Peering out of the windshield of his truck, a shiny new Volkswagen Amorok, Alejandro Bautista, a 60-year-old avocado grower, looked ahead at the road that cuts through the steep, verdant hills outside of Uruapan in the state of Michoacán in southern Mexico.
As Bautista pulled his truck toward his farm, which includes 172 acres of carefully trimmed avocado trees, Bautista explained, “Twenty years ago, California producers were very scared that Mexico would enter and wreck the market. But, the market is growing.”
Trade agreements between the neighboring countries stripped import duties on agricultural products shipped between the U.S. and Mexico. Even so, politicians from avocado-producing states in the U.S. for years raised concerns about health and safety issues in an attempt to block the entrance of Mexican avocados.
“Twenty years ago we exported less than 5 percent of our production. Now it’s around 50 percent. It goes up every year,” Bautista told Fox News Latino.
The growth of Mexico’s avocado exports has been an under-the-radar success story. In 1997, Washington allowed avocados from Michoacán—the sole state in Mexico allowed to export the fruit to the U.S.—into only 13 states north of the border. In 2007 the U.S. lifted the remaining bans on imported avocados that had been kept in place in California, Hawaii and Florida—states with their own domestic avocado sectors.
“There are now controls for cleanliness and safety. Everything is documented. There are external inspectors who review everything,” Bautista explained. Producers and exporters joined together to form the Michoacán Avocado Producers and Exporters Association (APEAM by its Spanish acronym).
“The quality has increased compared to twelve or fifteen years ago,” Bautista added.
In 2012, Mexico produced 1.3 million tons of avocados, a crop worth about $1.3 billion. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Michoacán accounts for 85 percent of Mexico’s total avocado output.
“In Michoacán you get good quality avocado for the whole year. All year round we can pick avocados from different altitudes,” Bautista said.
Four out of every five avocados consumed in the U.S. comes from the state. During the 2012-13 growing season, 515,000 tons of avocados were sent to the U.S. This season, export receipts are expected to surpass $1 billion.
There’s a reason locals call avocados “green gold.”
“It’s the most profitable crop you can grow,” Bautista said.
James Parker, the global produce purchasing associate coordinator at Whole Foods, explained that while the U.S. does import some avocados from Chile during the winter, “Mexico is by far the largest producer for the U.S. market.”
Mexico’s Ministry of Agriculture estimates the whole 1994 avocado crop of just under 800,000 tons was worth about $90 million. Obviously the market has grown substantially over the last twenty years.
Over the last decade Whole Foods has seen per store avocado sales double. Parker explained, “The main reason for the increased popularity can be attributed to better year-round supply, particularly in organic fruit. Customers can almost always find a ripe avocado to enjoy the day they buy it.”
The increase in quality is apparent up and down the chain of trade. “Forty years ago we bagged the avocados and they banged into each other. Now it’s in boxes and make sure not to overfill the boxes so the avocados don’t get damaged,” Bautista said.
“The avocado market has improved a lot since we entered the U.S.,” Bautista told FNL. “California producers were very worried about us inundating the market and pushing down prices, but we opened the faucet little by little. Every year they eat more avocados in the U.S. It’s a great economic opportunity for us.”
Shannon O’Neil, a Mexico expert from the Council on Foreign Relations said, “The growth of Michoacán’s avocado sector illustrates both the impressive growth in the trading relationship with the United States, as well as deeper-seated cultural shifts, bringing the two nations closer together in many ways. Sales have skyrocketed due not only to greater market access, but also changes in U.S. eating habits. Guacamole has become a restaurant and home staple as opposed to the little known and ‘exotic’ food it was just twenty years ago.”
Mexican producers initially focused on targeting Latino consumers but have succeeded in reaching a wider market. “The Super Bowl is the most important day for us. Then, prices go down until Cinco de Mayo,” Bautista said.
But, even as the producers and packers were able to work together to improve quality standards and boost exports, deteriorating security began to affect the industry.
In the mid-2000s, the state became a battle ground between cartels like Los Zetas, the Familia Michoacána and, later, the Knights Templar. Stories of threats of extortion and kidnapping became more and more commonplace.
Luis Alberto, a 19-year-old resident of the city of Apatzingán told FNL, “It was bad, out of control. To steal your truck, [the Templars] would kill you. We’d see the bodies of dead women strung up.”
The cartels had always leeched off of the state’s profitable farming sector, but by 2013, they started preying on residents at an unprecedented level. During the course of the year, citizens began to form vigilante units—the “autodefensas”—to try to protect their communities.
On November 16, autodefensas took over the town of Tancítaro, the center of the state’s avocado industry.
According to Mexico City-based security analyst Eduardo Guerrero, “the autodefensas took over Tancítaro after the kidnapping of Maria Irene Villanueva, the daughter of an avocado grower. Her father didn’t pay a ransom of $600,000 and she was raped and executed. After the incursion by the autodefensas and because of concerns about security, the USDA pulled out its inspectors.”
The Regional Security Office of the U.S. Embassy made a joint decision with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to suspend avocado exports from Tancítaro.
On Jan. 12, 2014, the vigilantes fought off cartel gunmen and took over the town of Nueva Italia, long a Knights Templar stronghold. On Super Bowl Sunday, I travelled with a caravan of autodefensa gunmen as they took over Santa Clara, just outside of the city of Los Reyes. On Feb. 8, accompanied by Federal Police officers, they marched and occupied the Templar base of Apatzingán.
Luis Alberto, who joined the citizen’s militia, spoke to me in March. He was carrying a heavy rifle and sitting next to a parking lot in Apatzingán lined with SUVs hand-painted with the word “autodefensa.”
He explained, “The story here is that they started charging bribes, committing crimes. They weren’t satisfied with being given a lot of money. They messed with people. They robbed them. They charged avocado growers and packers, butchers, cattlemen, tortilla makers, everything that earned money. It was a chain.”
Now, Mexican Army patrols move throughout the state and Federal Police work together with citizen militia members at the entrance to towns. The federal government has promised that as of May 1, the autodefensas will transition to becoming an officially-sanctioned security force known as “Los Rurales,” a division of the Army. The USDA inspectors are back at work in Tancítaro.
“Things have improved,” Bautista explained.
Militia leader Estanislao Beltrán, a heavily bearded man known as Papa Pitufo—the Spanish word for Smurf—was seated at an indoor basketball court in the village of Nuevo Zirosto, surrounded by several dozen gunmen eating carnitas pork tacos.
He told FNL, “Before [the criminals] burned businesses and buses and blocked highways. Now you don’t see that… We’ve weakened them. We’ve entered nine towns without firing even one bullet. When we started, we had shoot-outs every day. Now it’s not like that.”
On a quiet cobblestone street in Uruapan, seated in a sunlit restaurant, Antonio Villa Senior, the owner of the AztecAvo packing business, said, “Every day U.S. consumption of Mexican avocados is bigger. Michoacán is like a natural greenhouse with volcanic soil. It’s great for avocado. It’s the only place in the world that produces during all twelve months of the year.”
The state still faces serious security challenges, not least among them attempting to professionalize the autodefensas and integrate them into government-operated police structures.
Security analyst Guerrero said, “In Mexico, there’s a long tradition of rural police dating back to the 1800s. It’s not an ideal solution but rather a compromise that stems from the autodefensas stubbornness about disarming.”
Mexico’s federal government is now working to demobilize and phase out the citizen militias in Michoacán. But until the autodefensas and the government find a security solution both can live with, the state’s reputation will continue to suffer.
Shannon O’Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations, explained, “The deteriorating security situation in Michoacán shows how vital strengthening Mexico’s rule of law is for the nation to meet its economic potential. Right now violence is visibly dimming this success story – the export of avocados.”
Nathan Parish Flannery is a freelance reporter based out of Mexico City who has worked on projects in Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia, India, China and Chile. Follow him on Twitter: @LatAmLENS.