MEXICO CITY — Exploding gang violence, gun battles, bombs dropped from drones, the forced displacement of thousands of people — none of it has dampened the U.S. appetite for avocados from Mexico’s western state of Michoacán. But a threatening phone call made to an avocado inspector with the U.S. Department of Agriculture could change that.
Mexico’s Agriculture Ministry said on Saturday that U.S. authorities informed them the U.S. would temporarily suspend avocado shipments on security grounds until the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) could investigate the threat made to its inspector and assess what measures are needed to ensure its employees’ safety. The agency regulates the safety of agricultural products imported into the U.S.
The move threatens to damage Mexico’s multibillion-dollar industry and, if not quickly rectified, deal a huge political blow to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Nearly a million tons of avocado, valued at around $2.4 billion, are exported to the U.S. annually, virtually all of it from Michoacán. That production has lifted thousands out of poverty but also fed the coffers of organized crime, which often charges a tax on every kilo sold, giving the industry the nickname the “green gold.”
“To the extent the machinery was working, the U.S. didn’t see a need to intervene until one of their own was threatened,” said Alejandro Hope, a security analyst in Mexico City. “This will probably increase the urgency of doing something in Michoacán,” he added, but he warned that “Michoacán is a graveyard of failed federal interventions.”
Growers in Michoacán’s multi-billion avocado and lime business have long co-existed with the cartels´ drug trafficking and extortion operations.
But the security situation has deteriorated drastically as the Pacific Coast state has become the battleground for a bitter fight for control between the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, or CJNG, and a coalition of local groups known as the United Cartels. Criminal groups are increasingly seeking to manage the avocado market outright as a means to finance their operations, Hope said.
“They are trying to keep prices artificially high by setting quotas, by restricting production, by limiting the number of people who can obtain a license to export to the U.S.”
The impact is already being felt in the lime business, as criminal gangs earlier this year cut the number of days workers were allowed on farms in order to depress production and drive up the selling price. Lime prices jumped roughly 90 percent in December 2021 compared to December 2020.
The circumstances of the threat made to the U.S. employee remain unclear. Mexican authorities said it happened while the inspector was in Uruapan, the deadliest place in the state of Michoacán.
In a statement, the APHIS said the suspension of avocado export operations “will remain in place for as long as necessary to ensure the appropriate actions are taken, to secure the safety of APHIS personnel working in Mexico.” The agency said it is working with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to ensure avocados that were inspected and certified for export on or before Feb. 11 can still be imported.
In a tweet on Saturday night, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico wrote, “Facilitating the export of Mexican avocados to the U.S. and ensuring the safety of our agricultural inspection teams go hand in hand. We are working with the Mexican government to guarantee security conditions that allow our personnel in Michoacan to resume operations.”
The Association of Avocado Exporting Producers and Packers of Mexico (APEAM) said it had activated security protocols following the threat and that it’s working to restore avocado inspections as quickly as possible. The federal government deployed more than 1,000 soldiers from the Mexican army and National Guard to Michoacan in January to address the exploding violence in Michoacán.
The timing could have been far worse for Mexico had the ban been enacted even a week ago. U.S. demand for avocado is generally highest for the Super Bowl, which took place on Sunday.