Mexico's Avocado War

Avocado toast was 2017’s most popular breakfast. Its popularity increased by 50 percent in 2017, and popped up in more than 533,900 Instagram posts (#avotoast being the popular hashtag). Monica Ganley, an expert on Latin American trade and the founder of Quarterra, a consulting firm based in Buenos Aires described avocados as “Nafta’s shining star.”

In London, barely a day goes by where I don’t see one of my colleagues in the office munching on avocado on toast for breakfast and lunch. During my unsuccessful stint as a cafe assistant at Raw Press, customers were hungry for the product. I hurriedly chopped the avocados, cut them in half and carefully remove its stone, then scooped out the flesh into a bowl. After squeezing in the lemon juice and mashing the green sludge with a fork, this would be smeared on toast and sprinkled with black pepper and chilli flakes. In Marks & Spencers and Sainsburys, the avocados’ stall is regularly and rapidly gobbled up by consumers. The hunger for avocados, not just drugs, is insatiable in the United Kingdom despite the surge in avocado prices.

However has the boom in demand for avocado had a dramatic side-effect of increasing violence in Mexico as cartels, state and vigilante groups fight for the prize of ‘green-gold’? Mexico accounts for forty-five percent of the world’s avocados and Michoacán, where the “War on Drugs” started in December, 2006, is the key state which produces ninety-two per cent of the country’s total avocado produce. Tancítaro, also rich in strawberries, lemons and blackberries, is the capital of avocado production in Mexico. “Behind the Instagram-friendly superfood lies a murky world of ecological collapse, drug cartels and brutal murders,” writes Violet Henderson in Vogue. Mexican transnational criminal organisations including Los Caballeros Templarios and H3 have been involved in the conflict for avocado sparking both bloodshed and illegal logging in avocado's main growing regions of Michoacán alongside trade in opium and crystal meth. 

The fight for avocado fused to the wider Mexican Drug War (2006 — current). Avocado Police or CUSEPT, Tancítaro’s public security body, a heavily militarised force, now act in coordination with vigilantes determined to curb the influence of criminal organisations who have tried to levy heavy taxes on the population and avocado farmers through extortion, kidnap and intimidation. $1.5 billion was at stake; the value of avocado export industry. Civilian autodefensa have fought to eject the influence of the cartels from Michoacán with CUSEPT’s paramilitary unit for several years.

The ‘Blood Avocados’ phenomenon illustrates a key point; Mexico’s so-called “War on Drugs” declared by Felipe Calderon in December, 2006 and the conflict between the government and cartels is about more than the drug trade, which has become the epicentre of the crime wars gripping Latin America. ‘Drug trafficking is not the sole cause of (the) chain of violence — and maybe not even the most important one.’ writes Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera in Los Zetas Inc, and extreme levels of violence in states such as Chihuahua, the Gulf Coast, Veracruz, Tabasco, Michoacán, Guerrero, Jalisco and Colima are ‘abundant in natural resources’ including oil, natural gas, coal and shale gas. Los Zetas, and other cartels, have also been unafraid to tap into human trafficking and sexual exploitation to fill their coffers.

The UK is not dependent on Mexico for avocado imports. According to Global Food Security in June 2017, the UK relies on imports of avocados from ‘Peru, South Africa, Chile, Israel and Spain (in that order) accounting for 84% of the avocados brought into the country over the last 5 years.’ However, for dual reasons both environmental and transnational crime, concerns should remain with deforestation, legal and illegal, wrecking Michoacán’s land as trees are cleared at a pace of 2.5 per cent per year. This is not an isolated problem. A report by Journal Environmental Research Letters found that ‘drug trafficking was also responsible for up to 30% of annual deforestation in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, turning biodiverse forest into agricultural land.’Peru and Chile are water scarce, despite a surge in mudslides and flooding impacting the countries.

In Michoacán, pesticides are also causing suffering and illness amongst the population with chemicals used in mountain orchards spilling down into ground water, streams, rivers and lakes, and subsequently causing illnesses among the population. Alberto Gomez Tagle, an expert on the environment in the Lake Zirahuen region. speaking to The Independent blaming pesticides, “the avocado orchards expanded and all types of pesticides were used.”

Secondly, the concern should be on the collapse of the Mexican state, and the inability of its government to control its own territories. This is demonstrated both by the power of organised crime in vast swathes of the country and also by the loss of trust between civilian and state in an atmosphere of fear and paranoia. The Mexican military has been brutal in its crackdown on narco-traffickers, insurgents and has sowed terror in the rural areas of the countryside and are frequently accused of being in collusion with criminal organisations and violating human rights with impunity.

Coupled with the failed reforms of police and military branches with failures to adequately investigate human rights violations, the result is vigilantes taking matters into their own hands to protect themselves from corrupt police, the military and gangs alike by forming paramilitaries, militias and vigilante groups. As Nathaniel Parish Flannery writes, “Tancítaro has reverted to a feudal society little different from medieval Europe or colonial Mexico’s hacienda economy. The avocado farmers are like landed vassals: the backbone of the local economy. The head of the growers’ association is Tancítaro’s baron: the chief authority of town politics, business and security. The CUSEPT force are the professional knights who can fight off warriors from neighbouring kingdoms. The civilian police are the low-level landless peasants, the peons who form the first line of defence against intruders.”

These are short-term solutions to the Mexican state's intractable political problems. “It’s delicate. Up until now [the civilian police] has been seen as a triumph by the people. But it’s a fragile solution,” says Javier, a 46-year-old avocado grower speaking to The Guardian. “We’re [stuck] between the government and organised crime. It’s not a permanent solution.” The war on avocados has become something of a microcosm of what is wrong with Mexican politics, what is driving its complex conflict and its descent into the most violent period in its modern history. Avocados, much like Mexico's other resources, are not exempt from the terror gripping the country.