On Sunday, as millions of Americans scooped globs of guacamole onto tortilla chips while watching the Rams best the Bengals in Super Bowl LVI, the United States Department of Agriculture announced a sudden halt to the importation of avocados from Mexico after it said one of the agency’s agricultural health inspectors in the state of Michoacán received an anonymous threat of violence via telephone. Of course, the avocados for everyone’s Super Bowl dip weren’t impacted — those were already in the country — but the move comes amid growing tensions and escalating violence in the avocado trade between the United States and Mexico.
According to Zhengfei Guan, associate professor of food and resource economics at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Americans have a voracious appetite for avocados. Our consumption of avocados has more than quadrupled over the past two decades, and avocados are the single largest fruit import for the United States, with more than 2.2 billion pounds of avocados imported in 2020. Guan says 91 percent of those avocados came from Mexico, which exports the vast majority of its avocado crop — 80 percent — to the United States. That all adds up to an avocado market that’s worth more than $2.5 billion each year, making the industry an attractive target for organized crime groups.
Those groups have seen renewed power in the past couple of years following the inauguration of Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office in December 2018. Tony Payan, the director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, tells Eater that López Obrador has taken a much softer stance on organized crime than his two predecessors, which has resulted in what essentially amounts to “carte blanche” for cartels and other criminals to expand their operations.
The way that avocados are grown and supplied makes the industry an easy target for criminals, according to Payan. “This is a multibillion-dollar industry. There’s a lot of money to be made, and organized crime knows where the avocados are — you can’t hide a big avocado grove,” he says. “They know who the farmers are, they know where the facilities for processing and transporting the avocados are, and they come in and threaten the farmers and the workers.”
Michoacán is home to much of Mexico’s avocado crop, as its volcanic soil and frequent rainfall provide a good environment for growing the fruit, making it ground zero for conflicts. In 2019, in the town of Ziracuaretiro, a gang robbed a truck full of USDA inspectors at gunpoint. At that time, the USDA did not implement a suspension on imports, but did issue a warning on escalating violence in the region. “For [the avocado industry], it’s worth it to pay even millions of dollars to criminals,” Payan says. “And everybody, including the Mexican government, kind of looks the other way.”
In 2021, the violence against avocado farmers was so widespread that a group of farmers took up arms against the gangs that were extorting them.