Smuggling weed and heroin into the US is becoming less profitable, so drug cartels are brainstorming illegal ways to make money off a legal industry.
In Michoacán, four different drug cartels are currently vying to take control of the region’s avocado industry. Around 80 percent of all of Mexico’s avocado exports, valued at around $2.4 billion annually, are grown in this region. The avocado export industry is booming right now, and Mexico’s exports to the US alone have grown by 16 percent since last year.
Four different criminal cartels — the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), the Nueva Familia Michoacana, the Tepalcatepec Cartel, and the Zicuirán Cartel — are all currently aiming to take control of this thriving industry, according to Michoacán Attorney General Adrián López Solís.
These cartels charge monthly protection payments from avocado farmers, threatening to kidnap or kill those who fail to pay up. Cartels have also been known to simply steal shipments of avocados outright, to resell for profit. As many as four entire truckloads of avocados are stolen every single day in Michoacán, and avocado wholesalers have been forced to pay farmers for stolen avocados to help keep them in business.
This summer, the situation escalated into extreme violence. Nineteen people were massacred in Uruapan, the center of the state’s avocado industry, and their bodies were displayed across the town. “This kind of public, theatrical violence, where you don’t just kill, but you brag about killing, is meant to intimidate rivals and send a message to the authorities,” said security analyst Alejandro Hope to the Associated Press. “This kind of cynical impunity has been increasing in Michoacán.”
The avocado business has attracted cartels’ interest now that the profitability of exporting heroin and cannabis to the US has been declining. Michoacán used to be the center of Mexico’s heroin production, but now that synthetic opioids have become easily available in the US, the market price of opium poppies has dropped by two-thirds in the past two years. Exports of cannabis to the US have also been declining as legal pot has become more widely available.
The CJNG has reportedly been making extra profit from shaking down the avocado industry since the 1990s, but the Familia Michoacana began fighting for a share of these profits in 2009. In 2014, farmers began to create their own armed self-protection groups, but cartels infiltrated these groups, eventually destroying them. Now, with their defense groups gone, and two new cartels joining the fight to dominate this market, avocado farmers are finding themselves at the mercy of violent criminals.