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Cartel avocados? Suspending imports isn’t the answer to problem

As much as a fifth of the price American consumers pay for Mexican avocados goes to extortion payments to armed criminal groups.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — As avocados from Mexico have grown increasingly popular on U.S. dinner tables in recent years, so has insecurity in the region in which they are cultivated, according to an expert on Mexican organized crime. 

The fruit is one of several industries that organized criminal groups in Michoacán — the only Mexican state authorized to export to the United States — have terrorized and extorted over the past two decades.

“We’ve been seeing for the last 15 to 20 years a mutation of how conflict is fought in a way that places civilians increasingly in the crossfire of these foods,” said Falko Ernst, an analyst with the conflict resolution organization International Crisis Group, in an interview. 

Ernst said that in addition to illegal drugs, criminal organizations in Michoacán and elsewhere in Mexico have taken to extorting legal enterprises such as lime production and iron mining as an easy way to make money.

Fostered by a culture of rampant state corruption, collusion and impunity, extortion has become a convenient business model for criminal groups. 

“You don’t have to produce anything but a violent threat, against which you provide protection from yourself. It’s a very sound business model, beyond the ethics of it,” said Ernst.

These protection payments end up getting passed on to American consumers, who pay more for the extortion involved in the process of getting avocados north of the border from Michoacán.

“The going rate is about 20% for these protection payments,” said Ernst.

And this environment of unmitigated violence and impunity has increased displacement and forced migration from Michoacán. 

“What drives these foods, and thus the humanitarian costs like displacements that are on the uptick in Michoacán and other areas, is the necessity for armed groups to stay in the game in terms of syphoning off profits and income from these larger industries,” said Ernst.

Immigration experts have seen the effects of these displacements in the form of larger numbers of Mexican asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

“This trend first started being seen in 2018 and 2019,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel and border issues specialist at the American Immigration Council. “They were primarily Mexican families and primarily from Michoacán and Guerrero.”

Back then, the Trump administration created the so-called Humanitarian Asylum Review Process, or HARP, to put Mexican citizens through a quick and cursory version of the asylum process. 

Under HARP, Mexican asylum seekers were asked about the credible fear of returning to the situations they had fled while still in Customs and Border Patrol custody, rather than the normal process of first being transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention.

With the majority of credible fear claims denied, HARP served as a fast-track way of expelling most Mexicans from the United States. Later, the coronavirus pandemic offered the pretext of Title 42, which allows U.S. immigration officials to expel asylum seekers based on the supposed threat of Covid-19.

“In short, it was designed to prevent the increasing numbers of Mexican asylum seekers from getting into the country,” said Reichlin-Melnick. 

Mexican avocado exports to the United States are big business. The USDA reports more than $2.4 billion worth of Michoacán's "green gold" went to U.S. supermarkets in 2020. But the U.S. halted inspections of avocados in Mexico on Saturday in response to an alleged threat to a U.S. produce inspector.

“The program will remain suspended until the security situation is reviewed and protocols and safeguards are in place for APHIS [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] personnel," the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City said in a statement:

The embassy emphasized the halt was not on imports, but rather on inspections, and that “the suspension of the inspection program does not affect avocados in transit.”

However, it provided no timeline for the temporary suspension, leaving open the possibility that the supply of inspected avocados could run out and thus effectively causing a halt on imports.

Rather than a security threat to U.S. government employees, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador chalked the suspension up to “economic [and] political interests” in his morning press conference on Monday.

The Mexican press reported Monday that the Association of Growers and Packers of Avocados from Mexico had initiated protection protocols for U.S. produce inspectors, but the association did not respond to Courthouse News’ request for specifics by press time. 

While the suspension may serve as what crime expert Ernst called a “warning shot” to the Mexican government to protect U.S. inspectors, it could actually end up creating more instability for locals in Michoacán in the long run. 

“You’re talking about the potential of weakening an economy that feeds a lot of law-abiding, hardworking people, and if they have fewer licit opportunities, that plays into the hands of organized groups,” said Ernst. 

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