In the past ten years, the amount of avocados consumed in the US has more than quadrupled, to over a million tons a year. Most of this is used to make guacamole, a traditional Mexican food that has now become popular in the United States. While many avocados consumed in the US are grown in California, about 60% are imported from Mexico–where they have sparked a long-running battle between local farmers and one of Mexico’s drug cartels.
In the 1980s, the Mexican state of Michoacán saw good times. The area had long been a center of production for avocados, the fleshy green fruit that is used to make guacamole. Under the NAFTA treaty, the United States lifted its trade restrictions on Mexican avocados, and the region found itself at the center of a growth industry. Michoacán was the only Mexican state approved by the USDA to export avocados to America, and even as the American maquiladora factories that had appeared in Mexico under NAFTA were closed down and moved to China, the avocado industry continued to expand. By 2010, Michoacán contained almost three-fourths of all the avocado plantations in Mexico and was exporting some 80% of its entire crop to the US, worth over $1 billion a year. A single hectare of orchard, yielding two crops a year, could produce as much as $100,000. Farmers began referring to the avocado as oro verde, “green gold”. The fruit was the largest cash crop in the region, outselling even the marijuana trade.
And that caught somebody’s attention. For years, the marijuana industry in Michoacán was run by a cartel known as La Familia, headed by Nazario Moreno, a former minister who quoted Bible verses to justify the kidnapping and execution of rivals and opponents. In 2010 Moreno was killed in a cartel dispute, and La Familia collapsed, leaving a power vacuum that was quickly filled by other cartels, each vying for control. After a period of vicious street fighting, a group that called itself the Caballeros Templarios, the “Knights Templar”, headed by Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, rose to the top. Like their Familia predecessors, the Templarios quickly came to dominate the local and state government as well as the police and judiciary, through a policy of “silver or lead”: authorities were first offered generous bribes (the “silver”), and if they did not cooperate they or one of their family members were shot in the streets (the “lead”).
In addition to controlling the production and distribution of marijuana, cocaine and heroin in Michoacán (most of which goes to the US), the Templarios also muscled in on local industries–and the rapidly-expanding avocado industry was a prime target. Through its contacts in the state government, the cartel first obtained detailed information about each avocado grower–how much land they owned, how many avocados they harvested and exported, how much money they made–and imposed a “tax” on each, ranging from one to ten cents per pound produced and $100 or so for each hectare of land they owned. Growers who expressed reluctance to pay were “persuaded” by violent attacks–one of their farms might be burned, or a family member would be assassinated. (One grower had two of his sons kidnapped and killed; another’s young daughter was raped, tortured, and shot.) Those who responded by moving away were forced to sign over their land deed to the cartel, who then used the plantation to launder drug money. In recent years, as the cartel became more powerful, it began extorting “taxes” from the local packing and shipping companies–reportedly including those owned by US corporations–and the local employment agencies who hire the farm workers are also assessed a payment of several dollars per employee. In some instances, even local municipal governments are forced to hand over a percentage of the town’s budget as a payment to the cartel. The avocado industry alone is estimated to provide the Templarios with at least $150 million a year.
With as many as 100,000 people working for it, the Templarios cartel is almost a state unto itself. It is larger, richer and more powerful than any local government, and through bribery and violent intimidation it controls the police and courts, and now owns about ten percent of all the avocado orchards in Michoacán. In one town, after the mayor was forced to resign by the cartel, a new mayor fired the entire corrupt municipal police force–and was then himself assassinated. In 2014, frustrated farmers in various parts of Michoacán formed armed vigilante groups called “auto–defensas” to protect themselves from Templarios gunmen; in some cases, these illegal militias returned land that had been taken by the Templarios back to its former owners, and even ambushed and killed known cartel members. The Mexican Federal government responded by deputizing some of the vigilante groups as local policemen and by sending in Federal Army troops to protect the area, but this proved to be largely ineffective.
After Templario leader Servando Gomez was arrested in 2015 on drug trafficking charges, however, another turf war broke out, and now the Templarios have been largely replaced by a group from the neighboring state of Jalisco, called the New Generation. The Jaliscos have taken over most of the Templarios former rackets, including the avocado industry.
Despite the violence of their methods, the drug gangs are viewed by many in Mexico as Robin Hood figures, expropriating money from the wealthy plantation-owners and from a corrupt and ineffective local government, and the cartels reinforce this image by financing schools and medical clinics in poor rural areas.
International human rights groups are split on the matter. Some call for a boycott in the US of Mexican avocados, saying that it will cut off the flow of money to the cartel. Others oppose a boycott, saying it will deprive the Mexican farmers of their living and also cripple the resources that the Mexican Government needs to fight the cartel.