Knights Templar, Mexican Drug Cartel, Makes $152M Per Year Extorting Michoacan Avocado Industry

A farmworker on an avocado plantation.
A Mexican farm worker picks green avocados November 5 from the Del Valle plantation outside of Uruapan, the self-proclaimed avocado capital of the world. Reuters

In southwest Mexico, in the state of Michoacán, avocados are green gold.  Most of them are destined for the US, a market responsible for an estimated 80 percent of the region’s sales – with some 986 million pounds shipped there in 2012-2013.  Guacamole will likely be on a lot of Americans’ TV tables come Super Bowl Sunday.  But the Knights Templar drug cartel, which operates largely out of Michoacán, knows that too: in October, El Economista reported that extortion payments to the cartel amounted to about 2 billion pesos per year, or about $152 million.

In Michoacán, where self-defense militias have taken up arms against the Knights Templar, about 46 municipalities are avocado-growing ones, with almost 113,000 hectares (280,000 acres) dedicated across to state to their cultivation.  In 2012, the state produced about 1.12 million tons of the fruit.  The cartels, say residents, have stuck their hand deep in the industry’s pockets.  For each hectare of land used by growers, according to El Economista, they demand a quota of 2,000 pesos (about $152).  Then they extort the fruit sellers – between 1 and 3 pesos (8-23 cents) for each kilo.  If they don’t pay, there’s retribution: last April, two avocado packing plants were burned after the owners refused.   

Sin Embargo wrote in November that the Knights Templar often know exactly how many hectares each of the state’s 22,000 growers own, how many plants they have, how many kilos they produce and which packing plants they’re sold to; they also know the first and last names and addresses of the growers.  “Ah, easy,” responded a group of growers when asked by the site how the cartels could have gotten access to that information.  “They know how many we have because they have direct access to the licenses which the local Vegetal Health Committee gives out…the Committee controls and physically inspects each meter of the hectares, each plant, every tree and also the quality of each fruit.”

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David Iaconangelo is a Brooklyn-based writer and translator.  Formerly editor of ZafraLit, a blog of new short fiction from Cuba.  He has lived in and reported from various Latin American countries.