime was pioneered by the notorious Zetas cartel and spread in response to the government’s 2006 declaration of war on drug traffickers.

Mexican forces, with strong U.S. support, focused on capturing or killing cartel leaders. But that strategy backfired as the big cartels fractured into smaller and nimbler organizations that sought criminal opportunity wherever they could find it.

“For many of those smaller groups, it’s far easier to just prey on local populations,” said Falko Ernst, a Mexico-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, which promotes nonviolent solutions to conflicts. “It’s a myth that it’s only about drugs.”

In Michoacan, where there have been dozens of cartel splits over the last dozen years, organized crime’s invasion of the avocado industry is a microcosm of what is happening elsewhere in the country — and a potent illustration of how the government has unintentionally fueled more violence.

Many people here now long for the early 1990s, when just one family trafficked drugs through the region and the state was largely at peace.

America’s favorite food has become a source of serious misery to families in Mexico:

Originally part of La Familia and later the Knights Templar cartel, which emerged in 2011 after the government crackdown, the Viagras later joined a government-run rural police force designed to topple the cartels.

When that force was disbanded, the Viagras lost their paychecks. But they still had their weapons and military-style training, so they returned to crime.

At the same time, another important change was transforming the state: Americans were falling in love with avocados.

Between 2001 and 2018, average annual U.S. consumption increased from 2 pounds per person to nearly 7.5 pounds.

Michoacan, whose plentiful rain, sunshine and rich volcanic soil make it an ideal place to grow the fruit, was uniquely positioned to capitalize on its rising popularity. It is the only state in the country allowed to sell to the United States, which banned avocados from Mexico until 1997 over concerns about pests.

As exports of Michoacan avocados boomed — on their way to $2.4 billion last year — luxury housing developments and car dealerships sprang up in Uruapan and elsewhere as huge swaths of forest were cleared to grow more.

And the increasing number of criminal groups all wanted a piece of the action.

On a recent chilly morning at a large farm a few hours outside Uruapan, dozens of avocado pickers sipped coffee around a crackling fire, preparing for a grueling day.

Scaling trees and clipping avocados pays much better than many jobs in Mexico — $60 a day compared with the $5 minimum wage — but it increasingly comes with serious risks.

Mayco Ceja, a slight 28-year-old who spent his childhood in California, said the dozen-man team of pickers that he leads was recently summoned to a farm that turned out to be run by gang members.

“They came at us with pistols,” he said. “They forced us to pick for seven hours and didn’t pay us.”

On other occasions, gangs have barred his team from working in order to create a scarcity in supply, which raises the profits for cartel-controlled groves.

Before the Valencia family trafficked drugs, it grew avocados, and it is an open secret here that for decades criminals have used avocado farms to launder money. But never have the lower rungs of the industry been so vulnerable, with multiple gangs extorting cash from small-time growers and state officials recording an average of four truckloads of avocados hijacked each day.

One driver, who was heaving 45-pound crates of avocados into a tractor-trailer, said that in the last six months he has been held up twice by armed men who forced him to drive to a safe house and unload there.

He was too afraid to give his name. “They’ll come to your house and shoot up your whole family,” he said. “Kids included.”

Last year, 1,338 people were killed in Michoacan, more than any year on record. This year has been even deadlier, with 1,309 homicides through October, putting the death toll on track to top 1,500.

Security has become so tenuous that in June a group of avocado producers bought ads in several national newspapers warning of an “irreparable impact” to the industry unless officials address the problem.

In August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture temporarily suspended its avocado inspection program in a town near Uruapan after threats to some of its employees. Local media reported that one inspector had been carjacked and another group of employees subjected to intimidation after they canceled a farm’s certification.

That whole piece is rather eye-opening. I have only included small excerpts here, but it is worth reading.

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