Hector “Tata” Saavedra gathers a group of men to give them instructions before they go out on patrol.
Saavedra tells them they need to go out and make sure that their boundaries are secure. But these men, wearing masks and carrying weapons, aren’t soldiers or policemen; they are avocado farmers.
Avocados are big business in the Mexican state of Michoácan, so much so that locals call the fruit “green gold.” Michoácan exports nearly $3 billion worth of avocados every year, much of that driven by increasing U.S. appetites. Last year, the U.S. imported $2.1 billion worth of avocados from Mexico, a dramatic shift from just a few decades ago.
But it’s no easy feat for farmers to grow and sell Michoácan’s popular fruit.
Avocados are so lucrative that drug cartels have tried to get in on the action. The Jalisco and Los Viagras cartels have tried to extort avocado growers and steal their land. When the Knights Templar cartel tried to take over some of Michoácan’s avocado orchards in 2013, Saavedra’s defense group rose up against them.
“At the beginning, we defended ourselves with machetes, sticks, rocks. We blocked every way to access our town,” said Saavedra. “No one gets out, and no one gets in. This was our best defense.”
Things are different now, Saavedra said, but it’s still dangerous. In 2019, his group got into a gunfight with the Jalisco cartel that lasted almost an hour.
Virgilio Augustín, a local Michoácan avocado farmer, is a member of Saavedra’s defense force. He sees how the demand for avocados has had both positive and negative impacts on the area. He encourages everyone to keep eating avocados, but the fear that things could go back to the way they were just a few years ago is always there.
“Producing avocados is very hard. I’m not talking about hard work, but it takes a lot of organization. In some cases, it costs blood or lives,” said Augustín.
Based on reporting by VICE News journalists Michael Anthony Adams and Roberto Daza.