Farmers in Mexico's avocado heartland are relying on vigilantes to protect their 'green gold'
- The Mexican state of Michoacan is a hub for avocado production, and its fortunes have risen as demand for the crop has increased.
- But the state has long been a hotbed for organized-crime groups, who have preyed on legitimate businesses, like agriculture.
- One municipality there has set up its own police force, which it says keeps the cartels at bay.
Global demand for avocados has grown considerably in recent years, and Mexican farmers have been a major beneficiary, declaring the crop "green gold."
Mexico produces about 45% of the world's avocados, and the western state of Michoacan is the country's top producer. But Michoacan has also been a locus for organized crime, and the state's residents have suffered as criminal groups overwhelmed and corrupted authorities.
Vigilantes, called self-defense groups or autodefensas, cropped up in the state to fight off criminal groups when local and federal authorities were unable or unwilling to do so.
Many of those autodefensas have been dismantled by the government or co-opted by criminal groups. But in the municipality of Tancitaro - home to 30,000 people in western Michoacan - residents set up their own specialized police force: the Tancitaro Public Security Corps.
Many Mexicans consider Tancitaro to be the "authentic" world capital of avocados.
(AP Photo/Felix Marquez)
A few months prior to the group's formation in mid-2014, the area was controlled by the Knights Templar cartel, who were drawn by the lucrative avocado trade and preyed heavily on legitimate industries - at one point drugs weren't even among its top sources of income.
Criminal groups remain involved in agriculture there. In mid-2017, the Michoacan state government said it had seized some 500 acres of avocado crops that were under the control of organized crime.
"The autodefensa groups freed the municipality of organized crime and then, together with the government, we worked with the avocado producers to recruit police," Jose Sanchez Mendoza, chief of the Tancitaro Public Security Corps, recently told the BBC. "The first requirement was that the force was composed of people from this municipality."
The force is not a wholly public force. It is financed in part by avocado producers, who pay a percentage of their income based on the amount of land they cultivate. The municipal government also provides funding, and the force's members receive training from federal forces.
AP Photo/Nick Wagner
Everyone on the force is in some way connected to the avocado trade, which the mayor of Tancitaro told the BBC has helped make it successful, as everyone involved are personally invested in protecting the crops.
The force - which is outfitted with weapons, bulletproof vests, and an armored vehicles - also works with 16 community groups who report suspicious activity. The police said the community groups were unarmed, but members of one of the groups told a BBC correspondent that they had weapons.
The criminal scene in Michoacan - where Mexico first deployed troops in early 2007 to crack down on organized crime and rampant drug-related violence - has grown increasingly fragmented in recent years.
The Knights Templar has declined, but other groups - among them the powerful Jalisco New Generation cartel - have appeared in the state. Los Viagras was originally formed as an autodefensa, but has now emerged as a major criminal group. Smaller criminal elements have also risen out of the Knights Templar's remains.
The decline of the Knights Templar and arrival of other groups pushed up violence in the state.
Christopher Woody/Mexican federal government data
Since 2007, the number of homicide cases has increased steadily - spiking in 2016 to 1,287, after the deaths of Knights leader Nazario Moreno in 2014 and the arrest of his colleague Servando "La Tuta" Gomez in 2015.
In relative terms, Michoacan's 2007 homicide rate of 12.28 per 100,000 people was above the national average but below many other more violence-prone states. That rate has also increased steadily.
By 2011, former Mexican President Felipe Calderon's last full year in office, it was above 17 per 100,000 people, which was below the national average. The homicide rate surged close to 20 per 100,000 in 2013 and 2014 before dropping in 2015.
But 2016 saw 27.81 homicides per 100,000 people, and 2017 has had nearly 22 homicides per 100,000 people through October.
The Tancitaro Public Security Corps has helped carve out a redoubt from this violence, according to residents there.
Chema Flores, who has worked in the avocado industry since 1982, told the BBC that he never imagined seeing such demand for his crops.
Flores said he had been kidnapped twice and his son once. But he is now permitted to carry a firearm, and he and his son are accompanied by bodyguards during the day. That, plus the security force, has kept crime at bay.
"For the moment it is safe here. There is a lot of security," he told the BBC. "But in other area it is ugly. I don't want to lie."