The star of food blogs and staple of Instagrammable breakfasts, the avocado has shot to celebrity status in recent years. Prized for its soft, rich flesh and vibrant green colouration, we get through a lot of them. In 2015 in America alone, over 4.5 billion individual avocados were bought and sold - more than double the number from 2005. The size and scale of this industry should not be underestimated.
Our modern avocado obsession comes at a cost. The fruit only thrives in very specific environmental conditions and requires hot, humid weather coupled with nutrient-rich soil. In wealthy northern economies - where there is greatest demand - such conditions are few and far between. However, the avo hungry middle classes and millennial food photographers still need to get their fix from somewhere. Hence around 85 per cent of the avocados purchased in America are imported, the vast majority of which come from Mexico.
The level of interest, both in America and around the world, has seen the Latin American country develop into the world’s single biggest producer of avocados. Nearly half of all avocados consumed in the US come from Mexico, totalling nearly two billion in 2016. The industry’s value to the country’s economy cannot be overstated. Estimates suggest that the US/Mexico market alone is worth $1.7bn, on top of the trade Mexico enjoys with the rest of the world. In the farming state of Michoacan - which produces half of all avocados consumed globally - it’s estimated that 9 out of every 10 pesos come from the fruit. Unfortunately, in a nation that has for many years been defined by another, far more shadowy business, these sorts of numbers have ended up attracting the wrong sort of attention.
Mexico’s drug cartels are notorious for their power and brutality. Many states, including Michoacan, continue to be ravaged by continuing conflict with the cartels of the cocaine trade. For decades now, the passage of drugs from Latin and South America has been an established black market industry worth billions of dollars each year. In a nation that enjoyed little other trade with America, drugs were the only obvious way for the cartels to make money. However, as the avocado industry has grown, other possibilities have opened up.
The result is that many cartels have sought to extort and exploit avocado producers at every opportunity. For many years, the drug lords exercised lethal control over farmers, threatening violence if they were not cut in on the growers’ legitimate business operations. If "protection money" was not paid, entire crops would be burned or worse still, farmers and their families would be kidnapped and executed. During the noughties, the ongoing war with the cartels cast a shadow over an industry that was becoming ever more essential to Mexico’s developing economy.
Early responses proved to be largely ineffective. Both the size and remoteness of many avocado plantations make tracking and punishing violent perpetrators a near impossible task for local law enforcement, whose resources are often stretched thin. Given the limited success that Mexico has enjoyed in stemming the drug trade, it’s unsurprising that a centralised solution to the avocado problem has also been elusive.
However, despite the dangers, there have been signs of a fightback from the honest avocado growers of Mexico. In Michoacan, one town in particular has united against the barbarism of the cartels and taken the law into their own hands. Tancitaro - which was, until recently, considered one of the most dangerous areas in the entire country - is built on the avocado trade. The success of its plantations made it a ripe target for criminal gangs. Before long, the community was engulfed in conflict. Official statistics state that between 2005 and 2016, there were a little over 8,500 murders in a town with a current population of just under 30,000.
Isolated from effective law enforcement and tired of the influence of the cartels, local farmers banded together to fight back, forming a new vigilante paramilitary organisation. Armed with old army equipment, including AK-47s and high powered M-1 rifles, every farmer in Tancitaro is now equipped and prepared to stave off assault from those who would look to profit from their hard work. The Tancitaro Public Security Force are now the dominant presence in the area, conducting regular armed patrols to protect the interests of all local growers.
Despite the presence of official local law enforcement, it’s clear that the vigilantes now hold the power in Tancitaro. Though their brand of police work is certainly neither authorised nor orthodox, and even perhaps illegal, there can be little doubting its success. Since the avocado growers association took control of the town a few years ago, murder rates have plummeted and kidnappings even dropped to zero in 2016. Though it remains to be seen how effective a long-term solution these measures may be, for now, Tancitaro proves that the fight against the cartels is far from hopeless.
While it’s easy to take our favourite soft green fruit for granted, it is worth remembering the struggle and sacrifice involved in getting it to our plate. Though the avocado industry remains a shady and questionable operation in many cases, examples like Tancitaro and the work done by food activists across Latin America shows that the tide is beginning to turn. If you want to be sure of where your produce came from, buying fruit marked with a Fair Trade sticker, or other sustainability-focused organisations, guarantees its ethical origins. Avocados may continue to be on food’s front line, but there are signs that this is a battle that can be won.