On Thursday morning, the residents of Uruapan, Mexico, woke up to a scene too grisly to even be called nightmarish. Nine bodies were discovered hanging from an overpass, and some of them had been partially stripped of their clothes. Seven more bodies—some dismembered, some decapitated—were found under a nearby pedestrian bridge. And three others were left in a pile on the side of the road. All 19 victims had gunshot wounds.
The Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) immediately took credit for the carnage, hanging a large banner on the bridge and warning residents that the same fate was waiting for anyone who helps their rivals. "Kind people, go on with your routine. Be patriotic, and kill a Viagra," it read, referencing the Viagras gang.
Adrián López Solís, the attorney general of Michoacán state, believes that the massacre was because of the region's drug trade. "Certain criminal gangs are fighting over territory, to control activities related to drug production distribution and consumption,” he said. “Unfortunately, this conflict results in these kinds of acts that justifiably alarm the public.”
But one International Crisis Group researcher who has reported extensively on Mexico's cartels suggested that the CJNG might have also had another motivation for those murders: controlling Michoacán's lucrative avocado industry. "The big magnet here is avocados,” Falko Ernst told The Guardian. It has previously been reported that 80% of the avocados that are imported into the United States come from Michoacán, and those who work in the avocado industry have increasingly been targets for criminal gangs.
In June, The Guardian reported that as many as four avocado-transport trucks are stolen every day, and frustrated and terrified avocado packing companies and exporters took out a joint advertisement in the local paper. "It’s impossible to continue taking these losses,” the ad said. “Failing to stop the theft of these trucks will have an irreparable impact on the avocado industry.”
“There are at least 20 illegal armed groups violently competing for territories and markets in the state. Yet not a single actor has been able to establish dominion over the others," Ernst said at the time. "The avocado sector, a billion-dollar industry, after all, is too attractive [for armed groups] to pass up on, and producers and exporters are bearing some of the cost."
The Jalisco New Generation Cartel is led by Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes—better known as "El Mencho" —who once spent three years in a Texas prison after an arrest for selling heroin. (In a dark bit of irony, Rolling Stone reports that El Mencho's parents were both avocado farmers in southwestern Michoacán.) He is currently one of the Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) most wanted international fugitives.
The CJNG has spent years terrorizing people in Michoacán and in neighboring Jalisco. In 2015, a tequila producer named Eduardo Pérez told VICE that he ultimately closed his business because of the monthly payments he had to make to CJNG-linked extortionists. "They warned me that if I didn't pay, then I'd be in trouble," he said. "I changed my phone number and everything, but the extortion continued [...] You have to pay the famous quotas. If you don't, then they'll start to harm you or your business."
According to Mexico News Daily, Michoacán officials have requested that the federal government deploy more personnel from its newly created National Guard to Uruapan, which is among the 50 most violent municipalities in the country. López Solís has asked the people of Urapan to continue with their normal, daily activities, but that may be understandably difficult.
"This kind of public, theatrical violence, where you don’t just kill, but you brag about killing, is meant to intimidate rivals and send a message to the authorities,” Mexico security analyst Alejandro Hope told the Associated Press.
It sends an undeniably terrifying message to the residents, too.