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America's appetite for avocados is helping to fuel the Mexican cartels
America's appetite for avocados is helping to fuel the Mexican cartels

America's appetite for avocados is helping to fuel the Mexican cartels

Originally published in Business Insider

For Mexico's avocado producers, the explosion in their crop's popularity has brought a veritable green gold rush, but it also has a darker side. So rich in nutrients they are widely labeled a "superfruit," consumption of avocados in the US alone has doubled in the last ten years to make for a $2.4 billion market.

As a result, everybody from producers down in Mexico, which provides 80% of what is consumed in the States, to your local Whole Foods has been making a killing. The issue: so has Mexican organized crime, literally. Above all in the state of Michoacán, which exports 90% of Mexico's avocados, the bloodshed is no longer "just" about drugs. It is also about avocados.

Splintering criminal organizations set the stage

To understand how Mexican organized crime got its fingers into the guacamole bowl, you need to zoom out and see that what looks like a "drug war" from afar has long mutated into something much more complex – and dangerous.

Mexican organized crime used to be all about producing and shipping drugs to the US, by far the largest illicit drug market world-wide. Feeding U.S demand was and remains a highly lucrative business for the narcos and politicians getting a juicy cut in exchange for turning a blind eye. That's always been the case.

In late 2006, there were six major criminal organizations. Today, there are dozens.

But twenty years ago, something did change. Until the year 2000, Mexico was governed for an uninterrupted 71-year stretch by a single authoritarian party. That party might have been a synonym for corruption, but it did manage to impose certain rules onto the narcos and keep violence in check.

Then came democracy and former president Felipe Calderón's attempts to go after the cartels head-on. Regional governments became more autonomous, opening up new avenues for corruption in the absence of effective oversight.

And Calderón's notion that taking out criminal leaders would see their organizations crumble time and again instead led larger cartels to fracture and proliferate. In late 2006, there were six major criminal organizations in Mexico. Today, there are many dozens smaller ones that have proven harder to control and far more aggressive than most of their larger forebears.

In a situation where no one is truly in control anymore – neither the state nor a single dominant criminal group - and there is no-one to impose rules, the default means for these groups to sort out their affairs with each other is violence.

Extracting the local resources

Many of today's illegal armed actors more closely resemble micro warlords than the leaders of large, sophisticated criminal organizations. Drugs do still play a role, but the business model has prominently shifted toward extracting profits from whichever commodity is locally available. 

The reason for the shift away from drugs is twofold. First, it's easier – think not having to ship merchandise for thousands of miles through hostile terrain, not having to bribe officers along the chain and still risk losing it all to law enforcement and not having personnel arrested or killed. Second, there usually is no state actor capable or willing to keep a criminal group from going after licit crops and other resources. 

Farmers, their families, and their employees are all at risk.

Hence, Mexican organized crime has turned to extorting whoever does well in a given sector or taking over businesses directly – be that logging, mining, agriculture, public transport, or even mom and pop tortilla shops.

This is where avocados come into play. The super fruit is a big magnet for the warlords, the more so due to the recent explosion of demand and prices on global markets.

For local growers, in many cases, it means a visit from the warlords' men — usually starting with a plain-clothed envoy to respectfully inform the grower that a protection payment is expected.

If the grower fails to comply, the next visit will often be by pick-up trucks loaded with sicarios, or enforcers. The pressure can then escalate into violence in the form of beatings, torture, disappearances, or even killings. Farmers, their families, and their employees are all at risk. Businesses and orchards can be simply expropriated by force.

These criminal groups get away with these actions because, in contemporary Mexico, you can literally get away with murder. Due to corruption and collusion victims usually have nowhere to turn to for help, and less than one in 10 homicides gets solved.

A showdown over avocados 

The billion-dollar-a-year avocado industry has generated a fierce battle between different armed groups who seek to dominate it.

The Jalisco Cartel – Mexico's up-and-coming criminal powerhouse now that the Sinaloa Cartel's El Chapo has been locked away in the US – is going for it, as are a handful of regional warlords.

Just in August, the city of Uruapan, a major avocado hub, woke to the gruesome find of 19 human bodies dumped on its streets. Some of the bodies were hung from a bridge, a common way for criminal groups to try to intimidate rivals. Since then, the killing has continued, in spite of governmental vows to end it by sending in the National Guard, a new militarized police force. In Michoacán, an average of five people are killed every day. 

What to do about it

The avocado conflict provides a glimpse of a far wider and more complex armed conflict that has enveloped organized crime, the government, and everyday Mexicans. 250,000 people have been murdered in the country since 2006, and at the current rate more than 30,000 people are added to this total every year. 

There is no quick fix for the situation. The reforms that are necessary to cleanse Mexico's institutions and enable them to do their job — including through more effective oversight and by better training, paying and protecting the people who work for them —will require years of gradual, painstaking effort from all sides.