Mexico's violence-torn state of Michoacán produces millions of kilos each year of its famous specialty crop, highly prized in US markets… Yes, avocados. Michoacán accounts for 72% of total Mexican production of this rich, green fruit, and over 80% of the state's output is exported to the United States. The trade amounts to nearly a billion dollars a year—even ahead of the state's notorious (and prohibition-inflated) marijuana. But now the two industries are experiencing a grim synergy, as narco lords acquire avocado plantations to launder money, facilitate smuggling and maintain a cover of "legitimate" income. According to a recent exposé in Mexico's Vanguardia newspaper, the Knights Templar cartel has in recent years been running an extortion racket on avocado farmers, seizing their lands if they can't pay up (on pain of family members being abducted and threatened with death), building a "legal" agrarian empire in the state. The local agribusiness association, with the clunky name of the Michoacán State Committee on Vegetable Health, has been co-opted by the Templarios through threats and bribes, according to the report.
Worse still, a recent in-depth report in newsweekly Proceso blows the cover on slave labor in Mexico, with abducted pesants forced to work in the fields—again, on pain of death, or that of their loved ones. This has long been the case with the cartels' slave-labor marijuana plantations, hidden deep in the back-country. But now the cartels are applying this model in the "legal" ag-biz sector. In the article, "Captives in Hell," Proceso interviews victims' relatives and members of rights groups monitoring the problem, who describe a vast system of forced labor throughout the country. These slave-laborers are almost certainly among the 26,000 "disappeared" in Mexico—civilians who have vanished without a trace over the past years of ultra-violence, mostly assumed dead. Members of victims' associations tell of captives made to perform jobs including "forced killings, preparing marijuana, constructing tunnels, cleaning safe houses, preparing food, installing communications equipment and acting as lookouts or sex slaves." (Fresh Plaza, Dec. 3; Vanguardia, Saltillo, Nov. 29; Care2.com, July 18, InSight Crime, July 15; Proceso, July 6, 2013)
Ransom-kidnappings of high-value targets make news in Mexico. In January, seven Veracruz state police were arrested on charges of having abducted a popular contestant on reality TV show "La Voz Mexico" on behalf of a local criminal gang, who put him to death. (EFE, Jan. 21) But recent years have seen several mass abductions of farmworkers and campesinos, with courageous activist investigations revealing that they have been put to work on plantations—whether of marijuana or avocados.
Something to think about the next time you blow a joint, get the munchies and make guacamole. As the old saying goes: Fight terrorism… Buy domestic. Sativa or hass.
See our last post on the politics of avocados.