How the Avocado Became Key to Mexican Drug Cartel Turf War

The U.S. has suspended imports of Mexican avocados—as the lucrative fruit continues to play a key role in the turf wars between drug cartels.

Mexico's Agriculture Ministry said U.S. health authorities notified Mexico of their decision to suspend avocado shipments "until further notice" after a U.S. plant inspector working in Uruapan in Michoacán, a major producing region of avocados, received a threatening phone call.

In a statement, the ministry said the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) is carrying out an investigation "to assess the threat and determine the necessary mitigation measures to guarantee the physical integrity of all of its personnel working in Michoacán."

The U.S. Embassy in Mexico said "facilitating the export of Mexican avocados to the U.S. and guaranteeing the safety of our agricultural inspection personnel go hand in hand."

A farmer harvests avocados
A farmer harvests avocados at an orchard in the municipality of Uruapan, Michoacan State, Mexico, on October 19, 2016. Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

In a tweet on Sunday night, the embassy added: "We are working with the Mexican government to guarantee security conditions that would allow our personnel in Michoacán to resume operations."

Avocados are one of Mexico's chief exports, thanks in large part to skyrocketing demand from U.S. consumers, and amount to almost $3 billion annually.

Michoacán exported over 135,000 tonnes of avocados to the U.S. in the past six weeks alone, according to the agriculture ministry.

The state produces the bulk of the country's avocados and is the only one in Mexico that is fully authorized to export to the U.S. market.

But Michoacán has long been rocked by violence from cartels, particularly the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG)—described by the U.S. Department of Justice as "one of the five most dangerous transnational criminal organizations in the world."

The massive growth of Mexico's avocado trade prompted rival cartels to fight to control it, as well as extort avocado farmers for money. It was revealed in 2017 that cartels had used government databases to find, extort and kidnap avocado farmers for decades.

Falko Ernst, a Mexico analyst with the nonprofit International Crisis Group, tweeted that "rather than suspending [avocado] shipments from Michoacán after a [U.S.] health inspector got a threatening call, the US should assist in developing regional action plans tackling insecurity at its roots. Hurting an economy feeding an entire region does the opposite."

The temporary suspension was confirmed late on Saturday night, the day before the Super Bowl. However, avocados for game-day consumption had already been exported.

Among the ads shown during the game was one paid for by the Mexican avocado growers and packers association, The Associated Press reported, as part of a years-long effort to make guacamole a Super Bowl staple.

It is not the first time that violence in Michoacán has threatened Mexican avocado exports.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture team of inspectors was "directly threatened" in Ziracuaretiro, a town just west of Uruapan, in 2019, according to AP.

Local authorities said a gang had robbed the truck the inspectors were traveling in at gunpoint. "For future situations that result in a security breach, or demonstrate an imminent physical threat to the well-being of APHIS personnel, we will immediately suspend program activities," the USDA wrote in a letter at the time.