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The Violent Saga of Mexican Cartels at War to Control Limes and Avocados

Narcotraffickers are transitioning into a new business space: high-end produce. They’re cornering the market — and as prices rise, bodies pile up

The son of the lime grower begged his father to quit his war against the Mexican cartels. He pleaded with him to disband his all-volunteer paramilitary army of avocado farmers and fellow lime growers. “Get out of this,” the son warned. “They’re going to kill you.” To assist his pleas, the son called upon the Lord to save his father. He placed a rosary around his father’s neck. 

But his father wouldn’t listen. There was too much at stake. Too many of the rural locals now counted on him to protect them, to protect their town and to protect their farms. They’d also answered his father’s call-to-arms. So he couldn’t put down his shotgun. “Forgive me. I’m not going to stop, no matter what happens,” the father, 60-year-old Hipólito Mora Chávez, told the son, Manuel. 

Of course, the unimaginable happened.  

On December 16, 2014 — almost two years after Mora launched his armed uprising — Mora was talking with his men at a checkpoint at a road barricade. One of the first things they’d done when Mora declared war on the cartels was to barricade the roads in and out of their town. That day there had been newly intercepted chatter on the radio about a possible raid. They heard the order given over the airwaves: “Bring all of your weapons right now. We’re going to kill this son of a bitch.” 

Mora knew he was the son of a bitch they meant. 

The order to kill Mora came from Luis Antonio Torres Gonzalez. His nickname: El Americano. A dual citizen, he was born in El Paso, Texas. Reportedly, in 2012, he was still living in El Paso, but he was on a family vacation in Michoacán when he was abducted by the cartels. He was held for ransom until his family could pay $150,000. The family had to sell land to get him back. 

But the strangest part of his story is that after the ransom was paid, El Americano chose to go back to Michoacán. He wanted revenge on the cartels, so he joined Mora’s armed civilian uprising. He was originally inspired by Mora and the movement’s co-founder, a surgeon from the Sacramento area named José Manuel Mireles Valverde. Following their example, El Americano rose quickly in the movement and became a commander. Eventually, though, El Americano was accused of becoming a kingpin of his own nascent cartel.

And now, he was coming to kill Mora.

According to Mora, El Americano arrived in his town backed by a militia of 200 to 300 men. Some carried .50-caliber military-style rifles, others held grenade launchers. The violence started with a fistfight between just two men, which soon exploded into a full-on gunfight. Per Mora’s best estimate, the shooting lasted two hours. After the last bullet was fired and El Americano’s 200-plus gunmen finally retreated, Mora discovered he’d survived yet another battle. His son, however, did not.

In all, El Americano lost six of his gunmen. Mora and his civilian fighters lost five, including Manuel. This is what life had become for a proud lime grower in Mexico. 

* * * * *

These days, on average, in the Michoacán region of Mexico, four trucks of avocados (or 48 tons) are hijacked daily by the cartels. The cocaine cowboys believe avocados promote wealth — their wealth. They’re not wrong. The “alligator fruit” has become yet another front in the endless war on drugs. 

Michoacán, roughly a half day’s drive away from Mexico City, is where 80 percent of the avocados that we eat are grown and harvested. The region exports $2.4 billion worth of avocados annually. That’s why truckloads of avocados get hijacked. (Fruit like limes and avocados grows so well in the low country of Michoacán because the region is blessed with rich volcanic soil.) Yet, that same stolen fruit eventually ends up in America, anyway. Where we happily, naively, smear the stolen avocado onto our toast, or we squeeze the price-hiked limes into our drinks. 

All of this is an absolutely known fact in international agriculture circles. The British risk-assessment company, Maplecroft, made the point obvious in its report on the avocado industry: “Given the power and reach of criminal organizations, however, and the inherent weakness of Mexican institutions when it comes to enforcement, companies will be unable to eliminate the risk of handling illegally produced fruit.” Therefore, Maplecroft adds, “Companies trading in avocados or avocado-based products are exposed to the violation of international or corporate best-practice standards on labor, sustainability and anti-money laundering and corruption.”

The industrial report concludes that none of this, however, will really change until consumers become more aware of what they’re buying when they purchase limes and avocados from Michoacán. “In our view, it’s some way off before avocados are considered the next ‘conflict commodity,’” it summarizes. “The issues surrounding their production and distribution are just as serious as some of those affecting 3TG minerals. But the groundswell of public opinion simply isn’t there yet to press for action, primarily due to a lack of information. This is going to bite at some point, it’s just a matter of when.”

In the meantime, the cartels are maintaining the local custom of extorting the avocado and lime growers and charging them protection fees per kilo they grow. If the growers don’t pay, bad things can happen. Like the avocado distributor who refused to pay a kickback and as punishment — and a warning to others — his daughter was executed on his company’s doorstep.

Avocados first rose to prominence as a “superfood” in the 1990s. That’s when people who were unfamiliar learned that guacamole is delicious. Later on, their kids discovered that avocado toast is equally delicious. Then came the keto diet, which highlights the avocado as a nutrient-rich fruit with a low-in-carbs glycemic profile that also boasts healthy oils and mono-unsaturated fats. What that all means is, today, the once-ignored green-skinned fruit is worth a premium price to the health-conscious U.S. market. And the artificial price fluctuations of avocados are evidence of that. Which also explains why the peak price for avocados was 128 percent higher this year than it was last year at roughly the same time.

As such, Falko Ernst, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, an expert who focuses on Mexico and its produce wars, notes, “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.” It also doesn’t help that Michoacán used to function as a center for the cartels’ heroin production. These profits were taken away by the Sackler family: not a rival Mexican cartel, but the owners of Purdue Pharma, the maker of synthetic opioids that cratered international opium prices, forcing the cartels to turn to “green gold” to recover their losses.

When Ernst counts up all the violent forces at work and at war in Michoacán, the results are staggering. “There are at least 20 illegal armed groups violently competing for territories and markets in the state,” he says. “Yet not a single actor has been able to establish dominion over the others. This means war has become perpetual and extremely costly.”

* * * * *

In the city of Uruapan (population 264,000), there was a dance club called Sol y Sombra, which translates to “sun and shadow,” a fitting nickname for modern Mexico. Back in 2006, a group of balaclava-clad men armed with assault rifles disrupted the dance hall when they stormed it one night. They fired their weapons into the air and stained the dance floor with fresh blood as they poured out a collection of five severed heads from a plastic bag. 

The vigilantes were from a newly organized group called La Familia Michoacana. They left a note written with a faux greeting card familiarity: “La Familia doesn’t kill for money, doesn’t kill women, doesn’t kill innocent people — only those who deserve to die.” They also added a cultish flourish to their warning: “This is divine justice.”

The kingpin of La Familia Michoacána was a man named Nazario Moreno González. Like most cartel kingpins he collected a string of nicknames — El Más Loco (“The Craziest One”) and El Chayo (“The Rosary”) foremost among them. As a boy, he’d been “an avid comic book fan who grew up poor in Michoacán,” and he also reportedly “fantasized about having the power to speak to animals.” Additionally, he functioned like something of a Jordan Peterson of the drug trade, as he was described as “a prolific writer, publishing reflections on religion, politics and manhood that were distributed widely and freely throughout the region.”

In December 2010, though, after a two-day long gunfight, government forces believed that they’d killed him. Stories also soon emerged from the rural locals that El Chayo’s men had escaped with the kingpin’s corpse, and that they’d built a shrine to their former boss. There were further reports of makeshift monuments to him. Yet there were stories as well from those who claimed to have seen him, still alive, wandering the world like an undead Jesus. As the Intercept reported, “Stories surfaced of a ghostly El Chayo roaming the mountains of Michoacán dressed in white and performing baptisms.” That’s when El Chayo garnered his new nickname: Saint Nazario.

It turns out El Chayo hadn’t died — he’d gone into hiding. And while he recovered from his nearly fatal gunfight with the Mexican government, the former comic book fan had masterminded a new criminal organization named Los Caballeros Templarios, which translates to the Knights Templar. His new cartel used the striking red crosses and medieval vibe of the secret order of warrior knights. They also became the cartel that motivated Mora to form his own private army and declare war. It was the only rational response to him after the Templarios tried to grasp control of the lime and avocado growing region in order to build their power. 

To the Intercept, Mora explained, “Here, just like the rest of the region, the lime provides most of the work. The Templarios called on four or five businessmen, owners in the lime-packing business. They would call and tell them they’re going to cut limes when they want. Sometimes they’ll cut three times a week, sometimes twice, sometimes once. There were times that we wouldn’t be allowed to work. Nobody dared say anything because they were murderers. They killed a lot of people, and they threatened employers.”

Mora knew if he couldn’t count on the government to oust the cartels, he’d have to rely on himself and his fellow lime growers. He put out an announcement of a secret meeting to discuss going to war with the Templarios. The town square was the site for the clandestine conference. Locals arrived in masks. There were approximately 250 townspeople willing to consider war. Mora told the assembled vigilante army, “Bring what you have to fight, and we will go looking for them.” 

Armed with an assortment of shotguns, hunting rifles and assault rifles, the lime growers were determined to root out their criminal oppressors. Most of them weren’t the owners of lime orchards but were “pure cutters,” the men who worked as field hands. Led by Mora, the field workers and growers marched to the cartel compound. They found it empty, abandoned by the cartel, who’d been tipped off about the approaching vigilante army. 

This first success inspired imitators in surrounding towns — a la José Manuel Mireles Valverde’s parallel uprising in nearby Tepalcatepec. Soon, the two men were joined by others, including many young men living on the other side of the border, but who came home to Michoacán to join the insurrection. They were familiar with guns and felt they finally had a chance to do some good with their skills. 

But obviously, the cartels didn’t give up their illicit sources of profit without a fight. In April 2013, two months after Mora first declared war on the Templarios, the cartel struck back, murdering 10 lime farmers and field hands who had met with government officials about how to combat the cartels’ violent extortion. The retaliatory event was dubbed “The Massacre of the Limoñeros.” 

Still, the rebellion was undeterred. As the Washington Post reported at the time: “‘Everybody’s with us, all the people,’ said a 27-year-old American citizen who left his job at a Sacramento body shop nine months ago to join the fight after the Knights Templar killed his uncle and cousin. ‘We’re not going to disarm. Never.’”

* * * * *

The reason why Mexico’s lime producers went to war against the cartels, the sole reason why avocado growers must endure hijacked trucks and murdered farm workers, is the same reason why the cartels exist in the first place: corruption. 

Unfortunately, though, that corruption has now gained a grasp inside of Mora’s armed civilian movement, too. Because once the lime workers and avocado farmers were recognized and officially aligned with the Mexican government — they were named fuerzas rurales, an official rural defense force to fight the cartels — it was the beginning of the end. In particular, the autodefensas fractured and grew into bitter rivals. Violence spiraled. Corpses piled up. 

The cartels, especially the new Cartel Jalisco Nuevo Generacion, sensed an opportunity. They approached Mora as a fellow “nationalistic-minded” vigilantes, but they were mostly looking for a chance to execute their enemies, who had been weakened by Mora and his rebellion.

When the Intercept interviewed Mora and asked him about the future of his uprising, he looked back at what he’d unleashed. He reflected on what he’d won, and what he’d lost in his bloody fight with the cartels. Then he considered if he had any regrets about what he’d done: “I would answer differently when we started this and I believed this was a fight between us and the Templarios. Now it’s more difficult. We aren’t fighting against the Templarios anymore, or El Americano and his people. We’re fighting against the corrupt government, and that’s very difficult.”

And there’s little hope that a bunch of lime growers and avocado producers can defeat the cartels and the Mexican government at the same time. Or as Mora sums up: “What people in the U.S. should know is that this is happening because of corruption within the government. I won’t generalize. There are some good people in government. But they are few.”

Mark Twain said history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes. In August, when Cartel Jalisco Nuevo Generacion hung 19 freshly dead bodies from a bridge overpass in Uruapan, it served to send the same message as when La Familia Michoacana rolled severed heads across the Sol y Sombra dance floor and warned of “divine justice.” That first atrocity reflected the spirit of their charismatic, unkillable leader Saint Nazario. When Cartel Jalisco Nuevo Generacion rhymed that message with a new campaign of shock-and-awe, their message was simpler. It didn’t reflect the spirit of their kingpin but the new spirit of these savage times: “Lovely people, carry on with your routines.” 

We, of course, are the lovely people the cartel is talking to. After all, we’re a big part of their market. So just like when President George W. Bush suggested Americans go shopping in the face of Al Qaeda, the cartels want us to keep calm and carry on with our routines, and thus, ignoring the corruption and brutality happening in a foreign land. And as long as we tolerate such state corruption, we can expect avocado producers and lime growers to live and die at the whims of the cartels, victims of their very own government. 

Because we, the lovely people, make it all profitable.