Are Mexican avocados the world's new conflict commodity?

The 19 mutilated bodies, nine hanging semi-naked from a bridge in the Mexican city of Uruapan, were initially thought to be the result of a clash between rival drug gangs. But the Jalisco New Generation cartel, which claimed the murders in August, is believed to be fighting for more than drugs. It wants dominance over the local avocado trade.

Mexico is the world’s biggest producer of avocados. Exports of the “green gold” from the state of Michoacán, which produces most of Mexico’s avocados, were worth $2.4bn last year.

Now, the risk analytics group Verisk Maplecroft has warned in a new analysis that Mexican avocados risk becoming the next “conflict commodity”, akin to “blood diamonds” in Angola and Sierra Leone and conflict minerals in the Democractic Republic of the Congo.

The analysis examines a range of factors contributing to the increasing risk profile of Mexican avocados, including the growing involvement of cartels and the associated violence, as well as the use of forced and child labour in farming.

It also examines illegal deforestation, illegal logging and forest-clearing for cultivation. The environmental situation has been exacerbated due to cartel activity, “as criminal groups clear protected woodlands to make room for their avocado groves”, according to the report.

An avocado sculpture at the entrance to the town of Ziracuaretiro, Michoacán state, Mexico.

An avocado sculpture at the entrance to the town of Ziracuaretiro, Michoacán state, Mexico. Photograph: Marco Ugarte/AP

“The exponential growth of the avocado’s popularity is a mixed blessing for Mexico’s communities and farmers,” Verisk Maplecroft’s Americas analyst, Christian Wagner, says in the report. “While most have benefited from record-breaking prices, many have attracted the attention of organised crime groups that are sinking their teeth into the profits.”

He adds: “From cultivation through to transportation, violence and corruption now pervade Mexico’s avocado supply chain – particularly in Michoacán, a long-standing hotbed for criminal violence. The similarities with conflict minerals are striking for companies that source avocados from the region. Association with killings, modern slavery, child labour and environmental degradation is becoming an increasing risk when dealing with Michoacán suppliers and growers, especially when establishing traceability is increasingly hard.”

Avocados have been lauded by dieticians for their high nutritional content and “good” fats. In Mexico, the industry is popular because it pays up to 12 times the Mexican minimum wage, according to the study. The country tops the list of world exporters, ahead of the Netherlands, a major non-producing exporting hub, and Peru.

Most of Mexico’s avocados go to the US, despite domestic production in California and Florida. Avocados in UK supermarkets mostly come from Spain, Israel, South Africa, Peru and Chile. The fruit is also in high demand in China, which imported 1,000 times more of the product in 2017 than it had six years earlier.

Avocado orchards stretch far into the mountains in Michoacán state.

Avocado orchards stretch far into the mountains in Michoacán state. Photograph: Marco Ugarte/AP

Europe’s consumption of avocado stands at 1kg per person per year, according to the Netherlands’ Centre for the Promotion of Imports, while the US consumes four times as much. France is the fruit’s largest market in Europe.

In Mexico, the cartels have turned to other activities, most notably avocados, in the face of the government’s tightening war on drugs, Verisk Maplecroft’s Wagner said. They engage “in both extortion and direct cultivation, usually on lands taken over from local farmers or carved out from protected woodlands”.

The study notes that “2019 has seen the rise of criminal organisations that behave in every way as drug cartels but are not even engaged in drug trafficking. In Michoacán, the avocado industry is providing the diversified income that criminal groups obtain through fuel theft elsewhere in Mexico.”

At least 12 criminal groups are operating in the region. Some local packers and growers have responded by recruiting their own defence forces. But “this increases the risk of both more violence and the potential for human rights abuses”, says the report, and criminal groups often coerce pickers into temporary forced labour.

Falko Ernst, International Crisis Group senior analyst for Mexico, said avocados have been a prominent item in Mexican organised crime groups’ portfolio for at least a decade, especially in Michoacán.

“It’s not only avocados. Mexican organised crime has long mutated away from ‘just’ drugs trafficking,” he said. “Today, the model is this: you control a given territory, and within in it you exploit whichever commodity is locally available. That includes avocados, but also limes, papayas, strawberries, illegal logging and mining, to name but a few.”

A farmer loads fruit boxes with avocados on to a truck at an orchard in Uruapan, Michoacán.

A farmer loads fruit boxes with avocados on to a truck at an orchard in Uruapan, Michoacán. Photograph: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

Ernst said a boycott of Mexican avocado is not the right response because “we’re talking about a huge sector that sustains thousands of hard-working, peaceful families. A boycott would mean pulling out the rug out from under their feet, and most likely prompt criminal groups to prey on civilians more aggressively yet to make up for lost avocado income.”

He added: “What consumers can and should do is voice their expectations toward the companies they buy goods from, to not remain silent bystanders to human rights crises in many of the producing regions in the global south. Governments often ignore their citizens, but if the private sector, if investors, start budging, it’s a whole different story.”

Ryan Aherin, senior commodities analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, said there isn’t a simple answer on how consumers should respond.

“Avoiding avocados from Mexico altogether might deter greater expansion of criminal activity in the production of Mexican avocados, but cartels are unlikely to abandon the business of producing them without causing greater suffering for local communities,” he said.

“Traceability is key to getting these issues under control, but is often easier said than done. The nature of avocado value chains make it difficult, if not impossible, to trace an individual fruit back to its source.”


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