‘Blood Avocados’ and Their Ties to Drug Trafficking

By Victoria Kim 05/19/15

Farmers have been forced to surrender part of their income to the Knights Templar cartel.

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Americans consume over a billion pounds of avocado a year. But the fruit, native to California and Mexico, has a dark side. In the state of Michoacán in Mexico, avocado farmers and land owners are terrorized by the Knights Templar (Caballeros Templarios) drug cartel. Avocado production is concentrated in the state, where the cartel has made $150 million a year extorting growers and packers, as well as selling avocados from the 5,000 acres they took from farmers.

Four of every five avocados sold in the U.S. originate in Michoacán, the only Mexican state certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to export avocados. The state exported more than 500,000 tons of the fruit to the U.S. in 2013. Farmers and land owners are taxed by fruit sold, forced to surrender a percentage of their incomes to the cartel.

A manager of a small packinghouse told the Wall Street Journal that he paid the cartel a tax of one cent per kilo, amounting to about $2,200 a month. Large-scale packers allegedly paid $15,000 a month.

Those who don’t cooperate pay the price with their lives or their land. In many cases, the Templar gang have forced owners to turn over the titles to their avocado groves. “They are ‘blood avocados.’ They are the Mexican equivalent of the conflict diamonds that are sold from war-torn parts of Africa,” said Raul Benitez, a security expert at UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City.

In recent years, vigilante groups have sprung up in Michoacán, tired of the gang’s violent hold on the state’s politics, agriculture, and mining. But the cartel remain entrenched, still controlling much of the state.

In February, the leader of the Knights Templar was captured. Servando “La Tuta” Gomez was one of the country’s most wanted drug lords, wanted by the U.S. for methamphetamine and cocaine trafficking. But the people of Michoacán remain wary of the state’s future. Even though the Knights Templar have “significantly weakened” after Gomez’s arrest, ex-members are now killing and robbing in the state, without even the cartel’s command structure to control them, locals in Apatzingan told Al Jazeera.

Law enforcement, which often have links to organized crime, have not been able to reduce one of the highest homicide rates in Mexico, with some fearing that other cartels in Michoacán will fill in the void left by the gang.

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