Avocados are a truly spectacular food. Packed full of good fats, carotenoids, folate, and yes, even cancer-fighting nutrients, some have argued that the avocado could be the world’s most perfect food. Just a single bite of this creamy, earthy fruit (yes, it’s a fruit) and you’ll find it difficult to argue with this superlative.
If it seems too good to be true, you might just be right. I recently learned that like diamonds, avocados have a dark and bloody side that almost no one knows about.
The avocado tree is native to Mexico and Central America, so it comes as no surprise that this region still produces most of the world’s supply. In Western Mexico, “avocado farms occupy vast stretches of land, and the rows of low-growing trees resemble the olive gardens of southern Europe,” writes Jan-Albert Hootsen for Vocativ.com. This idyllic setting indicates nothing of the sinister side of the avocado trade, however.
In Michoacán, a state in western Mexico, the avocado is commonly referred to as oro verde, green gold, because it yields more cash than any other crop—including marijuana. And anytime there’s money to be made, corruption isn’t far behind.
“A drug cartel known as the Caballeros Templarios, the Knights Templar, has infiltrated the avocado sector, and now controls the local trade, from production to distribution,” writes Hootsen. “The cartel derived from an earlier group of drug traffickers known as La Familia Michoacana…Not content to traffic marijuana, cocaine and heroin, La Familia set up a variety of extortion rackets in Michoacán. The avocado business was one of them.” Now, farmers must deal with constant extortion, and the reality that The Templarios could take over their plantations and packing plants whenever they want.
The cartel always gets what it wants, both from the avocado farmers and the government bodies that are supposed to regulate them. Through bribes and the threat of violence, Templarios have gained access to official lists of farmers, how much land they cultivate, and how much they produce. This way, the criminals know exactly how much money to demand from the farmers.
“Every link in the avocado production chain is a cash cow for the cartel, from the quadrilleros, or pickers (whose employment agencies are forced to pay $3.50 per worker per day), to those who buy, develop and sell plantations,” writes Hootsen. “The extortion racket is lucrative. In some municipalities, the estimated proceeds come to $3 million per year.”
The truly horrifying part is that unlike drugs and human trafficking (the other favorite pastimes of the cartel) we are all culpable. More than 80 percent of Michoacán’s avocados are exported to the United States. That means every time we crack open one of these precious green fruits, every time we dip a chip into a bowl of guacamole, we’re helping to fuel the cartel’s violent takeover of the avocado industry in Mexico.
The only way to avoid being part of this vicious cycle is to seek out domestically grown avocados, such as those from California, and to support farmers’ rights around the world.
Image via Thinkstock