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“Blood Avocados”: The Dark Side of Your Guacamole

A drug cartel known as the Knights Templar has brought kidnappings, murders, money laundering and fear to Mexico's prized avocado business

MORELIA, Mexico—There’s an almost Mediterranean charm to the rolling hills here in Michoacán, a state in western Mexico. Avocado farms occupy vast stretches of land, and the rows of low-growing trees resemble the olive gardens of southern Europe.

These idyllic farms grow millions of pounds of avocados that Americans consume every year. But there’s a dark story lurking beneath the surface of the fleshy green fruit—and the bowls of guacamole it produces. 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.

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In Mexico, the avocado is called aguacate. It has been a staple food here for thousands of years. It’s also Michoacán’s principal export: 72 percent of all Mexican avocado plantations are located in the state. More than 80 percent of Michoacán’s avocados are exported to the United States—the bulk of them of the fatty Hass variety. In the latter half of 2012 and the early part of 2013, the U.S. imported nearly $1 billion worth of avocados from this state. Not surprisingly, a common nickname for the fruit is oro verde, green gold, because it yields more cash than any other crop—including marijuana.

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Avocado farms occupy vast stretches of land in Michoacán (Vocativ/Jan-Albert Hootsen)

Few people here know more about avocados than Jesús, 50, whose family has been developing plantations and growing the fruit for generations. He took me on a drive around the countryside to show me the ins and outs of his trade, as long as I didn’t reveal his real name. Like many avocado farmers, he is afraid of the Templarios.

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“The avocado used to make us all very rich people,” he says as we drive through miles of farms. “A single hectare, yielding one harvest every six months, can make a trader up to 1.5 million pesos ($113,000) per year. During the good years I easily made yearly profits of $1.5 million.”

The good years were the ’80s and ’90s, when Jesús’s family was among the wealthiest in Michoacán. Those days are gone. Last year, Jesús barely scraped together a profit of $15,000. Once, he had more than 100 people working for him. Now he has only seven. “The Templarios have ruined my business,” he says. “I don’t know how much longer I have until I go bankrupt.”

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For decades, rich drug traffickers have purchased avocado plantations to launder money or to make legitimate profits. It wasn’t until several years ago, however, that the Templarios became further involved in the avocado business.

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The cartel derived from an earlier group of drug traffickers known as La Familia Michoacana. La Familia was founded by Nazario Moreno, called The Craziest One, a former preacher who reportedly wrote his own version of the Bible and recruited new members at drug rehab centers. Under his stewardship, La Familia gained thousands of followers. Most were converts to Moreno’s strange brand of evangelical Christianity, which uses Old Testament verses to justify beheadings and other brutal tactics. 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.

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Nazario Moreno

But after Moreno was reportedly killed in 2010, internal strife led to his gang’s dissolution and the creation of its offshoot, the Templarios. This new gang intensified Moreno’s forays into extortion and kidnapping, but went even further. Now avocado farmers and traders say the Templarios not only demand money, but they also actively take over plantations and packing plants.

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Here in Michoacán, very few dare to speak openly about the Templarios. The farmers prefer to simply call them los malos, the bad guys. With an estimated 100,000 people working directly or indirectly for the cartel, lookouts abound.

“We are always being watched,” says Jesús, as we eat at a taco stand in Uruápan. He quickly changes the subject when a man in his 30s in a baseball cap sits next to him. On his elbow, the man has a tattoo of a sword, one of the symbols of the Templarios.

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A major part of the cartel’s success is its ruthless efficiency. Through the Michoacán State Committee of Vegetable Health, the authority that regulates the quality standards of farming products, the Templarios have managed to obtain detailed information about every avocado farmer in the area. All are required to tell state authorities how big their land is and how much they produce. Through threats and bribes, the Templarios have gained access to those lists.

(Vocativ/Jan-Albert Hootsen)

The extortion usually occurs by phone. The narcos call farmers and tell them how much they have to pay: 10 cents for every kilogram of avocado they produce, $115 for every hectare of land they own. Those who export the fruit have to pay up to $250 per hectare. The Templarios collect the money—cash placed in a bag at an agreed upon drop off—once a year, usually in January.

The extortion fees are non-negotiable, says one farmer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. “It’s no use trying to convince them to demand less,” he says. “They know exactly how much you own. If you lie to them, they’ll kill you or one of your family members.”

This farmer lost two sons last year. They were kidnapped in Guadalajara, the capital of neighboring Jalisco state, after he refused to hand over a plantation to the Templarios. “They demanded I pay $1.5 million. I sold everything I could,” he says, “my house, my cars, everything.” Even after paying the ransom, his boys were never released. He now thinks they are both dead. The Templarios tend to dispose of their hostages quickly.

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Police approach artist Pyotr Pavlensky sitting on the pavestones of Red Square during a protest in front of the Kremlin wall in central Moscow, November 10, 2013. Pavlensky nailed himself to the pavestones by his genitals as part of an art performance in protest of what he sees as apathy in contemporary Russian society and the possibility such indifference can lead eventually to a police state. The performance coincided with the day when the Interior Ministry honoured its service members. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev (RUSSIA - Tags: SOCIETY CIVIL UNREST POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) 

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. The extortion racket is lucrative. In some municipalities, the estimated proceeds come to $3 million per year.

Jesús says the Templarios want to control everything—that the cartel is already stealing land and taking over packing plants. Fighting the group is pointless, many farmers say. The Templarios employ hundreds of lawyers and notaries to launder cash and falsify deeds and contracts.

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04 Nov 2013, Amsterdam, Netherlands --- A Terre des Hommes researcher points to one of the chat sessions in a public chat room where users try and contact purported 10-year-old Sweetie from the Philippines, upper left in a computer-generated image, during a media opportunity in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Monday Nov. 4, 2013. The Dutch children's rights organization is warning of an epidemic of children being paid to perform sexual acts via webcams and is urging police and politicians around the world to crack down on the practice. Terre des Hommes, a Dutch-based organization that battles to stop child exploitation around the world, said Monday that to gauge the scale of the problem it created a fake 10-year-old girl called Sweetie and she was bombarded with online offers to pay for webcam sex shows by child predators from around the world. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong) --- Image by © Peter Dejong/AP/Corbis 

Most white-collar Templarios are involuntary participants. They are given the choice between plata o plomo, silver or lead. Three weeks ago, one notary in Uruapán who refused to sign the deeds to his plantations over to the cartel was severely punished: His son was kidnapped and killed a few days later.

The extreme violence surrounding Mexico’s avocado business is relatively new, and so is the industry’s dominance in the states. In 1997, the U.S. Congress lifted an eight-decade embargo on Mexican avocados. Business has since surged, and a number of U.S. avocado traders such as West Pak and Mission have established footholds in Michoacán, among other places. I contacted both companies to see if the Templarios have affected their business, but neither responded.

Since January, the price of Hass avocados in the U.S. has climbed by roughly 20 percent, but it’s unclear if this spike is related to the Templarios. The cartel’s extortion of the lime industry, however, has led to increased prices of the fruit in Mexico City.

For his part, Jesús thinks the cartel is already hurting consumers on a local level and may also do so abroad. “Farmers, packers and shopkeepers lose so much money to the extortionists, that they raise prices so as not to go bankrupt.” According to him, there’s little any company, domestic or foreign, can do; the entire production chain is affected.

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Over the past few years, as the narcos have infiltrated the avocado trade, the state has been plagued by a wider outbreak of drug-related violence. After the collapse of La Familia, cartels from other states tried to take over the gang’s territory. A turf war ensued, and the result has been a permanent state of chaos. Further complicating matters, several rural municipalities have formed self-defense forces to combat the Templarios—with mixed results.

Several weeks ago, the Mexican government reacted by sending hundreds soldiers and federal police to the state. Michoacán’s highways, previously under control of the narcos, are now heavily patrolled by the army. For now, that has been enough to stop the worst of the fighting.

Yet for the farmers, the presence of the army and federal police has not changed anything. Many even quietly accuse them of colluding with the narcos. “There’s nothing we can do,” says Jesús. “The Templarios rule Michoacán now. We have no other choice but to pay.”

Respond Now
  • Don’t boycott avocados not every producer in mexico is involved in money laundry and drug trafficking, You would only be affecting hardworking people’s business. 

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    • True!  Perhaps we should start with our own country America.  How many evils does it commit against it’s own people such as non-labeling of GMO crops, Round up pesticide use, FDA corruption, AMA & ADA corruption.  Both of the last two use mercury ladien products that could poison their patients.  If you’re going to point a dirty finger make sure the three pointing back are clean.

  • My answer: Dont do drugs. Don’t even buy a single marijuana joint.all the money goes to the cartels eventually. They don’t care about civility or decency. Therefore we civilized humans, need to do the decent thing: Say No to drugs and put them out of business.

  • THose drug cartels are just terrorising the Farmers, it won’t do much good till all of them are killed and/or brought to justice, but we all know that isn’t going to happen because some of the police are in on it too. I pray the farmers and their families don’t get harmed in all of this violence, but we know they will.    

  • This is UNACCEPTABLE!!!!! We as consumers need to do something to get RID of the cartel. They have NO business doing what they do to honest people trying to make an honest living. We should take the initiative to start a strike against Mexican avocados to let the cartel know that they do NOT have control here.

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    • That won’t accomplish anything. The Mexican people need to do something about the corruption and greed in their country. Americans did that, 237 years ago. They fought and defeated the world’s biggest and most powerful army, The British army, many of them wearing rags, no shoes, and fighting with pitchforks and scythes.

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      • Your response is ridiculous! Fight with pitchforks!  These gangs are extremely violent and ruthless who possess powerful firearms such as AK15′s and AK 47′s thanks to American straw purchasers. I agree we need to boycott Mexican alvocados 

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      • SHE DID NOT SAY TO FIGHT WITH PITCHFORKS….THAT WAS JUST A LITTLE HISTORY LESSON….BOYCOTT!!!…HIT THEM WHERE THEY BLEED MOST…..FIRST WE NEED TO FIND OUT WHICH COMPANIES SO THE LEGIT FARMER IS NOT AFFECTED…AT THE MARKET RECENTLY THEY WANTED $2.75 FOR ONE AGUACATE!  HELL NO….IT’S THAT EASY…DON’T BUY THE THUGS FRUIT…..

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      • A boycott will hurt the cartel a little but hurt the growers, packers, etc. much more;  that is not acceptable. Send money to the self-defense groups who are trying to kick the cartel out of their towns and businesses.  They need to buy more ammunition and AK47′s to combat the bad guys.

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      • yeah it is true that we should support those mexican communities who are working to eliminate the cartels. much better than boycotts. that will just force people to migrate. self defense groups are forming all over the country. here are some links. and of course the oldest and most impressive of these groups is the zapatistas who have basically eliminated the cartels from large parts of Chiapas. here is a way to connect and support the zapatista movementhttp://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/or the group Schools for Chiapas who does good solidarity work in zapatista communities.schoolsforchiapas.orgVice magazine has been doing good video reports of defense groups in Michoacan.see herehttp://www.vice.com/en_ca/tag/Michoac%C3%A1nhere is an article overview about these groups.http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139462/patricio-asfura-heim-and-ralph-h-espach/the-rise-of-mexicos-self-defense-forces

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      • aqui hablan las personas anteriores de hacer un boicot al aguacate!..lo que realmente deve hacer estados unidos es boicotear a las empresas que fabrican las armas que surte a esta gente! y alos malos agentes de alcohol y tabaco pues meterlos a la carcel.. ademas acaben tambien con su consumo drogas que por eso esta mexico como esta,por culpa de la corrupcion de su propio pais que es estados unidos!.. disftuten su pavo y … den gracias por lo que les a sido concedido y por lo que an fallado acuerdense tambien de corregirlo y asi puedan dar gracias verdaderas!!

      • First of all the Americans had the home advantage the drug cartels live in Mexico alsoSecond of all Americans did have guns to fight against the British because France gave them money causing the French revolution Third of all read. 

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