Only the most desperate and poor Latin Americans — often from indigenous communities — travel to the northern, U.S. border to claim asylum. In this essay, I’ll delve into some of the complex reasons for this exodus and how Americans are contributing to it. I’ll use the example of the state of Michoacan in Mexico as a microcosm of the crisis in Latin America.
El Rosario sanctuary is one of a handful of pine groves in the Sierra Madre mountains of Central Mexico that serve as the terminus for monarch butterflies arriving from Canada and the United States on their annual, southbound migration. The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is located in the state of Michoacan, at the extreme southwest of Mexico’s central highlands. It has a deep water port on Mexico’s Pacific coast that’s connected to a network of highways and railways running north-south through the center of Mexico, making Michoacan a state of strategic importance for trade.
Sixty percent of Michoacan is covered in forest, half of which is pine. The most economically important sections are located adjacent to the butterfly reserves. One problem facing these forests is unsustainable logging.
The majority of Michoacan’s population is mestizo, a racial mix of people who are Indian, Spanish, and African. The oldest civilization that still exists in Michoacan today is the Purepecha, dating back 1,000 years. Thirty eight indigenous languages are still spoken in Michoacan, but many Indian tribes are undergoing a slow but forced process of assimilation into the mainstream mestizo culture of Mexico. The destruction of indigenous cultures is also perpetuated by other factors that have forced these tribes to leave their homeland.
A combination of factors, including abductions by drug cartels, competition with American agri-business, extortion, a stagnating economy, threats, and violence has resulted in a net population outflow from Michoacan: 10,000 to 15,000 people flee the state per year.
Michoacans with resources resettle within Mexico in safe, business-friendly states such as Queretaro. The most desperate and poor — often indigenous farming families — travel to the northern border to claim asylum, living in temporary shelters while their requests are processed by the United States. While conditions in the makeshift camps are difficult, the displaced prefer this to the life-threatening conditions they face further south.
Young boys and teenagers from indigenous communities are often recruited to join drug cartels, risking torture or death if they refuse. The options are few: join criminal organizations and likely die at a young age, or flee. This is why the 2021 migrant surge at the U.S. border consists of so many unaccompanied children. Their parents believe that releasing them to make this perilous journey, alone, is safer than the grim future that awaits them if they stay.
The characteristics that make Michoacan a strategic trade corridor also serve as fertile ground for warrior groups that have fought for pre-eminence in the region for centuries. These agents often operate in unregulated industries and black markets, using violence and other means outside the legal strictures of Mexican society. Historically, they generated large profits from the cultivation, production, and distribution of high-margin plants such as cannabis and poppies. They’ve since shifted to the production and transport of fentanyl and methamphetamines — giving Michoacan the distinction of being the center of Mexico’s methamphetamine production. Additional income streams include activities both inside and outside the bounds of Mexican law, such as extortion, fuel theft, high-margin crops, logging, and mining.
In 2019, the capture of the head of the Sinaloa Cartel left a power vacuum. This marked the end of a period of relative peace and the start of a new fight for supremacy among rival cartels. One result has been the ascent of a new group, called the Jalisco New Generation Cartel — based in the state of Jalisco — that has presented even greater geopolitical and economic threats than its predecessors. Since 2019, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel has mounted a multi-state offensive across the Mexican Republic, from Cancun to Tijuana. Swathes of territory which had laid relatively dormant suddenly erupted in violent clashes as the Jalisco New Generation Cartel invaded incumbent cartels for control of their plazas.
Nowhere is this more true than in Michoacan, where the Jalisco New Generation Cartel is attempting to consolidate transportation routes, narcotics production, and viable industries in the state under their control. For these reasons and more, the exodus of the local population continues, leaving the most vulnerable to the caprices of whichever criminal organization currently dominates.
The incumbent cartel in Michoacan was known as La Familia Michoacana. One of Mexico’s most unique criminal organizations, it comprised of only men born and raised in Michoacan. They proclaimed that they didn’t like what methamphetamine was doing to their state; their goal was to remove from Michoacan all foreign groups inflicting violence and poisoning Mexican society with the sale of meth.
The group was more focused on sociopolitical control in Michoacan — selling narcotics was just an economic means to that end. La Familia influenced state politics in Michoacan through campaign financing as well as through force. They opposed the sale of drugs to Mexicans and insisted that their own employees avoid using the narcotics they produced and distributed. They favored the shipment of all narcotic products to the United States so that Mexico would be spared from the scourge of addiction.
Whether this ideology was a carefully cultivated myth by La Familia’s PR department or a deeply-felt responsibility by all members, remains unclear. What is evident in 2021, after La Familia splintered into a new group, is that methamphetamines are now aggressively marketed to Mexicans, marking a change in course from earlier idealism.
The Perfect Pandemic Potion
One reason for the shift to domestic meth consumption in Mexico is the coronavirus pandemic: reduced air, land, and sea shipments into the United States have cut off narcotics distribution to American consumers; increased supply has lowered prices; high-margin party drugs like cocaine are no longer needed in a world without parties; loss of tourism revenue has hit drug cartels with holdings in front companies, prompting them to search for new income streams; and domestic demand by Mexican citizens for cheap narcotics has risen due to unemployment and lockdown unhappiness.
Methamphetamines are the perfect pandemic potion, suitable for depressed, unemployed individuals in prolonged isolation. The high lasts 12 times longer than cocaine at half the price. Mexicans who have been doubly hit by the halt of tourism in a country propped up by drug money are susceptible to meth use, creating a domestic market that can tide the cartels over until cross-border traffic and demand return to normal levels.
The impact of methamphetamine use in Mexico’s central highlands is unseen from the main thoroughfares that tourists are whisked through. But the seven-fold increase in demand at meth addiction treatment centers, rising domestic violence, and more incidences of foreigners who are stripped of their valuables — all hint at a public health crisis in Mexico that has been accelerated by the pandemic.
In pre-pandemic times, buses full of tourists would be deposited at the entrance of El Rosario monarch sanctuary daily between January and March, the peak months of butterfly activity. Millions of Danaus plexippus — marked by their distinctive black, orange, and white spray — hibernate in select groves of oyamel firs, fluttering about delightfully in the sunlight. The sight of the monarch swarms is a moving — even spiritual — experience, drawing large crowds to witness the spectacle. In Mexican culture, the monarch butterfly is considered to be the reincarnated soul of the recently departed; remarkably, the arrival of the first groups of monarchs in Central Mexico coincides with the Day of the Dead on November 2nd.
At the time of my visit during peak season, there were no tour buses in the empty parking lot — just a handful of cars at the entrance. The absence of tourists has improved the natural environment of the sanctuary, with far less noise pollution, foot traffic, and crowding than during normal times. There is a downside to the peace and quiet, though — the loss of tourist revenue has left local communities vulnerable to supplementing their income however they can.
Millennial Blood Diamonds
Nearly 80% of the forested land in Michoacan is owned by indigenous farmers who share land granted by the state, called ejidos. These communities suffer extreme poverty and rely on subsistence agriculture, remittances, and tourism for survival. With few employment opportunities in their region, some farmers log their own forests for income; the rest have no choice in the matter. When professional loggers enter an ejido to clear a forest by force, they are accompanied by armed cartel members who work as guards and take a cut. Loggers annihilate entire groves of oyamel forests, which monarch butterflies have hibernated in for 10,000 years. They sell the timber and often cultivate avocados in the clearings. The deforestation is not obvious — loggers covertly trim back only the forest canopy, planting avocado trees in a hidden layer beneath.
Avocados are thirsty little creatures — a single avocado requires a whopping 320 liters of water; a kilo requires 2,000 liters. Not coincidentally, a severe drought in the forests of Michoacan, where pine trees have been cleared to make way for avocado orchards, is causing stress in the oyamel firs and diminishing the monarch butterflies that hibernate in nearby reserves. Avocados are also grown in monoculture, plantation-style arrangements with chemical inputs. These practices drive up productivity of the fruits but degrade the fertility of surrounding soil. In 2020, the combination of logging, drought, and exploitative farming practices caused the loss of 50 acres in the Monarch Biosphere Reserve, compared to 12 the year before. According to a recent study by the Journal of Environmental Management, 17% of lands deforested in Michoacan between 2001 and 2017 are now avocado plantations.
Environmental activists who dare to speak out risk their lives. In February 2020, a manager and tour guide from El Rosario sanctuary were murdered as retribution for hindering cartel activities in the area. In a chilling display of impunity, the state attorney general’s office in Michoacan deemed the deaths accidents despite evidence of blunt trauma on both of the victims.
Historically, avocado farming was a way to launder mountains of money from the narcotics trade. Thanks to growing demand from Western consumers, drug cartels soon found the trade to be commercially valuable in and of itself. In recent years, other factors prompted the shift to avocados — the fall in the price of heroin, the legalization of cannabis in Canada, Mexico, and parts of the U.S., and increased security of natural gas pipelines, thwarting fuel theft. In worst-case scenarios, landowners and business owners are asked to hand over their plantations and packing plants to the cartels and kidnapped or harmed if they don’t cooperate. Enforced disappearances are a normal tactic, designed to generate fear in order to occupy land and steal resources. At best, landowners, farmers, and business owners are simply extorted for “protection” fees, which have had the effect of artificially hiking up the price of avocados, which consumers in the United States are only happy to pay.
Ironically, the Hass avocado — the leading variety that comprises the bulk of Mexican imports — is native to California. After an 80-year ban on imports, the arrival of NAFTA opened up a green gold rush in Mexico to begin growing avocados for export to the United States. The high price of these fruits makes it difficult for local communities in Michoacan to afford the very thing that is grown in their backyard. Avocados are notably absent in interior Mexican cuisine served in Mexico.
Statistical analysis reported in the Journal of Environmental Management revealed a strong correlation between U.S.-Mexico avocado trade volume and the expansion of avocado plantations in Michoacan. The bounty from selling to Americans has been an irresistible incentive to expand avocado production, which has resulted in further deforestation. The study found that domestic avocado sales are markedly lower, confirming that demand from American consumers is the overwhelming driver for deforestation in the region.
As the world’s largest supplier, Mexico grows almost half the avocados sold globally, with the U.S. consuming three-quarters of avocado exports out of Mexico. Michoacan produces more avocados than any other state in Mexico, exporting 90% of the country’s avocados, with exports growing sixty-fold between 2000 and 2018. The U.S. imports 87% of its avocados from Michoacan by mandate; consumption by Americans doubled in the last 10 years. The pricey fruits are now a ubiquitous ingredient in every cuisine, present on pasta, sushi, toast, and more. How did the appetite for avocados grow so voraciously in such a short amount of time?
The Green Marketing Machine
It turns out a vast marketing machine is at play, shaping Millennial culture and whetting the appetite of Americans through aggressive, sophisticated campaigns that border on disinformation. A diffuse digital presence, tantalizing recipes, TikTok memes, Super Bowl ads, targeted media placements, partnerships with food industry behemoths and celebrity influencers alike, AI-driven platforms, and even an online university all hammer consumers with a steady stream of festive content that masks the destruction felt hundreds of miles south of the U.S. border.
At the helm of this publicity machine is Avocados From Mexico, a subsidiary of the Mexican Hass Avocado Importers Association that’s also a joint venture between Mexican avocado producers and packers. Headquartered in Irving, Texas, the organization employs the best and brightest talent and iconic marketing powerhouses, all for the purpose of manufacturing American demand for Mexican avocados through beautifully executed marketing campaigns. Nearly a decade of this assault on our senses has convinced the American public that avocados are an essential food group, required year-round. Yet, the truth is that they can easily be substituted by a panoply of foods offering the same nutritional value, if we have the patience to savor the California-grown variety only when in season.
The marketing efforts have paid off, handsomely — in 2020, Avocados From Mexico claimed to contribute $4 billion to U.S. GDP for that year alone. Yet, while the top skimmers and middlemen north of the border — and criminal organizations south of the border — have both been enriched, Michoacan growers remain impoverished and threatened. Without American demand for these creamy fruits, the biggest motivator for criminal groups to siphon the local population would dissolve.
It’s easier to forgive busy Americans who make uninformed consumer choices. We all get it — very few of us have the time to research the complex supply chain undergirding each ingredient for taco night. But it’s less forgivable for an industry coalition with corporate interests to drive demand at massive scale, for a production chain that they know is marred by criminal taint at every step. They continue, fully aware of the direct environmental harm — not to mention the exploitation and displacement of local, indigenous populations.
Seductive marketing copy on the Avocados From Mexico website reads as follows:
With each bite of an Avocado From Mexico, you’re transported to the rich Michoacan soil, basking in the warm sunshine and nourishing rain, and breathing deeply of the coastal air.
Here’s the reality of life in Michoacan, courtesy of The Los Angeles Times:
The cartel members showed up in this verdant stretch of western Mexico with automatic weapons and chainsaws. Soon they were cutting timber day and night, the crash of falling trees echoing throughout the virgin forest. When locals protested, explaining that the area was protected from logging, they were held at gunpoint and ordered to keep quiet…they wouldn’t be planting marijuana or other crops long favored by Mexican cartels, but something potentially even more profitable: avocados.
Industry actors fiercely disavow the connection between the demand that they have stoked in the U.S. and the deforestation it has caused. One PR initiative has been the touting of a reforestation project for Michoacan’s monarch butterfly reserve, partially funded by the Mexican Hass Avocado Importers Association (MHAIA). On the web page, MHAIA proclaims itself to be a “steward of sustainability,” claiming that the “vast majority of avocado orchards in Michoacan are not in close proximity to the forests in which the monarchs roost each winter.”
To the contrary, 25% of Michoacan avocado plantations are in Key Biological Areas — areas vital to the preservation of threatened species, according to a recent study reported in the Journal of Environmental Management. The findings suggest that land use change induced by avocados is directly causing habitat loss and threatening key species — including the monarch butterfly — the destruction of which is downplayed through well-intended but ineffective pet projects. Part disinformation campaign and part corporate social responsibility fodder, the avocado industry’s armchair activist approach is conveniently hands-off, self-serving, and symbolic, leaving a void for direct, industry-led environmental management.
Fierce debate surrounds the proposal to boycott avocados from Mexico. One argument for a boycott is that the harm to avocado growers has already been done. Criminal interference has already ruined businesses, many are already on the verge of bankruptcy, and net population outflows from Mexico’s avocado growing region all suggest that the worst has come to pass. Turning a blind eye and continuing to consume Mexican avocados may not just continue to fund the cartels but may perpetuate a cycle that keeps people in the growing regions in grave danger. Fair trade labels may not ensure the absence of criminal taint, which occurs at every step in the production chain outside the purview of certifiers.
Local farmers and workers in Michoacan cannot simply remove themselves from the sphere of cartel influence for a fair trade label. The absence of alternative employment in the region, constant surveillance by narcos, and a mafia state all work to trap growers under the employ of criminal organizations so long as there is an incentive to extract profits from the “green gold.” One avenue is for the cartels to lose interest in the avocado trade after normal market dynamics (with slimmer profit margins) based mostly on domestic demand, are restored.
On the other hand, it’s argued that a blanket boycott indiscriminately penalizes both responsible and reckless producers. Alternatives to a boycott could be industry-led: better regulation by U.S. governmental agencies that play influential roles in avocado imports, stronger corporate governance among import firms to hold producers and packing houses accountable for environmental impacts, and greater transparency across the U.S.-Mexico avocado supply chain.
A database that traces individual cartons of avocados back to the farms that produced them already exists in Mexico, summoned only when a quality control issue arises. Despite the availability of this gold mine of data, only the country of origin is shared with retailers and end-consumers proactively as a standard practice today. Retailers could easily leverage their market power to access this farm-level tracking information, as they already do to make price and quality demands on vertically integrated exporters. This information could allow them to monitor farming practices and communicate findings to consumers, thereby informing conscious consumption.
Admittedly, many products that Americans use, from iPhones to coffee beans, have some degree of taint in their supply chains. But the escalating situation south of the border requires a re-evaluation of our trade relations with Mexico, potentially calling for a higher degree of scrutiny for products originating there. In 2020, the Mexican Drug War netted the highest death toll of any conflict in the world, with over 50,000 deaths. At least 80,000 individuals have vanished since 2006 — since this is the “official” figure reported by the Mexican government, the actual number is likely much, much higher.
By most standards, these figures suggest that Mexico is an active war zone. This isn’t just an internal conflict that the U.S. has stood on the sidelines observing. We’ve played an active part manufacturing demand for industries that Mexican criminal organizations have capitalized on, without putting measures in place to improve transparency along the supply chain. The avocado trade is just one of many American industries in cahoots with criminal organizations — directly and indirectly — which has perpetuated the conflict in Mexico.
Knowing that vulnerable communities in Latin America are faced with the choice of submitting to criminal demands or fleeing for their lives, is it really ethical for industry coalitions to continue stoking demand that enriches drug cartels?
Are we really satisfied with pet projects masked as Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives as the primary solution to this devastation, which is presenting itself as a massive internal displacement at our border?
Can American consumers, in good conscience, continue celebrating Instagram-worthy delicacies made of avocados, knowing how many human lives have been disrupted for their enjoyment?
Should we boycott avocados until the avocado trade requires a higher standard of transparency in its supply chain?
Is anyone challenging the mandate that 90% of our avocado imports come from a single region in Mexico?
To what degree should the United States continue to conduct open trade with a country that is a mafia state and active war zone?
The Great Migration
As I write this piece in the month of March, the monarch butterflies at El Rosario sanctuary are departing in droves for their northward journey. As they glide over the Rio Grande river into U.S. soil, they are blissfully unaware of their human counterparts on the ground, making the same journey. The butterflies will take rest stops, breed, and die shortly after their eggs are laid. Their offspring will continue to move north without them, completing the round-trip migration back to Mexico through four successive generations.
The human beings, however, won’t return to their homelands if they can help it. The great irony of the massive, northward displacement in Latin America is that the country that contributed in great measure to the exploitation and suffering of vulnerable populations in far off lands further south, now finds those people on its doorstep, in its care.
What Can I Do To Help?
- Sign this change.org petition. Started by a friend of one of the murdered men at El Rosario sanctuary, it asks grocery stores to sell only fair trade avocados.
- Only eat avocados from California when they are in season during spring and summer months.
- If you have a garden, plant milkweed plants. They’re a major food source for monarch butterflies along their migration path.