The boom of Mexico’s avocado market has been accompanied by heightened criminal activity in avocado-growing regions, particularly the state of Michoacán. But a recent report explains that rather than inhibiting the growth of the legal market, the presence of criminal groups has helped it expand.

The report, published last month by Global Initiative Against Transactional Organized Crime (GITOC), explores the complex relationship between avocado producers and the criminal groups that both extort and aid them.

While organized crime groups extort legal producers at each step of the value chain, they also help expand the avocado industry by displacing and killing people on protected lands, razing protected forests, and “cleaning” large areas to be occupied by avocado ranches.

SEE ALSO: Avocados In, Butterflies Out – How Illegal Logging is Devastating Western Mexico

In 2022, avocados were Mexico’s second most valuable crop, after corn. The industry, now valued at $3 billion per year, is essential to Mexico’s economy.

InSight Crime spoke to Romain Le Cour, one of the authors of the report and a senior expert at GITOC, to find out more about the overlap of criminal interests in the legal sphere.

InSight Crime (IC): What makes the avocado industry such an enticing criminal prospect, compared to the other goods Mexico produces in abundance?

Romain Le Cour (RLC) : Criminals have participated in the activities of Mexico’s main industrial and commercial activities for a long, long time.

The avocado industry cannot be separated from the rest of criminal activity in Michoacán. With the arrival of the NAFTA treaties in the 1990s [the first treaty was signed in 1994], Michaocán became a strong actor in the production of high-value and high-added-value agricultural products. The state has always been centered around agriculture, but with the NAFTA treaties, agricultural goods like avocados, lime, and berries took on a higher added value.

Today, the avocado value chain is extremely profitable. Put simply, this attracts criminal interest.

IC: The report details the boom of Michoacán’s avocado market, and the parallel rise in organized crime groups, which feed off this licit economy via illicit means, including extortion. By 2021, Michoacán’s avocado market was valued at almost $3 billion. Can you describe the different ways in which criminal groups profited from that?

RLC: The development of avocado market infrastructure and commercial treaties cannot be separated from international demand for avocados. And the same infrastructure that allows licit players to develop in the legal sphere can be harnessed by illicit players to also grow. 

Criminal groups first become involved in the market by providing protection. Those service protections eventually became protection rackets. 

The rackets were started by the Familia Michoacana around 2005. Later, the Caballeros Templarios developed them into bureaucratized extortion and protection systems. Though those systems were partly torn down by the autodefensas [local self-defense organizations that rose up against criminal groups around 2013], pressures remain, and criminal groups profit from implementing extortion at every step of the value chain. Extortion against producers can be worked out by hectare of land, around the volume of trees on a piece of land, around the volume produced per tree, against agricultural workers on the avocado ranch, the trucks that transport the produce to the empacadores (packers), and on the empacadores themselves. Criminal groups participate at each step of the value chain, but in different ways and to different extents in different regions. 

Unfortunately, today criminal groups are at the service of industrial expansion, deforesting and logging land before the market and investors come in and turn that deforested land into avocado-producing ranches and farms. 

IC: The report found that the idea that crime in Michoacán expanded to the detriment of the private sector isn’t entirely accurate, and that homicides grew as the value of the avocado market increased. Can you explain how criminal and private sector interests align?

RLC: Not all of the private sector works hand-in-hand with criminal groups. But in many regions, the expansion of avocado-producing lands comes at the cost of forests and protected areas.

This generates a very classic relationship between violent actors and private interests. Violent actors are used to displace, threaten, and kill people on lands that cannot be used for cultivation. They then enter that land and deforest it, cleaning out what was once a protected resource. Then, a few years later, that land will be turned into a ranch that produces avocados to export to the United States. 

Violent groups use their violent know-how to create this “virgin land,” while investors from the private sector collude with public authorities to obtain permits to turn that formerly protected land into an avocado ranch. This requires the cooperation of someone [from the public authorities] to provide the permit for the change of land use.

IC: The report found that “80% of the avocado orchards in Michoacán were established illegally” thanks to the corruption of public authorities. What policies could be implemented to reduce this type of corruption?

RLC: Violent groups expand the agricultural frontier through deforestation. But those “virgin lands” require permits to be turned into an avocado ranch. And this is where corruption comes in. 

This corruption is hard, and very dangerous, to document. However, we have achieved a great level of insight into the land use change that comes from the authorities.

The only way to improve the situation would be to have less impunity and more justice to ensure there are fewer corrupt authorities giving these permits out. Mexico has to invest into its justice system so that this doesn’t happen anymore. Unfortunately, sources told us that today it is very easy to access these land use permits. 

IC: One of the report’s policy recommendations is that the European Union “should ensure that all goods imported under the renegotiated EU−Mexico Global Agreement are not produced directly or indirectly by illegal actors.” How can that be done?

RLC: The EU’s newer regulations are very hard on deforestation and the import of goods that come as a result of deforestation. While they are only regulations, they do create pressure.

The case of avocados from Michoacán is no different from numerous other cases in the world in which products and goods arrive from areas where criminal activity and environmental crime take place. So, if the EU wants to put pressure on the avocado industry, it can do so. 

SEE ALSO: Avocados, Limes and Peaches: Cartel Violence Kills Harvests of Fruit in Mexico

The industry brings in $3 billion per year, across Michoacán and other states, and is therefore absolutely strategic for Mexico’s gross domestic product. At the moment, avocados are not included in the EU’s list of regulated goods, so we have been recommending putting avocados on that list in order to pressure the industry to act and reform itself toward a better-regulated market. 

As the major market for these goods is the United States, that country should also step in and put the same regulations on the import of the goods.

IC: What is the feeling toward Michoacán’s autodefensa groups in avocado growing regions?

RLC: The autodefensas have largely been a success. The level of security in avocado growing regions has improved as a result of their creation, especially in the major production areas, like the city of Tancítaro. The relationship between the industry and the autodefensas is strong, and, to provide protection, self-defense groups sometimes work in collaboration with local or state police, the army, or the Guardia Nacional. 

The general feeling from locals, and particularly those in the avocado industry, is that investment into local self-defense groups has been absolutely key in reducing pressure on the industry’s profitability. Most interviewees told us that they always pay for some form of protection — either to the police, army, drug cartels, or self-defense groups — and that this payment is so common that it is considered within the business plan. While nothing is perfect, the security situation has improved, they told us.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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