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Mexican drug cartels are getting into the avocado and lime business

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Avocados are wildly important in the U.S., and most are imported from Mexico. This week, the U.S. briefly banned Mexican avocados after a U.S. inspector in the state of Michoacan reported receiving threats. But avocados and limes have long been used by drug cartels to help finance their violent business plans. Emily Green reports for VICE News from Mexico and joins us from Mexico City. Thanks so much for being with us.

EMILY GREEN: Thanks so much for having me on.

SIMON: How would you describe the role cartels have in the agricultural business, specifically avocados and limes?

GREEN: Well, avocados are an extremely lucrative business in Mexico. Roughly $2.8 billion worth of avocados are exported from Michoacan to the United States every single year. And so we're talking about lots and lots of money. And what do cartels do? They like to siphon off that money. These organized crime groups use avocados. They use limes as a source of profit. They tax them. And so that's been a dynamic for a very, very long time. I think - what sources tell me might be changing now is that organized crime groups are not just trying to tax these agricultural products, they're also trying to manipulate and control the market.

SIMON: Is this what - I say this as a Chicagoan - we would call in the United States a protection racket? - I mean, members of the cartel who will say to a farmer, you know, nice farm you got here. It would be a shame if something happened to it. But you can pay us this fee, and it'll be safe.

GREEN: Right. I think there's definitely some of that. And, you know, the dynamics of how this business work, they're complicated. So it's not just so cut and dry that a cartel member goes to the farm and says, give me X amount of money. What I've been told is that, essentially, the packing plant says, we are going to pay the farmers, again, $100. The cartel members would say, don't pay them $100. Pay them $90, and you give us that extra $10. So at the end of the day, the farmers are still paying the price, but it may not be so directly that the cartel members are going straight to the farmers.

Let me give you the example of limes. Lime prices have skyrocketed over the last year, and part of the reason that's happened is that the cartels have told lime producers, farmworkers, they can only work on the farm two days a week instead of the normal three days a week. That means that there's less lime to sell, and the price of lime goes way up. For right now, the farmers are super happy because they are making more money because the price of lime is high. But it's a delicate balance because at some point, the organized crime groups, they want more and more and more. And at that point, they say, well, you - if you don't do what we want, we're going to kill you. And so I think that this easy coexistence has gone on for a long time, and sometimes, it's to the farmer's benefit. But oftentimes, it's not.

SIMON: If this has been known for some time, why did it take until this week for a ban to be in place?

GREEN: It's because a U.S. employee for the Department of Agriculture was threatened while carrying out an inspection of the avocados. I mean, the violence in Michoacan, which is the major avocado producer - it's where 80% of avocados consumed in the United States come from. Violence has been really bad there for a very long time. And I guess this is not a new dynamic. I mean, this happens all over the world that there are horrible human rights abuses, and I think the U.S. generally tends to look the other way until it affects one of their own.

SIMON: Emily, let me get you to reflect on something if we can. Should those Americans who go to groceries and want to buy poultry that is, quote, "humanely slaughtered," or they go and buy a new computer and don't want a lot of components to come from places in China where slave labor is employed, how should they feel about buying avocados and limes?

GREEN: What does it mean to live in this globalized world? It's complicated. I think we're all, every day, all the time, making these choices in what are not black-and-white situations. And I would say that's the case here, too. Avocados provides tens of thousands of jobs. It has single-handedly lifted the economy of the state of Michoacan. It means that tens of thousands of people do not migrate to United States because they have jobs in Michoacan.

So to say I am going to protest the violence by not consuming avocados, I don't know that that would work. I'm not saying don't do it, but it seems a bit simplistic to me. And at the same time, it is troubling that there is so much violence around this industry and not enough attention paid to it, which is all a way of saying, I don't know the answer to that question.

SIMON: Well, that's fair. VICE News Mexico correspondent Emily Green, thanks so much for being with us.

GREEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.