Maybe margaritas have come off your favorite bar's happy hour menu, or maybe your last Corona came adorned with a lemon instead of the standard lime. The Great Lime Shortage of 2014 has been pervasive, and the problem has been attributed largely to the confluence of certain environmental factors, such as heavy rains and a bacterial malady called huanglongbing.
But like the worm at the bottom of a tequila bottle, something slimy lurks beneath the turbulence of modern Mexican fruit production.
Omnipotent drug cartels have managed to infiltrate every sector of Mexican life, from government to law enforcement to banking. Now, it seems they've also muscled their way into the fruit trade. The Caballeros Templarios (a.k.a. the Knights Templar) cartel may have come to dominate agriculture in the western Mexican state of Michoacán, a major production area for limes, avocados, mangoes, and tomatoes. There are reports that they've raided lime farms and hijacked delivery trucks, but those knowledgeable about the situation are hesitant to make definitive claims.
In Michoacán, avocado is king. Somewhere between 86 and 92 percent of Mexico's avocados are grown in the state, the majority of which are sent to the US. And the cartels control that, too: In reports based on farmer testimony that go into explicit detail about the extortion racket forced upon the avocado industry, the Knights Templar are said to have gotten their hands on government records and used this information to tax farmers per kilogram of any avocados produced, as well as per hectare of land owned. They've also stolen ownership of entire plantations and killed relatives of those who don't readily comply. Spanish language news outlets have corroborated these reports. And although industry representatives deny that crime is a driver of price increases, avocado prices have doubled in the last few months.
Omnipotent drug cartels have managed to infiltrate every sector of Mexican life, from government to law enforcement to banking. Now, it seems they've also muscled their way into the fruit trade.
Before the avocado was established as Michoacán's cash cow, the state was largely reliant on mangoes. And while there have been whispers of cartel intimidation in the mango industry—which is still strong in Michoacán—there are no specific reports. (An attempt to contact the source of the only relevant quote in an article thus far was met with a request to "recuse myself from this one.") Various importers, exporters, wholesalers, and the executive director of the National Mango Board all either declined to comment or stated that they didn't know anything about drug cartel activity affecting mango production. Many of them sounded uncomfortable.
Then I got into contact with Will Cavan. Will, who spent decades as an importer of tropical fruit from Latin America, now runs a grower's association and a mango blog. He's not afraid to speak his mind and says that the other prominent figures in the industry are. "Anybody who does business [there] is sort of dancing with the devil," he said. "You go down and you've got one degree of separation from the drug cartels. Nobody wants to create problems, so they're all going to deny that it exists."
Since he left the import industry, Will no longer goes to Mexico. But those still actively in the business have to travel there to source products and negotiate contracts, which is dangerous business since cartel barons toll the roads on which produce is transported. Will says they're worried about being killed. According to him, all the standard extortion practices and kidnappings reported in avocado production are happening with mangoes, too.
But he claims that the cartels are more than third-party robbers and intimidators. They are intimately involved with mango production, running some of the largest operations and even actively working to limit supply in order to drive up prices. "Knowing people with packing sheds and being there on the ground," Will said, "they told me, 'Look, they come into our packing shed, they tell us how many loads we're gonna pack this week, and they'll go out at the field level. And if anybody goes out, they'll kill 'em.'"
It's ironic, he said, that the cartels have managed to bring order to a formerly chaotic industry, driving up prices in a way that legitimate producer's associations have never been able to. "For the first time, going back a couple years, the Mexican mango deal is making real money," Will said. "Mangoes have been selling at a good number. And that's what drug cartels are good at: They're good at making money." That is to say, the legitimate producers are likely seeing none of the profit.
It's in the best interest of the Knights Templar to keep the prices up, because they launder money through their own growing operations. But still, they often operate below a break-even point. "For them to put in two dollars and get one dollar back that's technically legitimate, they're happy with that," Will said. "But it drives out the little guys like myself, and that's why I had to get out of the business."
Anybody who does business [there] is sort of dancing with the devil," he said. "You go down and you've got one degree of separation from the drug cartels. Nobody wants to create problems, so they're all going to deny that it exists.
Cavan has butted heads with some of the biggest players in the industry, who he says have called him a "troublemaker" and a "drama queen." Is his testimony exaggerated or even invented, the paranoid ramblings of a guy who titles his blog posts in all caps? Maybe. But it's no secret that the power of drug cartels is extraordinarily broad in Mexico, and many of those who have been willing to speak out have ended up decapitated. American mango executives also have a stake in keeping the reputation of the industry clean. And all the while, armed farmer vigilantes are fighting against the Knights Templar in Michoacán—especially last month, when the battle ramped up after the kidnapping of an avocado grower.
Given these facts, it seems likely that there is truth behind Will's statements, and the Knights Templar really do control much of the Mexican fruit that ends up in our supermarkets. And since the US government's war on drugs has failed to curb violence across our southern border, let's hope the DEA doesn't initiate a war on mangoes, too.