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Avocado crime soars ahead of America’s Super Bowl

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Via Financial Times

As Americans prepare to tuck into their guacamole, a staple of Super Bowl viewing parties, ahead of this weekend’s football championship, avocado growers in Mexico are guarding against criminal gangs eager to cash in on a fruit dubbed “green gold”.

With about a dozen trucks an hour setting off from the avocado belt in Mexico’s western state of Michoacán for the US, armed robbers are zeroing in on the fast-growing, multibillion-dollar industry. The rise in avocado-related crime has turned parts of the state into no-go areas even for the police.

“We’ve tried to work with the government [to combat crime] but even they are afraid in some areas and don’t dare go in,” said Juan, whose family has two farms near Uruapan, the city at the centre of the state’s avocado production. He did not want his real name published for fear of retaliation.

Demand for avocados jumps ahead of the Super Bowl, America’s biggest sporting event, with Mexico shipping a record 127,000 tonnes to the US for the occasion. Overall production is rising, hitting 1.09m tonnes in the 2018-19 season, up nearly 4 per cent from the 1.05m produced in 2017-18. Exports last season rose 5.4 per cent. Sales to the US, the largest importer of Mexican avocados, bring in almost $2bn a year, much of it going to smallholders.

“Where there’s money, that’s where the bad guys go. With all the publicity that it’s going so well for us — this will be the sixth year that Mexican avocados have [been] advertised in the Super Bowl — it draws attention to us,” said Juan.

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The criminal activity around avocados bears striking similarities to “conflict minerals” such as tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold, said Christian Wagner, Americas analyst at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. “Because the degree of enforcement in Mexico is so low, if they see an opportunity they [the criminal groups] will start doing it. Avocados could become a conflict commodity,” he said.

Line chart of US imports from Mexico ('000 tonnes) showing US appetite for Mexican avocados is on the rise

Until recently, Mexico’s organised crime groups’ main source of revenues from avocados centred around extortion — demands for protection money from farmers. But the sharp fall in the price of Mexican opium paste has forced them to diversify, according to analysts. Increasingly they have started hijacking truckloads of fruit for export. “What motivates them is profit margins. They have an impressive capacity to invest and go into new areas of activity,” said Mr Wagner.

The rise in avocado crime is thus indirectly linked to America’s opioid crisis. Americans’ increased use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid used for pain relief, pushed down the price of heroin, which in turn slashed the price of Mexican opium, according to Nathaniel Morris, a researcher of Mexican modern history at University College London, and a co-author of a report on the US fentanyl boom and the Mexican opium crisis.

Line chart of Reported incidents showing Violent crimes rise in Michoacan, Mexico
Column chart of Price of opium in 4 states ($ per kg) showing Mexican opium prices plunge

Opium prices in Mexico collapsed between 2017 and 2018, with the price per kilogramme falling to a quarter in some key producing areas, according to Noria, a research network. “[The fall in the opium price] is helping drive the further expansion [of criminal gangs] in the avocado industry and the negative side effects around it,” Mr Morris said.

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Rising violence has even threatened to disrupt avocado flows to the US. The US Department of Agriculture last year temporarily suspended inspections in the Uruapan area after repeated threats to its employees. Future security breaches or physical threats could result in suspension, the USDA wrote in a letter in September to Apeam, the Mexican avocado producers and packers association.

So dangerous has the avocado business become that several municipalities have armed private security guards to protect towns, said Juan. “In Uruapan, there are only 130 policemen. [They] aren’t sufficiently trained and there aren’t enough of them,” he said.

Still, for smallholder farmers in Michoacán, avocados provide much-needed income. “If it weren’t for the 30,000 small avocado producers, Michoacán would have a very serious problem with migration, crime and poverty,” said one official at an avocado production company who did not want his name published.

“Buying avocados helps families and small producers. Without that, they are at the mercy of criminal groups.”

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