EL AGUAJE, Mexico — Antonio had spent years growing limes and raising livestock on his ranch in western Mexico, and managed to earn a living by following a rule he and many others in Michoacán, one of the most violent states in Mexico, Mexico, had always known: Get off the drug smuggling routes alone and no harm would come their way.
But now the valley of lime trees that once prospered this region had been set on fire, a victim of the drug cartels’ emerging business model.
Some criminal groups are making unprecedented efforts to take over mainstream sectors of the economy, including avocados and limes, and threaten to disrupt the lucrative, bilateral trade partnership between Mexico and the United States, one of the largest in the world.
Mexico exports $3.2 billion worth of avocados and $500 million of limes annually, and some cartels are pushing their way into these profitable businesses not only by extorting them as they have done for years, but also running the operations themselves. . Some are even planting orchards and opening avocado packaging plants to diversify their income and fund their efforts to conquer more territory.
“There is an evolution towards a classic Italian-style criminal-political relationship,” Romain Le Cour, program director of México Evalúa, a research institute that focuses on public security policy, said of the cartels. “When you think about the mafia, it’s a gray zone where you connect legal with illegal, crime with business and crime with politics.”
In fact, this evolution has encouraged the cartels to threaten the US government’s presence across the country, Le Cour added, as criminal groups “understand that they have more power than anyone, the government or the corporations they extort.” .”
An increasing number of farmers and communities linked to the agricultural trade have become entangled in a peat war, while tens of thousands of others have been displaced as the government struggles to clean up the gangs and quell the violence.
“It’s a conflict that never ends,” Antonio said bitterly, asking that only his middle name be used to protect his identity.
A recent military clearance operation in El Aguaje allowed families fleeing cartel violence to return in February. They rode through clouds of smoke billowing from the smoldering valley, past their ruined town square with its buildings pockmarked by bullets and graffiti: CJNG, the Spanish acronym for Jalisco New Generation Cartel – the region’s most powerful cartel.
Some people, like Antonio, came back to work on the farms they had been forced to leave temporarily. Many returned only to pack their things and leave.
Hardly anyone in El Aguaje believed the government gains would last, as the city had been fought over by various criminal groups for years. Recent military operations have targeted the Jalisco cartel, but the newly scorched orchards were a clear sign that other cartels were trying to step in to fill the void.
In Michoacán, until a few months ago the only Mexican state licensed to export avocados to the United States, the cartels have cleared protected forests and driven the population off the country to plant their own orchards. And they’ve started extorting small producers, previously thought to be too small to be worth it.
While there’s no clear estimate of the extent to which these criminal groups have affected commerce, the net profits from their international operations could reach $20 billion a year, nearly 2 percent of Mexico’s gross domestic product, according to a U.S. official who not authorized to give his name.
In February, a criminal group even threatened a U.S. inspector when he rejected a batch of carted avocados masquerading as Michoacán’s production, leading to a brief U.S. ban on Mexican avocados, the first in the decades-long avocado trade between the countries.
The The threat further signaled the growing brutality of Michoacán’s criminal organizations, which have largely avoided targeting US government employees for more than 35 years.
The month before, US Border Patrol agents were fired upon from Mexico, most likely by cartel members involved in smuggling migrants. And in March, the US consulate in the Mexican state of Nuevo Laredo was shelled after authorities extradited a cartel leader to the United States.
The Jalisco cartel began an aggressive attempt in 2020 to overrun small towns and villages in the western parts of Michoacán, cutting vital roads and sections of the highway, rendering much of the state impassable. Last year, it took control and dug trenches along parts of a major highway connecting the state and took over Aguililla, a small town with a military base. Mexican troops stationed there had to be resupplied by helicopter as they avoided direct involvement with the cartels.
Considered one of Mexico’s largest and most horrific, the cartel has since developed new enforcement tactics, recently introducing improvised explosive devices buried in dirt roads and fields to seal off population centers.
Even after government forces carry out clean-up operations, the area lacks sufficient state, municipal and federal troops to defend the area. Regularly, police officers are fired for corruption, retire or resign due to rising violence and meager wages.
In El Aguaje, the orchard fires were started by the Viagras, a group that is part of a criminal collective called the United Cartels. They took control in September 2020 and started looting the city.
“They broke in, robbed our homes and stole everything they could — farm animals, goats, horses,” Antonio said. “They took everything, everything, panties, even from the elderly. What do you want used panties for?”
Last year, the Jalisco cartel pushed the Viagras out and took power. It left the population largely alone – as long as the local residents didn’t disrupt the drug flow.
Outside the city, the Viagras began taxing everything from cattle to limes, sometimes demanding as much as a third of the farmers’ income. The military finally intervened in February, but seemed focused on clearing just the Jalisco cartel.
When that group withdrew, the Viagras set fire to the orchards to prevent their rivals from taking cover to launch counter-attacks against them.
Security analysts say the government’s strategy has been selective, primarily against the Jalisco cartel, but not against the smaller groups that terrorize residents equally.
“In the past, we’ve seen efforts against groups that pose a public relations problem to the government, and Jalisco’s tactics have become too brutal to ignore,” said Falko Ernst, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“I see no positive signs that the government will expand its current operation to go against other groups like the Viagras,” he added.
Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, came to power in 2018 with the slogan “hugs not bullets”, promising to crack down on the cartels by increasing spending on social programs.
But halfway through his term, Mr. Lopez Obrador did not work. According to the Mexican Commission for Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, 2021 saw an almost fivefold increase in the number of internally displaced Mexicans – 44,905 people – fleeing cartel violence compared to the previous year. Thousands more have gone north in an attempt to enter the United States and seek asylum.
That didn’t stop the president from claiming victory, recently announcing that he’d ended Michoacán’s internal displacement problem and allowed displaced residents to return. Shortly after his comments, 17 people were marched out of a funeral and executed, a prominent journalist was murdered and a local trade leader was shot.
Still, Michoacán governor Alfredo Ramírez Bedolla, an ally of Mr. López Obrador, said he believed the president’s strategy would persuade residents to return.
“The military has done an exceptional job in retaking these areas,” Mr Ramírez said in an interview in February. “Now comes the part of civil government, building infrastructure and economic development.”
Infrastructure spending in Michoacán has lagged much of the nation for years, but Mr. Ramírez promised a $183 million investment plan for this year, tripling the state’s infrastructure budget for 2020.
With little confidence in the government’s ability to protect them, some cities have decided to take up arms. In Tancitaro – known as the world’s avocado capital – the city set up a self-defense unit in 2014, tired of the cartels extorting their crops, attacking their women and kidnapping their children for ransom.
The mayor of Tancitaro, Gerardo Mora Mora, said they had to choose between defending themselves or “seeing our future end”.
The Tierra Caliente region of Michoacán, the area at the crossroads of the state where El Aguaje is nestled, has recently been the scene of fierce fighting. Home to the leader of the Jalisco cartel, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, known as “El Mencho” – one of the most wanted men in Mexico and the United States – it was strategically located for the cartel to transport drugs, while the Viagras tried to take control of the region to extort lime farmers.
On a recent visit to Naranjo de Chila, the birthplace of Mr. Cervantes, one resident recalled how the army and the Viagras besieged the city and prevented food from entering for eight months. During the siege, the Jalisco cartel built a warehouse to supply the imprisoned townspeople with medicine for the sick, food for the hungry. It brought supplies with a small propeller plane, the resident added.
The Jalisco soldiers trained in the town square and performed exercises while the residents watched. To one side of the plaza was a cavernous workshop where the cartel created its “monsters,” or SUVs, which they ramped up by welding metal plates to the doors to make them bulletproof and attack-ready.
Three days before the military finally broke through Naranjo de Chila, the Jalisco cartel fled, residents said. Before it left, it used an excavator to bury its heavy weapons.
Some residents accused the government of collaborating with the Viagras, which Mr. Ramírez, the governor of Michoacán, denied. “What there is is a big advance from the military, from the federal government.”
But the advance inspired little faith.
“The city felt safer under the Jalisco cartel,” said one resident, who asked not to use his name, fearing retaliation. “We don’t like them, but we don’t like the government anymore.”
Oscar Lopez and Juan Jose Estrada Serafín contributed coverage.