Avocados and human trafficking?
Today is National Avocado Day. Each year, people around the world consume more than 11 billion avocados. The industry generates more than 2.5 billion dollars per year.
While I love this delicious fruit as much as the next person, did you know that increasing demand also increased extortion and kidnapping in the Mexican region of Michoacan?
Over the last couple of decades, Mexico has become the world’s biggest producer of avocados. It all started in 1993 when the US, Canada and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Four years later, avocados from Mexico were allowed into the US. They were limited to a few northeastern and midwestern states, and only during the winter. By 2007, Mexico was able to export avocados in the US all year long.
Since then, avocado consummation in the US doubled.
The avocado turned out to be so profitable that it became a magnet for the violence and corruption that flourished in the lawless free-for-all of Mexican organized crime in Tancitaro, Michoacán in Mexico. According to a January 2016 article from the Mexico News Daily, nine out of every 10 pesos made in Tancitaro come from avocados. The region of Michoacán produces eight out of every ten avocados sold in the US.
Cartels realized the avocado’s growing popularity. In a bid to make a bit of extra cash, they started extorting and kidnapping farmers. Over the last few years, stories have filtered into Western media of cartels murdering pregnant teachers and kidnapping farmers.
In the 1990s, one of the most powerful gangs in Michoacán, Mexico, was the Gulf Cartel. It made its money mostly off of drug trafficking. And it protected that business with cash payoffs to law enforcement and government officials. In Michoacán, agriculture and narco-trafficking flourished side-by-side.
Another gang, the Zetas, started preying on the civilians in Michoacán. The Gulf Cartel were the pioneers of recruiting the Zetas, who were first considered elite soldiers.
In the late ’90s, the Zetas decided they would instead form their own cartel. They started experimenting with other “business models” like extortion and kidnapping. The Zetas bribed local officials to get the names and addresses of the most successful avocado farmers. The situation got so bad that Michoacán State opened an Office of Kidnappings and Extortion in the state capital.
La Familia Michoacana was born as a revolt against Los Zetas. In 2010, La Familia Michoacana fractured again. The new splinter group called themselves the Knights Templar. By 2011, avocado exports from Michoacán had soared to almost $800 million. The cartels began kidnapping relatives of successful farmers.
There is good news. Citizens have banded together against the cartels in a group called Auto Defensas. Tancitaro is experiencing some peace after locals organized against the gangs.
At home, it’s difficult to know how to stop funding the problems. Boycotting Mexican avocados is not recommended because it also penalizes those who are working under favorable conditions. A boycott would mean pulling out the rug from under the feet of peaceful families. Criminal groups would also likely be prompted to prey on civilians, even more, to make up for lost avocado income.
The most sensible thing to do is check for fair trade labels. Voice your expectations toward the companies where you buy your avocados. Also, talk to your lawmakers. It would help if the United States allowed the importing of avocados from more areas in Mexico. There are currently only a few municipalities certified by the US Department of Agriculture, which leads to a concentration of crops in Michoacán.
The avocado demand also presents an environmental issue. You can read about that here.