Culture

Mexico’s Avocado Police Are Winning the Battle Against Drug Cartels

By aconde - September 03, 2018

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How do drug cartels and avocado police fit into the story of everyone’s favourite Chipotle ingredient? It’s a bit of a long story, so let’s start at the beginning.

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The avocado was a late bloomer in the world of food trends:

Originally predominately known as the “alligator pear”, the avocado was a late bloomer in the world of food trends. Far from a “magic food”, it looks a bit… different.

If you’ve ever held an avocado, the description of “alligator pear” seems quite apt – the scaly skin of an avocado does seem rather similar to the rough, scaly skin of an alligator. Is it any wonder that they weren’t terribly popular under that name?

In reality though, underneath that rough exterior is something incredibly delicious – it just took quite a while for most of us to catch on.

California Avocado Growers’ Exchange:

Credits: Source: Alpucat / Pixabay

Avocados had an ally in the form a southern California growers group called the California Avocado Growers’ Exchange. This group of well-to-do farmers had a strong belief in the taste (and profitability) of the humble avocado.

They embarked on a mission to rebrand the avocado, and their work would leave an endearing impact on our minds, hearts, and taste buds. They engaged a public relations firm and embarked upon a mission to educate consumers about what the avocado was, and how it was the luxury ingredient missing from their lives – and their diets.

The effort to rebrand the avocado was a remarkable success, and it only encountered two major hiccups. The first was the anti-fat movement of the 1980s.

The delicious fruit contains good fats:

Credits: Source: Food basics

Nutritionists began to advocate against diets high in fat, and that definitely impacted sales of the avocado, which is a high-fat fruit (you don’t get known as a butter fruit if you are low-fat after all).

However, subsequent discoveries about the differences between “good” and “bad” fats vindicated avocado lovers everywhere as that delicious fruit contained the good fats. A TV ad campaign to build national awareness (featuring Angie Dickinson) helped bring people back.

However, that didn’t conquer the second problem – supply. There are only limited areas of the US that are suitable for avocado growth, which made the fruits an expensive delicacy that was priced out of every-day consumption for many people.

The avocado tree is thought to have originally come from Mexico:

Credits: Source: Pixabay

This brings us to Mexico. The avocado tree is thought to have originally come from Mexico. However, there was a ban on importing avocados from Mexico, the world’s leading grower of the delicious gems, that was put in place in 1914.

The ban was finally repealed 80 years later in 1994, all thanks to NAFTA – that’s a helpful fact for anyone who tries to convince you that NAFTA was bad.

Mexico produces 1.8 million tons of avocados annually, and over 680,000 tons per year of those avocados are exported to the United States.

 

“The guac is extra”:

Credits: Persea americana in black background. Image Source: Rodrigo.Argenton / Wiki Commons

That shows you just how much pent-up demand for avocados was sitting north of the Mexican border, and that’s not even counting the number of times Chipotle tells us that “the guac is extra”.

With all the pieces of both supply and demand in place, the stage was set for avocados to catch fire (metaphorically, let’s not joke about anything as serious as avocados).

 

With all the pieces of both supply and demand in place, the stage was set for avocados to catch fire (metaphorically, let’s not joke about anything as serious as avocados).

We eat avocados in a hundred different delicious dishes:

Credits: IS00526 Avocado selling Mexico Source : Caballero1967 / wikimedia

They have gone from a virtual unknown fruit (technically a berry) to a staple of everyday life. We have them in skin cleansers, soaps, and facemasks. We eat avocados on burgers, on toast, in smoothies, as butter, and in a hundred different delicious dishes – including the majestic culinary genius known as guacamole.

In fact, the association of guacamole and the SuperBowl is a by-product of the public relations efforts of the avocado growers. By linking their fruit to a major annual event like the Super Bowl, the avocado growers had established an unbeatable place in the national conscience.

 

This built an incredible demand for avocados. With the incredible demand for avocados came incredible opportunity for profit, and it’s that profit (or the urge to steal it) that brings us to a small town in Mexico.

The avocado capital of Mexico:

Credits: Image Source: Credit www.quotecatalog.com

Tancítaro, a relatively small town of 30,000 in the state of Michoacan, is known as the avocado capital of Mexico. Congratulations to them, right? Seriously though, it is impressive that so much of the US avocado demand is fulfilled by such a small area – think of them fondly every time you have a slice of avocado toast.

Tancítaro and its outlying farmlands produce 80 percent of the avocados consumed in America, a daily million-dollar pay check that spikes even higher during peak times, like the Super Bowl.

Some people don’t go to Super Bowl parties for the game – it’s all about judging the guacamole and eating the immense quantities of other foods that come with it.

 

The avocado industry and Mexico’s infamously violent drug cartels:

Credits: Source : Presidencia de la República Mexicana / wikimedia

When there’s this much money involved, it’s expected that the avocado industry landed on the radar of some of Mexico’s infamously violent drug cartels and organized crime syndicates. Those cartels help fill the demand for another chief export from Mexico to the United States: drugs.

With approximately 22 million drug users in the U.S., it’s an illegal billion-dollar manufacturing and logistics racket built on, and maintained by, violence.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the drug cartels who were sneaking their billions of dollars in products across the border started looking a bit enviously at another billion-dollar product that crossed the borders with ease – the avocado trade.

The humble alligator pear became big business:

Credits: Source : Heather Brewer / wikimedia IS00526 Police Avocado Cartel

As exports grew by hundreds of millions of dollars over a few years, the humble alligator pear became big business, and that meant somebody wanted to take the profit – enter the drug cartels.

These are some of the names that many of us recognize from the news and the pop culture events that have grown from the news. There is the Sinaloa Cartel, which was founded by the infamous “El Chapo” (who has been arrested) and a number of other competitors.

They fight each other for territory and power, while also inflicting damage on anyone gets in their way as they strive to grow.

The avocado trade resulted in 8,000 murders

Credits: Source : Master Sgt. Adam M. / wikimedia

They grew to surpass the Columbian cartels of the 90s as the primary sources of illegal drugs that came to the United States. From the beginning of Mexico’s state-sanctioned war on drugs in 2006 until 2015, cartels flexing their muscles and working their way into the lucrative avocado trade resulted in 8,000 murders of farmers and their families.

Rather than curb the drug trade, the war on drugs saw escalated levels of violence as cartels split into smaller factions and territorial disputes erupted.

Avocado producers, some of whom are extremely wealthy, became targets of kidnapping and ransom demands – in some instances of their children.

The drug trade could make up as much as 5% of the entire economy

Credits: Source : Gerald L. Nino / wikimedia IS00526 Police Mexico Cartel Avocado

This might sound a bit extreme, but this kind of violence is really day-to-day stuff for the toughest of Mexico’s drug cartels. The rationale behind the violence is pretty clear though, pure greed.

Estimates for the profits Mexico’s drug cartels earn from the drug trade range as high as $49.4 billion annually. In 2016, the gross domestic product of the entire country of Mexico was a bit over a trillion dollars, so the drug trade could make up as much as 5% of the entire economy.

If the drug cartels were a country of their own and the estimate of $49.4 billion dollars per year is accurate, they would have a gross domestic product higher than about 100 countries – about four times higher than Armenia alone.

29,000 reported homicides:

Credits: Image Source: böhringer friedrich / wiki commons

That’s the kind of money that gets attention, often of the bad sort. When a lot of money is at stake, people will sometimes choose to do very bad things. How bad?

Well, the death toll from the war on drugs and the cartel violence that came up is estimated as between 60,000 and 120,000 (as of 2012) depending on who you talk to. Just last year, there were approximately 29,000 reported homicides.

 

Even worse, that astonishing tale of human suffering doesn’t even take into account the people who are injured, made homeless, missing, lost all their possessions or their livelihood, or who were forced to flee their homes to avoid becoming victims of that very violence (the source of many of the refugees fleeing to the United States).

The military has intervened many times:

Credits: Source : Wonderlane / flickr

Not helping the situation were local authorities and government officials being bribed to look the other way, leaving small towns across Mexico to the mercy of the cartels.

The military has intervened many times in an attempt to stop the drug cartels, but they often fail to trap or stop significant members of the drug cartel. They did however cause even more chaos in regions that were already caught in the middle of wars for power between the different drug cartels.

Even worse, successful (and rich) avocado growers were often singled out as specific targets by the cartels. They used the former agricultural secretariat as a spy network of sorts – when the growers reported the size of their harvests (which showed their profit) the information was passed along.

The formation of Tancítaro’s own privately funded security force:

Credits: Source : Shared Interest / flickr

The cartel groups would then extort money from the growers, either by kidnapping them for ransom (and frequently murdering the kidnap victims), threatening murder, or outright robbery. They ruled through violence and the threat of even more violence.

This unhappy set of circumstances lead to the formation of Tancítaro’s own privately funded security force (which goes by the Spanish acronym CUSEPT) of 80 heavily armed and armoured paid officers, in addition to 16 volunteer crews.

 

Now, if anything, that paragraph undersells just how amazing the security force actually is. To start with, their annual budget is about $1.2 million (US) annually.

 

They keep the peace and turn away suspected drug smugglers:

Credits: Source : wikipedia

That gives you an idea of just how profitable the avocado business is, and just how big of a problem the drug cartels were for the local people.

For $1.2 million per year the CUSEPT has automatic weapons, armored trucks (something the government police forces in the area often didn’t have), and a network of fortified stone checkpoints covering the roads into and out of the town. They keep the peace, turn away suspected drug smugglers, and protect the town from the influence and violence of the drug cartels.

Even the volunteer crews are a critical part of the security system for Tancítaro. Mayor Arturo Olivera Gutierrez said, “We can’t do this alone. I don’t think there’s any place in Mexico that’s safe without civic participation”.

Almost every citizen of the town has a weapon:

Credits: Source : wikimedia

And the local population definitely participates. On top of the fact that the volunteers take a 24 hour shift every two weeks, almost every citizen of the town has a weapon that they keep hidden in case it will be needed (again).

This police force is now partially funded by the state government impressed by the results, along with avocado producers who contribute money based on how large their farm is.

 

Take a moment to realize just how bizarre this entire set of circumstances are – a town decides that it has had enough of the violence and extortion inflicted upon it by the drug cartels, so they form a militia and successfully fight off the cartels and finally enjoy the peace they desire and just grow avocados to feed the world.

The avocado growers began to smuggle in weapons to supply local militias:

Credits: Source : Daniel70mi Falciola / flickr

It sounds like a classic western film, but it was the reality in Tancítaro a mere four or five years ago. With the police and government authorities having fled, the drug cartels were in control.

The avocado growers began to smuggle in weapons to supply local militias, and once everyone was prepared the locals rose up to overthrow the cartels. They kicked out all of the higher-level cartel members, permitting some lower-level ones to stay.

Importantly, the locals of Tancítaro used their local knowledge to determine who needed to be sent away from the town and who could stay.

The cartels did respond:

Credits: Image Source: Jennifer from Vancouver, Canada on Flickr

News travels fast in a small town, so the identities of who was actively working with the cartels was rarely, if ever, a secret. The cartels did respond to this, but the militia had clearly gained the upper hand and they were able to keep control of the town and the valuable avocado farms.

Although not exactly a peaceful solution, this organized resistance to the cartels has meant extortion of farmers has almost disappeared and kidnappings have stopped.

Having so many guns on their streets is seen as a suitable trade off by residents of Tancítaro, just as long as they’re in the hands of the good guys.

The craziest thing of all?

Credits: Image Source: Zeev Barkan / Flickr

What this means specifically is that Tancítaro has in many ways become an independent city-state within the border of Mexico as they support their own army and police force, and essentially enforce their own laws.

The craziest thing of all? The militias and security forces weren’t started by the mayor of Tancítaro, nor to the Mexican government. Instead they were bankrolled the Tancítaro council of avocado growers who continue to pay half of the force’s annual operating budget

 

This just goes to show that if you want to change the world, get a group of avocado growers involved.

The raising of a small army:

Credits: Image Source: tanjila ahmed on Flickr

Seriously though, it’s a bit scary how much power they have. Avocado growers can change the national diet, rename a fruit, change how we think about that fruit, and even raise a small army of their own.

That’s a pretty impressive list of accomplishments, so don’t forget to be respectful the next time you go avocado shopping. As positive as this message, it is important to remember that the people of Tancítaro haven’t exactly created a utopia either.

With the central government retreated from the town, the militias and locally formed police forces enforce the law, and sometimes dispense justice as well.

The resistance model of Tancítaro:

Credits: Image Source: Max Wei on Flickr

Additionally, some social services have fallen by the wayside as the wealthier growers focus more on services that fulfil their needs. This means that while security is strong in the town, the other basic functions of the government have wilted.

Also, it is important to note that the resistance model of Tancítaro required the deep pockets of wealthy avocado growers to fund the weapons that the militia used to overthrow the cartels.

 

So, while the Mexican people yearn for peace, prosperity, and freedom from cartel violence, they often don’t have the millions of dollars required to arm and train a militia force, and violence isn’t always the best answer either.

Peace will come again to that country:

Credits: Image Source: Rosmarie Voegtli on Flickr

In some ways, the people of Tancítaro have just traded being ruled by the guns of cartels for a different government by the gun. However, when you consider their situation, can you blame them?

In the short-term, those brave people have built a prosperous island of peace in an area where the future had looked very bleak indeed. Perhaps in the future, their island of peace will grow to encompass the rest of northern Mexico and peace will come again to that country.