Avocado exporters are the latest victim of drug cartel turf wars and extortion of avocado growers in the state of Michoacán.
MEXICO CITY - Mexico has acknowledged that the US government has suspended all imports of Mexican avocados after a US plant safety inspector in Mexico received a threat.
The surprise suspension was confirmed on Saturday night on the eve of the Super Bowl, the biggest selling opportunity of the year for Mexican avocado growers.
Avocado exporters are the latest victim of drug cartel turf wars and blackmailing of avocado growers in the western state of Michoacán, the only state in Mexico with full export rights to the US market.
The US government has suspended all imports of Mexican avocados "until further notice" after a US crop safety inspector in Mexico received a threatening message, the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture said in a statement.
“US health authorities…made the decision after one of their officers conducting inspections in Uruapan, Michoacán, received a threatening message on his official cell phone,” the department wrote.
The import ban came on the day the Mexican Association of Avocado Producers and Packers released its ad for this year's Super Bowl. Mexican exporters ran expensive ads for nearly a decade associating guacamole with a Super Bowl tradition.
This year's ad features Julius Caesar and a group of gladiator fans outside what appears to be the Colosseum, easing their seemingly bitter differences over guacamole and avocados.
The association did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ban, which affects an industry that exports nearly $3 billion a year. However, avocados for this year's Super Bowl were already being exported in the weeks leading up to the event.
Because the United States also grows avocados, US inspectors are working in Mexico to make sure exported avocados don't carry diseases that could harm US crops.
It wasn't until 1997 that the US lifted a ban on Mexican avocados that had been in place since 1914 to prevent a variety of weevils, scabs and pests from entering US orchards.
The inspectors work for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services of the United States Department of Agriculture.
It is not the first time that violence in Michoacán, where the Jalisco Cartel wages turf wars against a conglomerate of local gangs known as Carteles Unidos, has threatened avocados, the state's most lucrative crop.
Following a previous incident in 2019, the USDA had warned of the possible consequences of attacks or threats against US inspectors.
In August 2019, a team of US Department of Agriculture inspectors was “directly threatened” in Ziracuaretiro, a town west of Uruapan. While the agency did not specify what happened, local authorities said a gang stole the truck the inspectors were traveling in at gunpoint.
The USDA wrote in a letter at the time: "For future situations that result in a security breach or demonstrate an imminent physical threat to the well-being of APHIS personnel, we will immediately suspend program activities."
Many avocado growers in Michoacán say drug gangs threaten them or their relatives with kidnapping or death if they don't pay protection money, sometimes running into thousands of dollars per acre.
On September 30, 2020, a Mexican APHIS employee was killed near the northern border city of Tijuana.
Mexican prosecutors said Edgar Flores Santos was killed by drug traffickers who may have mistaken him for a police officer, and that they have arrested a suspect. The US State Department said the investigation "concluded that this unfortunate incident was a case of Mr. Flores being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
The avocado ban was just the latest threat to Mexico's export trade, stemming from the government's inability to curb illegal activity.
On Thursday, the US Trade Representative's office filed an environmental complaint against Mexico for failing to stop illegal fishing to protect the endangered marine Vaquita, the smallest porpoise.