How many people were kidnapped, tortured and murdered for your avocado?
Published by The Mail on Sunday (23rd February, 2020)
Sergio was working in the avocado orchards when two men suddenly appeared and told him to accompany them to see their boss. Having already survived a kidnapping and execution threat, he knew this was bad news.
He was driven a few miles to another orchard, where a prominent drug cartel chief was sitting at a table surrounded by 15 heavily armed goons. Sergio was offered a glass of water, asked a few innocuous questions, then dismissed.
A few days later, the phone calls started. He was told to tell his boss to give the two men almost £100,000 – a huge sum in Mexico, where the average annual household income is about £6,600.
‘The men said they were asking for a contribution because they had so many expenses and workers to pay,’ he said. ‘They said they were asking in a friendly way – but if we were not friendly, then they would take other measures.’
Sergio, a tall and amiable man, knew what this meant. Farmers have been disappearing and turning up dead in Michoacán, the fertile heart of Mexico’s billion-pound avocado trade, ever since drug cartels discovered the humble green fruit could be as lucrative as heroin.
Sergio’s bosses duly negotiated a lower sum and he delivered the agreed first instalment. Two days later came another call. ‘They asked if this was a joke, saying it was not enough money and wanting the original amount.’
Then the farmers faced a barrage of menacing calls. They switched off their phones, but the gangsters turned up at their homes and hustled their families.
When I met Sergio, they had one more day to hand over the cash – or face death.
Such is the fragility of life in Michoacán. This state became one of the most blood-soaked parts of our planet after murderous cartels fought to control vast profits from cocaine, heroin and cannabis flowing through their country.
Now the price of heroin has crashed due to creation of synthetic opioid alternatives, cannabis is legal in much of North America – and violence has surged in Mexico with a record toll of murders as its savage gangs diversify into new areas.
How ironic that these symbols of health-consciousness in the West are suddenly at the centre of mass killings, kidnappings, torture, extortion and corruption.
Mexico grows almost half the avocados sold globally. The product has become so valuable that it is nicknamed ‘green gold’. US sales have risen almost fivefold this century and have also surged in the UK.
Celebrity chefs pushed them hard as they are one of the few fruits to contain hardly any sugar but are rich in vitamins, fibre and healthier monounsaturated fats.
Ella Woodward, of bestselling brand Deliciously Ella, whizzes them into breakfast smoothies while celebrity cook Nigella Lawson says avocado toast is ‘part of the fabric of my life’.
I was returning to my hotel in the city of Uruapan after talking to Sergio’s boss when I came across scores of heavily armed police and troops. As rain lashed down, soldiers trained guns and even grenade-launchers at cafes, shops and bars in the street.
Inside a small video arcade, there was carnage. Four gunmen had entered and, after asking for two local cartel leaders, sprayed about 65 bullets around the room without waiting for an answer.
Nine people lay dead, the floor was covered in blood. The youngest was Luis Sandoval, only 12 years old. ‘They were just playing games in an arcade,’ Ana, his aunt, later told me. ‘All the victims were kids, good kids going to school from poor and humble families.’
Few of the terrified people who live in this 500-year-old city would argue with her next words. ‘It is so difficult to live in these circumstances because you never know when something bad is going to happen.’
Uruapan has been hideously scarred by violence since an infamous day in 2006 when five severed human heads were hurled on a nightclub dancefloor, heralding the start of a reign of terror by cartels trafficking Colombian cocaine.
The cause of the latest horror is assumed to be a turf war between Los Viagras, a local gang that takes its name from the spikily erect hair of one of its founders, and rivals Jalisco New Generation, from a neighbouring state.
Six months ago, nine bodies were hung from a bridge alongside a banner threatening Los Viagras, with ten more corpses, mostly dismembered, dumped on the road below.
The day before the arcade killings, 11 bodies were found in a shallow grave. Last week, 24 more corpses, including those of five women, were found in a rural spot near the city, bearing signs of torture and execution.
Everyone, from wealthy doctors to struggling street taco-sellers, faces extortion – yet no one dares go to the police since many are in the pay of cartels and informers get killed.
One taxi driver told me that he and his colleagues must stump up a monthly sum in protection money equivalent to about one day’s earnings. ‘Los delincuentes [criminals] are expanding to steal from everyone. Every day I am afraid. The whole town will soon be empty as it gets dark. People all hide behind locked doors.’
Almost all of Mexico’s avocados are grown in the fertile volcanic soil of Michoacán, which has lifted the region out of poverty – but at terrible cost. Initially, the cartels saw the avocado industry as a means to launder money but rapidly realised the potential for vast profits. ‘They stopped seeing drugs as their main industry and moved into avocados as well as mining,’ said one analyst.
Gabriel Castaneda, director of security policy in Michoacán, says the gangs, which are thought to have 200,000 members in his state alone, have seized 35 per cent of the £1.9 billion sector. ‘They’re taking control of the whole industry,’ he said. ‘It is replacing many of their former activities, including drug-trafficking. In many cases the takeovers are done by murder, extortion and kidnapping.’
Castaneda told how one collective of 40 farmers is being forced to pay £500,000 a month to gangsters, while up to four trucks carrying avocados are reportedly hijacked each day in the state. ‘It is so profitable,’ he said.
After one avocado distributor refused to pay ‘protection’ money, his daughter was executed on the company’s doorstep as a warning to others.
Another grower was kidnapped from his orchard earlier this month and his body found days later.
According to a local source, 20 gangs contest this terrain. Yet the authorities’ impotence was clear when I went to talk to Sergio’s boss Tomás at his farm near a checkpoint run by the National Guard, an anti-cartel police force created last year.
Tomás clearly loves his land as he showed me round his orchards and plucked an avocado for me to taste – but he was also obviously under huge stress as talked about the struggle to find protection money.
‘They have a lot of information about you. They know exactly how much land we all have. You pay off these people – but who knows if another lot will appear next week demanding money? They can get you any time, ask for any sum, steal any land.’
He said they did not have the cash so would have to cut down as much ripe fruit as possible – although payment for sales would take six weeks to come through – and then borrow from friends, family and loan sharks.
‘I am frightened for my family – I don’t want any of them to be harmed. If I was single, I would just go to Mexico City. But there is no way out. We can’t just flee.’
Such is the suspicion that stalks this land that Tomás took me aside to talk away from his own workers. He is dismayed by the failure of the authorities to protect local people – but he is resisting, so far, calls for creation of a self-defence militia.
Later, in a nearby forest, I met a group of families of the indigenous Purépecha people who have armed themselves to fight off cartels trying to take their property.
Inside a wooden cabin, they showed me a sophisticated camera system that is scanning their 4,200 acres of pine-filled woods – and a hiding place for guns to fend off gangsters who want their land for avocados.
Their spokesman showed me scars on his fingers left by a machete during a clash with five criminals last October. ‘We inherited this land from our grandfathers so we feel obliged to protect it,’ he said.
I spoke also to an environmentalist whose forest has been stripped by gangsters who sell ‘licences’ to loggers for about £20 a day. He says his home, too, has been destroyed by police in league with the gangs. This man estimated that 56,000 trees have been cut down in the 250-acre site and said that he had to dive for cover last year during an hour-long ambush by Los Viagras that left ten rival gangsters dead.
Little wonder, amid all this carnage and corruption, that some residents in Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro, a village five miles down the road from Uruapan, have taken the law into their own hands.
‘Municipal Council’ checkpoints, run by locals using walkie-talkies, ring the town. One man told me their weapons were stashed out of sight under a deal with the federal government but they possessed 2,000 rifles in this place of 15,000 people. A cattle trader said he did not like guns, but added: ‘I have a few grenades if I need them.’
Another man in his 70s explained how the area had been under control of two gangsters who lived in the town. ‘We had no freedom. There was a curfew at 10pm. These guys could do what they wanted, even taking young girls to rape.’
Two years ago, residents rose in revolt after the shooting of a local man. Grabbing their guns, they drove the main gangster out of town after killing his brother.
It is reminiscent of the Wild West. Cartel members are allowed to pass freely through the town – I saw three young armed toughs clad in black stroll into a shop from a pick-up truck without licence plates.
Armando Galindo Espinoza, the police chief, said his force had been reformed at the same time as the residents’ revolt. ‘Some left with the gangs because they were part of them. We fired a few officers to clean it up and replaced them with local people.’
As I entered his office, he shifted two semi-automatic rifles from my seat. Later, he showed me the small .223 bullets fired from his police guns and compared them with the far bigger ones used by gangsters, rattled out by automatic weapons with 75-bullet clips and able to pierce his heaviest protective vest.
‘We’re fighting an evil – and it was political negligence from the authorities that let this cancer grow,’ he said.
Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a veteran socialist and close friend of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, won power two years ago by promising to end violence with a focus on the economy and a naive policy of ‘abrazos, no balazos’ (hugs not bullets). But the economy has stagnated and violence worsened.
During my visit, his new National Guard was humiliated after an egg-throwing crowd supporting an arrested Viagras gang leader forced troops clearing road blocks into retreat.
One of the president’s former senior party colleagues said it was vital that this force was given far greater powers to investigate and crush the cartels. ‘The policy should be to protect the majority of the population, not to defend the human rights of gangs with no respect for other people.’
Back in Michoacán, the cartel did not turn up to collect the cash from avocado farmer Tomás on the appointed day. Was this a relief, I asked? ‘Not necessarily,’ he replied wearily. ‘You don’t know when they will come back.’
Such is the tragic cruelty of this verdant land where our love of avocados means that a luscious fruit is valued more now than human lives.
Some names have been changed to protect identities.