Why that lime in your Margarita might be soaked in the blood of a farmer murdered by Mexican gangsters

Published by The Mail on Sunday (3rd March, 2024)

The attack began in the early hours of Tuesday. Residents woke to the rattle of gunfire, which continued into the day. Four powerful blasts, thought to be from explosives dropped by drones, shook their houses. By the end of the terrifying onslaught, no one knows how many had died, as the casualties were dragged away by the two rival cartels whose gang war had spilled so bloodily into the streets of the small Mexican town of Buenavista,

Yet this savagery was not over the huge profits to be had from smuggling illegal drugs, but for control of the region’s production of limes.

Mexico is the world’s second biggest producer of the fruit, exported around the world – including to Britain – where they flavour margaritas, salsas and tacos and much more besides.

Gangs are fighting a deadly turf war to control that lucrative business, running protection rackets to impose ‘taxes’ on farmers trying to earn a living. Workers defying their threats and extortion demands run the risk of being killed, kidnapped, losing their homes or banishment.

One prominent local figure suggested to me that up to 3,000 lime farmers may have been slaughtered in Michoacan, the western state that includes Buenavista, in the past decade.

It is believed 150,000 people have fled the state’s bloodletting and into America. ‘The whole of the lime industry is controlled by the gangs and there is a lack of freedom for producers,’ Buenavista’s mayor Sergio Baez, 59, told me. ‘So in a way when people in Britain buy their limes, there is a contribution to organised crime.’ 

The fighting for this market is so intense that landmines and grenade launchers have been used by gangsters. Last week, security forces in the municipality seized at least 130 home-made explosive devices to be dropped by drones.

According to Michoacan’s governor at least 14 organised gangs operate in the state, but a defiant Baez said: ‘We cannot be betrayed by fear.’

One lime farmer told me: ‘Criminal groups have taken control of our town, control of our economy, control of our lives. This is not a life, living under the rule of a criminal enterprise in the face of authorities who seem complacent.’

Last week’s nocturnal attack involved hitmen tied to the Tepalcatepec cartel trying to oust Los Viagras, a group notorious for its savagery reputedly led in the town by a man nicknamed La Sirena (The Mermaid).

This gang won national infamy with a video entitled No Mercy In Mexico, showing the gruesome execution of a father and son accused of collaboration with rivals. The gangsters cut off the head of the father before ripping out the heart of his son.

A rival clan released videos six months ago of a new armed wing named Lime Special Forces. These showed gangsters in armoured vehicles with badges on military-style uniforms featuring two pistols and a skull set inside a yellow lime.

Such is the state of terror that the farmer said if Los Viagras were driven out by rivals or by the military, they might be replaced by even more deranged gangsters – as seen so often in Mexico’s tragic recent history.

‘The Viagras got too ambitious, too nasty and aggressive against the people,’ said another source in the town, adding that many locals supported the insurgents in the hope of reducing the extortion and violence inflicted on them.

‘But why do people have to choose the least evil?’ they added. ‘There should be no evil at all – no quotas, no extraction of wealth, no controlling of people’s lives and the economy.’

The cartels also have their claws into the avocado business, having initially seen the trade in both fruits as a way to launder drug money. But they rapidly realised the potential for hefty profits from the control of these agricultural markets. With Buenavista producing 220,000 tons of lime a year, the gangs’ levy on producers and packers earns them £22 million annually from this single scam in this single municipality.

‘The equation is very simple: you pay up or run the risk that the criminals will stop your next shipment on the road and burn it,’ said one farmer. ‘So it is cheaper to pay the extortioners.’

Most victims are poor rural labourers without the resources to escape. Gangs dictate pricing, transport and even which days of the week farmers are allowed to harvest crops The workers, who typically earn about £20 a day selling their limes to packing plants, are permitted to harvest their fruit only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

‘It is all about control,’ said Gregorio Lopez, an outspoken priest and lime farmer from Buenavista who wore a bulletproof vest during services before being forced to flee for his life. ‘It’s a show of power. They call the shots.’

He said the harvesting ban allowed gangs to impose penalties such as taking over cars or homes if disobeyed, with landmines sometimes planted to prevent work on prohibited days.

Lopez said the lime growers felt ‘betrayed, abandoned and at the mercy of crime’ and that they were ‘disposable cannon fodder’ in the gang wars ravaging so much of Mexico. He added that four years ago the entire 5,000 population of one lime-growing town left overnight after threats intensified and gangsters began using drones armed with explosives. About 500 have since returned to the ‘ghost town’.

At the end of our conversation, he asked if I wished to buy his lime grove – an offer I easily refused. When I was in Michoacan four years ago to investigate the gangs taking over avocado plantations, nine people, including boys as young as 12, were slaughtered by gunmen who sprayed bullets around a video game arcade near my hotel.

A study last year found that drug cartels behind such massacres are Mexico’s fifth biggest employer with about 175,000 members.

Other analysts have identified almost 200 armed gangs in the country, the number soaring after a crackdown on kingpins led major cartels to splinter. The violence is expected to intensify ahead of forthcoming elections as gangs fight for influence.

The drug cartels first muscled in on the lime trade in 2010 by burning down packing stations, demanding protection money and stealing land. This sparked a revolt three years later by armed vigilantes led by a farmer named Hipolito Mora, which drove the cartels from the region and caught global attention.

His self-defence movement was quickly corrupted and his son killed, but he remained a vocal critic of both the gangs and the government’s insipid response.

The narcos finally managed to assassinate Mora last June, shooting him and his bodyguards in an ambush as the vigilante leader drove to his home which had been strafed by gunfire three days earlier. The bodies were torched in his pick-up truck in a grim display of strength by the cartels.

Mora’s killing sparked national condemnation, followed by another flare-up of the extortion and terror rackets inflicted on lime and avocado farmers.

Despite the risks, Mora’s younger brother, Guadalupe, has returned home after almost half a century in California to continue the fight against the cartels, seek justice over his sibling’s murder and tend to his own lime groves.

‘Hipolito was killed since he raised his voice. He spoke out about how organised crime was once again taking over the entire economy,’ said Guadalupe, 64. ‘Now I am speaking out.’

He knows the danger he faces, but says. ‘I am willing to risk my life for this just cause. There is no other way.’ Such is the life of a lime farmer in this land soaked in blood.

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