Over the past several years, Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations, otherwise known as cartels, have diversified at an unprecedented rate, driving many governments world-wide to distinguish these criminal groups as transnational criminal organizations (TCOs). Recent efforts by cartels to overtake the avocado industry signifies one of the first steps of infiltrating the agricultural sector, which has become a serious security and human rights concern for Mexico as almost a quarter of its population depend on farming for their income. In spite of this change in dynamics, the federal government has not yet shifted their strategies to match cartel operations.
Otherwise known as “green gold,” the avocado has become a lucrative fruit of global trade. For Mexico in particular, the state-of-the-art avocado industry amounts to over $3 billion U.S. dollars in exports per-annum and comprises just under half of the entire global supply. Likewise, this sector has been credited with creating almost 100,000 permanent jobs and indirectly funding additional 315,000 jobs in Mexico alone. This not only raises the standard of living in a region that once sourced the largest number of migrant workers in the United States, but has also raised regions of western Mexico out of poverty in the span of less than a decade.
Upon the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, the United States quickly became the world’s leading avocado importer. Subsequently, avocado consumption doubled worldwide, as 9 out of 10 imported avocados in the U.S. come from the state of Michoacán alone. Even in spite of pandemic-related challenges to agricultural harvests and supply chains, avocado demand around the globe remains stable, and actually increased by almost ten percent in 2020.
Despite the exponential growth of the fruit’s popularity and profits, the avocado boom has now become a curse to its growers. The war against drugs has forever splintered organized crime in Mexico and bolstered a substantial shift in the location of violence. As security operations were focused on large cities, criminal organizations were forced to relocate to rural areas. Consequently, TCOs ambitions to diversify and maximize their income through the agricultural industry has become the next logical step, considering that its large public sector with territorial specificity in tandem with weak legal institutions has given them easy access to the country’s resources and made avocados ripe for the taking.
Vying for Control
Not one of the more than twenty illegally armed groups vying for control over the avocado market has been able to establish dominion over the others. Such developments have resulted in an extremely costly war for the livelihoods of innocent avocado farmers.
To satisfy America’s strong appetite for avocados along with the unfeasible demands of cartels, Mexican farm workers now endure human rights violations. TCOs and smaller enclaved criminal groups prey on all stages of the avocado sector by extorting producers, transporters and packers to increase their yields of the fruit, often by an impossible amount. As a result, avocado businesses are pressured to recruit additional laborers, typically those who originate from rural and indigenous communities. These laborers’ vulnerability and economic plight empower avocado farm owners to exploit workers, forcing them to fourteen hour work days without receiving their promised wage of $100 pesos (~$8 USD) a day.
Out of desperation to curb cartel involvement in the avocado industry, growers have recruited their own armed defense forces. They operate entirely outside the law, a practice which further perpetuates human rights abuses and due process violations. These attempts to defend the avocado market are often counterproductive because the cartels overpower these private forces by wielding smuggled U.S firearms and deploy guerrilla-style tactics, sending heavily armed battalions to commit multiple assassinations of police officers, government officials, journalists, and civilian bystanders. To deter future retaliation, cartels have adopted innovative public relations strategies to intimidate their opposition, displaying narcomantas and gruesome beheadings in public.
Mexico’s President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has played a critical role in escalating tensions between TCOs and Mexico’s federal government and civilian population. Mexico’s homicide rates increased by 86 percent and the country saw more people killed in 2019 than in any other year in Mexico’s recent history, a value reflective of the government’s decades-long failed federal security strategy and under-resourced militarized police force. Like his predecessors, President Obrador continues to prioritize an aggressive top-down kingpin policing strategy, which leads to the fragmentation of the cartels transpiring even more diversification, making them more violent and difficult to track━a costly failure to say the least.
While advocates for peace have recommended an even higher tariff or a temporary closure of the avocado business, this approach hardly covers the totality of cartel violence and would have an adverse effect on essential farm workers dependent on their avocado businesses. Such a boycott implies a punishment to their income and will provoke cartels to prey on civilians even more violently to accommodate for the effect of the diminishing avocado revenue.
The overall fracturing of major cartels in the aftermath of the war on drugs presents a significant problem for Mexico’s uncertain future, especially with cartels being able to enlarge their influence into almost any sector should avocados become unprofitable.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA’s) annual National Drug Threat Assessment recognizes that the U.S. continues to spend over $175 billion dollars per-annum to fund the Mexican federal police force in fighting cartels’ and their kingpin policing strategy despite the overwhelming evidence proving that this financial assistance has backfired. This challenge underscores a major misunderstanding of Mexico’s dynamic of violence.
The consequences of enhancing the enforcement capabilities of Mexico’s military and police forces, whether motivated by their government or the U.S., suggests that there is a zero-sum game between the ‘state’ and ‘criminals’ because there is an assumption that cartels will disintegrate when the leader is either killed or extradited. This oversimplified framework assumes there is a clear winner and a loser in political-criminal relations, preventing policymakers from understanding the true complexity and highly fragmented nature of violence in Mexico. Contrary to popular belief, the presence of high levels of violence does not indicate a failed government.
While policymakers and analysts have backed a variety of approaches to reduce the legitimacy of cartels, almost all actors recognize Mexico’s lack of capacity-building measures to solve their struggle for security. Luckily, TCOs merit the attention of international organizations like the United Nations and The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, which help improve structural stability and rule of law, within local communities.
As it currently stands, Mexico’s economic and political system is structured to function with high levels of violence. It may undermine public safety, but violence is not an impassable obstacle to the economy. The avocado sector booming for the past twenty years is a case in point. As a result, Mexico’s primary goal should be to ‘lower’ the value of violence as a resource by dramatically raising the costs of drug-related conflict and separating cartel legitimacy from the government. Viewing Mexico’s criminal actors in this light is critical to ensure that the government and international community can focus on the links that connect violent criminals to public institutions and authorities.
The basis of Mexico’s entire reformed security strategy should be to mend their deeply flawed judicial system. Confronting violent actors with more violence only provides short-term relief since cartels can swiftly regain momentum over the civilian population. Rather, Mexico should focus on rectifying its justice system and destroying the political institutions that inherently support violence by improving civilian security and enhancing the validity of local police forces.
Not enough organizations are investing in accountability and traceability efforts to end cartel violence. Cartel diversification of the avocado industry represents only the first step toward cartels’ infiltration of the licit market. If cartels gain a stronger hold on the legal market of valuable goods, their activities will eventually be impossible to track. Serious investments are necessary to undo the way the Mexican government has been operating for the past 100+ years, and only transparency, political will, and collaboration with international partners can drive such change.