Sunday, March 3, 2024

Extortion of lime farmers in Michoacán causes prices to spike

Things have turned sour in one of Mexico’s top lime-producing regions, where many growers and packers have stopped working, rather than pay extortion money to cartels — causing the price of limes to spike.

In a survey carried out by the newspaper Milenio, the cost of a kilogram of limes in markets of Morelia, the state capital of Michoacán, has gone from 20 to 25 pesos (US $1.19 to $1.49) to 40 to 45 pesos ($2.38 to $2.68) over the past week or so.

Lime farmers
Lime farmers say those who refuse to pay have been attacked by cartels. (Juan José Estrada Serafín/Cuartoscuro)

The rise coincides with what has grown to become a ten-day work stoppage in the Tierra Caliente region of Michoacán, which includes a prime lime-producing region in and around the municipality of Apatzingán, and is a hotbed for cartel activity. The Tierra Caliente farms produce around 80% of Mexico’s limes.

Lime growers warned that prices could go up even more if the conflict in the region is not resolved.

Work was halted on Aug. 16 after a rise in extortion attempts by one or more organized crime groups seeking to flex their muscles in an area where cartels also siphon money off avocado producers.

According to some lime growers, cartel members are demanding one peso for each kilo of limes sold, a total of 1,000 pesos (US $59.51) per tonne. Others say they are demanding 2,000 pesos per tonne — 1,000 pesos from the grower and 1,000 pesos from the packer.

Untended lemons
Lime crops are now going untended, affecting output as a result. (Juan José Estrada Serafín/Cuartoscuro)

Earlier this week, Michoacán state prosecutor Adrián López Solís said authorities do not know which group is responsible, in part because growers, pickers and packers are scared to talk, and in part because the criminal groups themselves use “propaganda” and attempt to “blame each other.”

According to Milenio, the suspected groups are the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), which works with the Nueva Familia Michoacána and is seeking to resurface in Michoacán, as well as Los Viagras, a group already known for the extortion of melon and lime producers.

One resident said Los Viagras was responsible for drone attacks on a town of 500 near Apatzingán where extortion was not paid. There have also been reports of burned vehicles.

“We are not going to work right now,” she said. “In my community, everyone is out of a job. We are talking about more than 700 hectares (1,730 acres), with about 30 to 40 ejidatarios [communal landowners].”

The famous lime market of Apatzingán is deserted as a result of the strike. (Juan José Estrada Serafín/Cuartoscuro)

Overall, the 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres) of lime farms in the Apatzingán area are drying up due to the lack of irrigation and cutting. The famed Tianguis Limonero (lime market) has become a ghost town. The strike comes at the production peak, said to be right around the corner in October and November.

“They have to reach agreements, because this affects producers and [all kinds of] people, [including] day laborers,” Apatzingán municipal president José Luis Cruz Lucatero said. “A solution has to be found in the very short term.”

Earlier this week, Governor of Michoacán Alfredo Ramírez Bedolla asked those in the industry to provide more information since otherwise they will be “covering up [for] their own extortionists.”

Michoacán officials have asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the extortion.

Hipólito Mora led a vigilante pushback against organized crime in Michoacán starting in 2013, but said the security situation was “worse than ever” last year. (Archivo/Cuartoscuro)

One packer confirmed there is a National Guard base in the area, but the soldiers only ride around in their trucks “as tourists.”

The stand-off occurred in the same region where Hipólito Mora Chávez, the founder of a citizen self-defense force, was murdered in June. Mora was himself a former lime farmer who turned vigilante in 2013 and reportedly drove the Knights Templar cartel out of Michoacán. He was attacked by gunmen in Buenavista, a municipality near Apatzingán.

With reports from Milenio, El Universal, Mexicanal and Reforma

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