Avocado growers in Michoacán are taking up arms against drug cartels that demand extortion payments and gangs of thieves that steal their valuable crop known colloquially as “green gold.”
A report published by the Associated Press on Wednesday said that violent cartels and gangs are threatening the prosperity of avocado-growing regions of the state.
Demand for avocados in the United States has helped lift thousands of Michoacán residents out of poverty since 1997, when U.S. authorities lifted a more than 80-year ban on the fruit that was designed to present pests from reaching orchards north of the border.
At a checkpoint in the avocado-producing town of San Juan Parangaricutiro, small-scale growers who double as heavily-armed community guards told the Associated Press that their crops are worth fighting for.
“If it wasn’t for avocados, I would have to leave to find work, maybe go to the United States or somewhere else,” said Pedro de la Guante.
Another guard identified only as Luis said the avocado boom has brought a range of problems to San Juan including extortion, kidnappings, cartels and avocado theft. “That is why we are here. We don’t want any of that,” he said.
Cartels operating in Michoacán’s avocado-growing regions have threatened farmers for years but in the middle of August, a team of inspectors from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was also caught up in the pervasive violence.
The USDA team was “directly threatened” by a criminal gang in Ziracuaretiro, another avocado growing town just west of Uruapan. Local authorities said the gang robbed the truck that the inspectors were traveling in at gunpoint.
Another group of USDA inspectors were robbed and their vehicle was stolen in the same town in early September. Seven municipal police are under investigation in connection with the crime.
The agriculture department subsequently threatened to suspend its avocado certification program, a move that the Associated Press said, “sent a shiver” through the US $2.4-billion industry.
“For future situations that result in a security breach, or demonstrate an imminent physical threat to . . . personnel we will immediately suspend program activities,” the USDA said in a letter.
If the United States government withdrew its near-permanent agriculture personnel from Michoacán – the source of almost all avocado exports to the U.S. – shipments of the fruit north of the border could cease.
The Mexican Avocado Producers and Packers Association published the USDA letter, a move that some people said was aimed at making criminals aware that their activities could kill off Michoacán’s biggest industry.
A police chief in an avocado-producing municipality, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of repercussions, told the Associated Press that the Viagras crime gang has such a strong presence in the region that he won’t go into nearby Uruapan without a large entourage of bodyguards.
“They’ve done everything – extortions, protection payments. They’ve flown drones over us. They come in and want to set up [drug] laboratories in the orchards,” he said.
However, the Viagras gang faces a threat from the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), with whom it is engaged in a turf war in the state.
Ten people were killed in a shootout between the CJNG and Los Viagras in Uruapan in May, a series of confrontations between the two warring cartels left at least nine people dead on a single day in June and in early August nine bodies were left hanging from an overpass in Uruapan. Then followed the discovery at two locations of 10 more bodies, many of which had been mutilated.
The CJNG claimed responsibility for killing the 19 people in August. A message left with the bodies read in part: “Kind people, go on with your routine. Be patriotic, and kill a Viagra.”
However, the Associated Press noted that violence in Michoacán is largely hidden by the prosperity brought by avocados. Orchards spread out across the state and new packing plants often appear in new locations.
But Hipólito Mora, founder of a self-defense force that took up arms against the Caballeros Templarios cartel and other criminal groups in 2013, said that appearances are deceptive.
He said that new packing plants have been repeatedly robbed by thieves who knew that there would be cash there to pay farmers.
“If the business owners were to close their plants,” Mora said, “the region’s economy would come crashing down.”
Adriana Villicaña, a professor at Univa Catholic University in Uruapan, said that if the avocado industry were to collapse, crime in Michoacán would become even worse as some 15,000 avocado pickers would be out of a job.
“If there were no avocados, where are they going to work? The most likely thing is that they would hire themselves out to work for the criminals,” she said.
Source: The Associated Press (sp)