An oddly timed news story about avocados broke the day before Super Bowl Sunday, which isn’t called the biggest avocado day of the year for nothing. It’s when Americans consume more than 100 million pounds of the fruit.
But last Saturday, the federal government announced the temporary suspension of all avocado imports from Mexico, where 80 percent of avocados consumed by Americans come from. The move came after a US plant safety inspector received a credible death threat while working in Michoacán, the only Mexican state authorized to export avocados to the United States.
The ban was short-lived: Merely days after negotiations between the two governments began, an agreement was reached and avocado imports resumed. The Mexican avocado growers agreed to additional security measures for US inspectors. And so ends a ban that could have led to avocado shortages and price increases here. Earlier this week, the price of an avocado went as high as $2.46 apiece on Amazon Fresh.
Mexico and the United States are joined at the hip when it comes to avocados. The association of Mexican avocado producers spends millions of dollars every year on its Super Bowl ad, which has become an annual game-day tradition, just like eating guacamole. This year, it had to be the worst-timed and costliest commercial ever. Not that the ban affected game-day sales of the product, which had gone up in price recently to an average of $1.43 apiece (11 percent higher than a year ago.)
Michoacán, located in west-central Mexico, is where most of the country’s avocados are grown. The state, a regional epicenter of drug cartel activity and violence, exports approximately $3 billion worth of avocados per year to the United States. And organized crime groups systematically get a cut of that. The cartels charge avocado producers extortion fees, kidnap farmers or their family members, and even steal their land. The recent incident with the US inspector isn’t the first time cartel violence has touched American officials — in 2019, a team from the same US agency was reportedly robbed at gunpoint.
The avocado is just another victim of the cartels. For many people looking in from the outside, it’s difficult to grasp how embedded cartels are in Mexican systems and institutions. Beyond illicit narcotics, like fentanyl and methamphetamine, there is almost no industry or venture, legal or not, that isn’t somehow corrupted by the cartels. Remember the Great Lime Shortage of 2014? Blame the cartels for that. Stolen fuel from Mexican oil refineries? Ditto.
Not only did the mini avocado crisis reveal the reach of the cartels’ tentacles in Mexico — it also reflected a specific brand of US hypocrisy. America has an insatiable hunger to have it both ways: We like to get low-priced items but we also take a righteous stand whenever it suits us. Mostly, though, we look the other way.
A Facebook page called “Blood Avocados” wants to change that. The group has suggested that Big Avocado should create a certification program to guarantee consumers that the product they’re buying is “clean” of cartel influence. That’s unlikely to happen unless the average American is willing to spend an exorbitant premium for an avocado.
In recent years, as awareness has increased about what’s behind the avocado trade, some restauranteurs and activists have called for a boycott. There are also serious environmental concerns surrounding avocado farming; it’s why the fruit has been called a conflict commodity.
It pains me to say, but I had no intention of boycotting avocados, a staple in my diet since I grew up in Mexico. (An avocado goes for about 84 cents in my hometown of Monterrey, according to my mother.) Call me unethical, and another Mexican-American hypocrite, but a boycott would be deeply unfair to Mexican farmers, because they’d be the ones primarily affected.
This narrowly averted avocado crisis reveals, again, that Mexico is pervasively (and, I worry, hopelessly) corrupt. Sadly, the agreement just announced seems like a superficial effort. Obviously, the pressure was building: Cinco de Mayo is just around the corner, and there can be no good American Cinco de Mayo party without abundant guac.