“What do Mexican drug cartels and avocados have in common?” you might ask. The answer? Extortion.
A recent article in the Mexican newspaper Reforma reported that the country’s drug cartels are putting the squeeze on avocado producers with threats of kidnapping and even death if the grower doesn’t fork over a percentage of their wages.
According to Reforma, various organized crime cells have tracked down producers through stolen farm records obtained from the agricultural ministry in the late 1990s. These records revealed the production levels, locations, and sales figures for farmers located throughout Mexico.
Why avocados, though? For cartels — typically known to make profit through criminal activities such as drug trade, smuggling, and human trafficking, avocado growers seem like unusual targets. Mexican officials have explained that extortion among crop producers has increased because drug cartels have begun seeking alternative income streams. Due to increased border control measures and detection technology, drug and human trafficking have become increasingly difficult, so crime cells have redirected their efforts towards another major Mexican industry: avocado production.
Former Attorney General of Mexico, Raul Cervantes, said that these extortion crimes have caused further trouble for farmers already beaten down by years of substandard crops. Cervantes, who stepped down from his post on Monday amidst allegations that he registered a high value Ferrari in a neighboring state to avoid paying taxes in Mexico City, called his resignation a move that would enable more autonomy in the ministry.
During Cervantes’ year-long tenure, the homicide rate in Mexico reached an all-time high, while only three of seventeen former governors charged with corruption were brought to trial. Unfortunately, in a country that turns a blind eye to cartel activities, most farmers don’t have any recourse, and most never report the crime.
Avocado growers in the southwestern Mexican town of Tancitaro have decided to fight back, taking up arms against the cartels by forming the Tancitaro Public Security Force, or CUSEPT in Spanish. Armed with homemade machine guns, the vigilante group patrols in bulletproof trucks. CUSEPT has had some success in their efforts to thwart crime in their area, offering farmers a sense of unity and security against cartels.
Last year, Americans consumed almost 2 billion avocados according to the Hass Avocado Board, a US-based agricultural group. This upsurge in consumption – up 57% from 2012 – has only increased the pressure put upon farmers to pay the fee, which is often ten cents on the pound, and over $100 per hectare, which is equal to 2.41 acres of land.
Mexico still supplies over 80% of America’s avocado imports. As the battle for control over the Mexican agricultural industry continues, American consumers can expect to see avocados increasing in price, and even decreasing in availability as Mexican growers attempt to fight the country’s cartels.