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As Mexican drug cartels muscle in on massive avocado sales, armed civilians fight back

In 2020 Mexico become the world’s largest producer of avocados. Now authorities in the Michoacán state, which grows avocados exported to the United States, have identified at least nine drug cartels there, including the brutal Jalisco New Generation Cartel, or CJNG.

According to those cartels eager to get a piece of avocado profits — extorting farmers with the threat of violence.

In response, armed civilians calling themselves “self-defense groups” have sprung up at checkpoints and barricades to protect crops and communities, risking death guarding the land from cartels.

Experts say the industry backs these efforts.

"For a long time, avocado producers have financed and supported the activity of self-defense groups to be able to distribute their product, due to CJNG's invasion,” said Mexico-based security analyst David Saucedo.

But Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador opposes these armed groups.

"Self-defense groups shouldn't exist because the security function belongs to the state,” López Obrador said at a news conference in June. “I don't support people taking arms to face crime because it doesn't have good results and sometimes criminals infiltrate in those groups.”

Worldwide, Mexico’s avocado exports totaled 1.2 million tons from January to November of 2020, a 6.3% increase over the previous year, according to figures from Mexico’s agriculture ministry.

But the rapidly growing avocado profits have caught the attention of cartels in recent years.

To cash in on avocado proceeds, they try to extort growers for thousands of pesos in fees.

"It's very attractive," said security analyst Erubiel Tirado. They are "using intimidation to take over that market.”

Locals complain the government response to cartel threats has been minimal — certainly not enough to squelch the criminal activity.

And in the absence of government help, some locals said, they have taken matters into their own hands.


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