In Mexico, the lines between the worlds of organized crime and legal business activity are blurred and sometimes totally missing. The Pacific Coast state of Michoacán is the main base for Mexico’s booming avocado industry but is also a major conflict zone. Over the past decade, avocados have become emblematic of the expansion of organized crime activity in Mexico into a legal business.
Mexico supplies around 80% of the avocados eaten in the U.S. and most of these avocados come from Michoacán. So, there’s a good chance that if you eat avocado in the U.S., you are consuming a product that comes from one of the most violent and complex states in Mexico.
Michoacán has a population that is only slightly larger than the U.S. state of Connecticut but has recorded over 10,000 murders during the administration of Mexico’s current president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The day-to-day violence in Michoacán is alarming.
On April 4, 2023, criminal gunmen engaged in a prolonged shootout with police in Michoacán, killing 2 officers. Cartel gunmen in Michoacán have also employed bomber drones, land mines, and IEDs. The state police in Michoacán now use heavy-duty, military-style armored trucks.
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During a recent podcast interview, Falko Ernst, a Mexico analyst at the International Crisis Group, explained that violence needs to be understood as part of the way business deals are negotiated in Michoacán, rather than as an exogenous factor that disrupts legal business activity.
“Corruption has become dysfunctional. There’s a long trajectory of the Mexican state engaging with criminal groups.
Ernst says that it’s a mistake to summarize the dynamic in Michoacán as the government fighting criminal groups.
“We have this tendency to see these groups as autonomous, but one of their key resources comes from their ties to state institutions. They [are] financing campaigns, applying violence, other kinds of pressure to channel votes to candidates,” he explained.
In fact, in Michoacán and other parts of Mexico, it’s essential for criminal groups to foster ties with elected officials.
“Law enforcement will not act against you if you strike the right kinds of agreements. Without impunity, you cannot survive as a criminal organization. Access to the state is essential. [Criminal groups] are de facto political actors,” Ernst said.
But, in recent years as large criminal groups have splintered into smaller fragmented organizations and political power has been divided between competing political parties, the methods for organizing and regulating criminal activity have fallen apart.
“The state has lost its power to regulate and discipline criminal actors because you have too many competing interests. You end up with a mosaic of opposing state-criminal networks. State power has been fragmented. It doesn’t have the power to keep these guys at bay,” Ernst said.
“Instead of using peaceful means, you escalate the language of negotiation to violence. That is a huge factor driving conflict and keeps this conflict worsening with criminal groups digging in deeper over time,” he added.
In 2022, the World Justice Project ranked Mexico in the bottom fifth of the world’s countries in terms of the strength of rule of law, listing Mexico as worse than Sierra Leone and the Philippines. Corruption continues to be a major risk at the local level in Mexico.
Mexico’s government has struggled to tackle the problems of corruption and crime. Ernst is pessimistic about the security strategy of Mexico’s controversial populist President Lopez Obrador. Overall, he gives Lopez Obrador a D- grade for his security policies in organized crime and thinks that in too many cases Mexico’s military is colluding with criminals rather than helping to dismantle organized crime groups.