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How Mexican cartels got between you and your avocados

A supply disruption this winter revealed just how much the US now relies on its neighbor for a product once grown at home.

Workers sort avocados at a packing plant in Uruapan, Mexico.ARMANDO SOLIS/Associated Press

To the relief of avocado lovers from coast to coast, the recent drama between the United States and Mexico was fleeting.

The US Department of Agriculture banned imports of the fleshy fruit from Mexico on Feb. 11, after an employee of its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service who was working in Mexico received threats. That inspector had refused to certify a mislabeled shipment of avocados.

With only a two- to three-week supply stored in American warehouses, any extended disruption to the avocado pipeline would have been quickly felt.

Eight days later, the ban was lifted and cooks could resume smashing avocados into guacamole, blending them into smoothies, and smearing them onto bread without trepidation.

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This disruption — however brief — reveals just how reliant the United States has become on its neighbor for a product in great demand. When I was working on my book “Avocado: A Global History,” I was struck by the extent to which this lucrative trade has evolved over the past 25 years, making it a business that attracts both legitimate and criminal enterprises.

Soldiers from the Special Forces of the Mexican Army patrol the community Naranjo de Chila in Michoacán state.ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP via Getty Images

Avocados from Mexico have been fueling America’s taste for the fruit since 1997, when the US Department of Agriculture lifted a 1914 import ban that was originally implemented out of fear that pests such as seed weevils would infest US crops. In 1997, Southern California produced about 90 percent of the avocados Americans ate.

Since then, per capita avocado consumption in the United States has ballooned, from 2 pounds in 2001 to nearly 8 pounds in 2018.

With this increase in the popularity of avocados, US demand vastly exceeded what domestic sources could produce, enabling Mexican avocados to dominate the American market. Today, Mexico — specifically, the Mexican state of Michoacán, which is the only state certified by the US Department of Agriculture to sell the fruit to the United States — supplies about 80 percent of the 60 million pounds of avocados eaten north of the border each week.

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One of the reasons the United States began allowing the import of Mexican avocados, over the objection of domestic growers, was NAFTA. The United States wanted to send corn and other agricultural goods to Mexico under the rules of the 1994 free trade agreement — but the Mexican government demanded something to help balance trade between the two countries, and avocados were ripe for the job.

Soon, the high profit margins of the avocado trade attracted the interest of Mexican crime cartels. Those operating in Michoacán began to infiltrate the avocado business more than two decades ago.

As various cartels have vied for control of the avocado industry, violence and extortion have escalated in the region. In the beginning, cartels were content to extort farmers, packers, and exporters — in essence, taxing them if they wanted to do business without interference from the cartels.

But a bloody turf war has intensified in recent years.

In 2019, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel killed nine people in Uruapan, the hub of Michoacán’s avocado distribution, hanging their corpses from a prominent overpass in the city. They dumped seven more bodies on the side of a road, leaving a banner at the scene that taunted a rival gang, the Viagras. There are even reports of cartels using drones to drop bombs as part of their efforts to control the region’s economy.

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American inspectors have been threatened before. In 2019, a team of USDA inspectors working in Ziracuaretiro, a town just west of Uruapan, were robbed and threatened with violence. Later that year, the USDA wrote a memo stating it would suspend inspection activities if threats of physical violence and intimidation against inspectors continued. The USDA referenced this memo in February when announcing the temporary import ban.

The resulting disruption underscores the risks of being so heavily reliant on a product that comes from one region in one country that’s rife with violence and corruption.

Yet it isn’t easy to open up an avocado spigot from another country. Americans prefer one variety of avocado: the Hass, which is the type imported from Mexico. While the United States allows Hass avocado imports from Peru and Colombia, wholesalers prefer not to sell them because they’re thought to be lower quality. Hass is the dominant variety grown in California, too, but American growers can’t grow nearly enough to meet the demand.

Greenskin avocados, which are grown in Florida, the Caribbean, and many other countries, aren’t nearly as popular with US consumers due to textural differences. They also don’t change color to indicate when they are ripe. Greenskin avocados could ease US dependence on Mexican avocados, but until they gain acceptance by avocado eaters, they won’t help wean Americans off the Hass avocados grown in Michoacán.

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Jeffrey Miller is associate professor of hospitality management at Colorado State University. A version of this story appeared on The Conversation.