As you laid out the spread of guacamole, chips and beer just in time for the Super Bowl, you could have been playing a part in an armed conflict that’s raging in the south of Mexico.
Avocado imports from Mexico double as the big match approaches because of the large amount of guacamole consumed at Super Bowl parties.
Most of this comes from the state of Michoacan, where cartels and vigilante groups made up of businessmen and farmworkers have been engaging in fierce combat over the past 10 months, while using avocado money to buy weapons and equipment.
But the fighting hasn’t stopped avocado production, which ramps up before the Super Bowl, according to Mexico’s Association for Avocado Growers and Packers.
“[The Super Bowl] is the most important day in the year for us along with the Cinco de Mayo,” said Sergio Guerrero, the director of the Association for Avocado Growers in the western state of Michoacan.
“In the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl our exports rise from 500 containers per week, to almost 1,000,” Guerrero added. His organization works with 11,000 avocado producers in the state.
Mexico’s avocado industry is a big success story by many accounts. It provides some 520 million tons of avocados to the U.S. year-round, and generates over $1 billion in export revenues each year. It is estimated that seven out of 10 avocados sold in the U.S. come from Mexico.
But as drug cartels have expanded their reach and influence in Mexico, they’ve looked for new sources of revenue, and began to demand a cut of the avocado trade.
In 2010, the Knights Templar cartel started to get more involved in the avocado business, by taxing farmers in Michoacan state.
Some of the relatives of the farmers who didn’t pay up were killed or kidnapped.
The Mexican government estimates that over the past three years, the Knights Templar have been making $75 million each year from extortion rackets.
In response to such intimidation, businessmen throughout the state armed themselves, forming vigilante groups whose objective is to kick the cartel out of the state.
“Each year [the Knights Templar] were charging us 2,500 pesos [$190] for every hectare of avocados that we owned and on top of that they wanted a 3,500 peso Christmas bonus,” said Jesus Bucio an avocado farmer from the municipality Tancitaro, who now runs a vigilante group.
As an owner of a 60 hectare [148 acre] farm, Bucio used to pay $12,000 every year to the Knights Templar organization.
“We started this movement, because we were suffering a lot from extortion,” Bucio said.
Knights Templar took a cut from more than just the avocado business. The drug trafficking organization, which named itself after a medieval order of knights, also taxed lemon farmers and cattle ranchers and allegedly takes a cut from iron mines in the state.
But avocado growers have been among the most vocal opponents of the cartel. And some of them are now using proceeds from the avocado trade to finance vigilante organizations that are slowly trying to corner the Knights Templar cartel.
Bucio openly admits that his vigilante group, which has about 200 members, is partly financed by avocado sales.
The group hails from Tancitaro, a municipality that was under the control of the Knights Templar until November of last year.
“We have recovered 31 farms, totaling 260 hectares, that had been taken by the Knights Templar,” Bucio said. “Most of the owners of these recovered farms decided to give us 80 percent of their most recent crop.”
We asked Bucio if U.S. avocado consumption is good for his cause.
“Sure it is, that is how we get more money to take care of our farms.”
“Does it help you to back the self defense movement.,” we asked.
“It gives us resources to advance our struggle” he replied.
The chances that proceeds from your Super Bowl guacamole are going to armed groups in Mexico are getting smaller though.
As vigilante groups rise in more areas of Michoacan, the Knights Templar cartel is losing its ability to tax avocado and other products.
Bucio claims that vigilante group aren’t interested in imposing taxes on farmers. He said that the crop donation he received last year was just a one time event.
“We can’t take what people have,” Bucio said. “If we did that, we would be just like the Knights Templar.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.