Blood Guacamole: Cartel Control of Limes and Avocados

Spend time in Mexico, and you can't go a day without hearing or seeing some mention of the country's infamous drug cartels. And for good reason. The crimes they commit are not only numerous and showy in nature, but the coverage by the tabloid media is just as sensational. Walk by a newspaper, and gory deaths greet you on the front page. Browse through a movie stand in a market, and you'll see "Muerte de Narcos" compilations next to bootlegs of the latest American superhero movies.

This is the chaos and gore that's to be expected from the illegal drug business. But drugs aren't the only reasons dead bodies line the streets in our neighbor to the south. It's also due to the two key ingredients of guacamole: limes and avocados.

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The Knights Templar cartel controls the southwest Mexican state of Michoacán. (If you really want to get into it, the cartel used to be known as "La Familia Michoacán," before the assassination of the cartel's leader in 2010 lead to a power vacuum that eventually led -- through Game of Thrones-like machinations and murders -- to its current incarnation.) And one of Michoacán's biggest exports? Limes.

Seeing an opportunity to make some extra dough -- apparently, they're pretty good at diversifying their portfolio, as they also earn a large portion of their money from the mining of iron ore -- they set their eyes on controlling the region's lime industry. This meant, for the most part, illegally taxing lime farms in a "pay us a portion of your earnings or die" kind of way.

But when the lime production in the region began to boom over the past few years (thusly raising the number of limes available and sending the price of a single lime further and further down), the cartels began trying to rig the market to keep the crop's value up. This meant "buying" land for well under market value by giving farmers offers they can't refuse (one spine-tingling quote from a farmer: "I will give this much for your land, and if you don't accept it, I will pass the money to your widow"), controlling shipping routes, and regulating when other farms pick limes.

But late last year, farmers had enough.

They formed groups of heavily-armed militias to keep the Knights Templar at bay and, as a result, helped take back the lime business:

[S]ince a federal police crackdown in the state and the emergence of civilian militias, the cartel has been on the run. Several top leaders have been either killed or arrested, and three mayors and a former governor of Michoacan have been arrested on charges of colluding with organized crime.

(The debate continues as to whether or not a group of heavily armed citizens patrolling the streets is a better option than having the Knights Templar in control.)

The news of the lime industry ridding itself of cartel control has had an expected effect on the price of lime exports, with American consumers now paying roughly one-third of the price they were paying just a few months ago. However, there's no telling how long these good times will last.

Ask a Mexican about their government's performance over the past decade in controlling the cartel, and they'll reply with plenty of skepticism. There's good reason for that. Dead bodies still grace the front pages and violence reigns. And in the meantime, another favorite Mexican commodity is still in the clutches of the Knights Templar, the other vital ingredient of guacamole: the beloved avocado.

One of the proposed reasons why militias rose up against the cartel's control in the lime industry, but not the avocado industry, is because of the latter hasn't experienced a heavy fluctuation in production. Therefore, cartel members have yet to try to control the market as they did with limes. But the cruel tactics they use on avocado farmers are the same as ever:

The extortion fees are non-negotiable, says one farmer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. "It's no use trying to convince them to demand less," he says. "They know exactly how much you own. If you lie to them, they'll kill you or one of your family members."

Estimates put the earnings that the cartel gets from its control of the region's avocados at $152 million per year. With money like that at stake, the cartel will use everything in its power to keep the green flowing.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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