Michoacán, a mountainous state in western Mexico, has the ideal climate for growing avocados. Hot, with rich volcanic soil, the 60,000-square-kilometre region is the world’s top producer of the creamy green fruit—known locally as oro verde, or “green gold”—and is the only place on Earth where they grow year-round. Michoacán exported over $500-million (U.S.) worth of avocados in 2015, with over 90 per cent of the crop heading north to Canada and the United States.
Michoacán’s location also makes it a transportation hub. It has one of the country’s largest ports, as well as offering direct routes by land to the centre of Mexico, and from there, easy access to the U.S. Its convenient location has meant Michoacán has historically harboured a strong drug cartel presence—in 2011, the Knights Templar cartel assumed prominence, in part due to its “devil you know” promise to use its power and revenues from the sale and distribution of crystal methamphetamine (conservative estimates suggest the industry nets anywhere between $15- and $60-billion U.S. annually) to protect Michoacán’s locals, many of them avocado farmers, from potentially more predatory cartels. And yet while drugs are big money in Mexico, “Gangs are a business,” says Yale School of Management associate professor Rodrigo Canales, whose research includes the institutional implications of the Mexican war on drugs. “If they find another source of revenue, they’re interested.” (For local farmers, the fruit is more profitable than marijuana.)
Coinciding with the ascendance of the Knights Templar, the U.S.’s Drug Enforcement Administration launched two major multi-agency task force operations—Project Coronado and Project Delirium— aimed at hobbling Michoacán criminals’ delivery networks in the United States, arresting over 3,000 people. Seeking to diversify their revenue sources, as well as to secure raw materials that can be traded with China in exchange for components of synthetic drugs, the Knights Templar began extorting local businesses—primarily mine owners and farmers. As the demand for avocados surged, with per-store sales at North American Whole Foods Market locations doubling in the last decade and avocado toast becoming a foodie craze, the profitable avocado industry looked, to the drug lords, like low-hanging fruit.
Cartels have long preyed upon farmers, but by 2013 the violence had escalated to extremes. The Knights Templar is reported to have charged a fee for every box of avocados gathered from local farms, taken cuts from fertilizer and pesticide sales, and forced farmers to turn over the titles to their land. In Tancítaro, a region in which 56,000 acres of avocado groves flourish, farmers paid an estimated annual tax of $60 per acre for fear of retribution; kidnapping, rape, and extortion occurred daily, and oro verde was given a new nickname: blood avocado. After the rape and murder of Maria Irene Villanueva, a woman whose avocado farmer father was unable to pay the Knights Templar a $600,000 ransom, locals hit their breaking point. Left vulnerable by Mexico’s complex and corruption-riddled government, Tancítaro’s residents united to defend themselves.
Mexican communities have a long history of taking the law into their own hands. “Autodefensas”—independent defence forces composed of locals—have generally formed to combat small-scale banditry and violence, but in Michoacán, things reached a whole new level. By early 2014, large and well-organized vigilante groups reclaimed the town of Nueva Italia, a Knights Templar stronghold, and proceeded to go on an anti-cartel spree, accruing federal police reinforcements along the way. And yet, “Even in the case of the ‘good vigilantes’, part of the complexity of this issue is that the natural progression of gaining power is usually to end up becoming what was resisted in the first place,” says Canales. While the Knights Templar has disbanded and protection for the region’s farmers has increased, new cartels have emerged from the vigilante movement itself and peace in Michoacán remains tenuous, if somewhat restored.
“Mexico’s problem is not that we have very powerful criminal organizations, but that we have very weak local institutions,” says Canales. “By continuing to frame the problem as a ‘drug problem’, we pursue organized crime and create this evolutionary dynamic where we force gangs to evolve, instead of focusing our efforts on strengthening local institutions that would protect communities from the negative consequences of the drug trade.”
“Progress has been made to protect avocado growers and packers,” says a representative of APEAM, the association of producers, packers, and exporters of avocados from Mexico. “The federal government [of Mexico] has launched social development programs to improve economic conditions and further aid the community, which is a positive step forward.” For avocado addicts in the Western world, Canales recommends maintaining your habit. “This notion of asking consumers to stop buying avocados because farmers are suffering extortion from organized crime is kind of like punishing the victim even more,” he says. “Boycotting avocados would be the worst thing we could do for people who are suffering the most.”