The avocado mafia in Mexico: the devil’s avocados

Michoacán produces 120 thousand tons of avocado per month, becoming the world’s leading exporter of this fruit, which is now known as “green gold” for its flavor and demand.

But 15 years ago, avocado was not even among the most coveted fruits for exporters and the farmland was only a few hectares, but for a few years the demand increased 30 times, remember the residents of the state.

The demand has grown to such a degree that entire hills have been deforested to cultivate the avocado trees. But it also reveals the health problem that has been created in the face of such high demand: the use of toxic insecticides that is affecting the population.

About 80% of Mexican avocados are exported to the United States, where demand is much higher in special events, such as the Super Bowl that takes place in January and where the promotion of this fruit is such that a commercial on Mexican avocado costs four million dollars.

But it is also shipped to Europe, Canada, China and Japan, where its consumption has become rapidly more popular.

Demand has increased the price of this fruit. 15 years ago a kilo of avocado cost 5 pesos, today it is sold for up to 70 pesos. In fact, the current price is precisely due to the over-demand that exists both in Mexico and abroad.

Deforestation and poisoning

To meet the high demand, producers and drug traffickers have expanded the cultivation areas to the hills and forests of the region, causing an ecological disaster: in just five years 170 thousand hectares of pine have been deforested .

Jaime Chávez, a member of the Michoacán Ministry of the Environment, is leading the operations to recover deforested areas and eliminate illegal plantations. However, officials know how dangerous such operations are, because at any time a criminal group can come out tas an armed family to confront the officials.

Chávez and his group assure that it is not illegal to plant avocado trees. What is illegal is cutting down the forest to make the plantations, which each year gain 700 hectares over the forests. This amount is equivalent to a thousand soccer fields.

But it is not only an environmental problem, but also a health catastrophe. Insecticides made from organophosphates are used on the plantations, which are highly toxic to workers and residents.

Producers use these insecticides to combat severe pests, such as thrips, a small insect that has gnawed on fruit from a young age; their bites damage the merchandise and these avocados can no longer be sold, which affects production.

It was found that the pesticide delivery trucks carry substances such as Perfekthion, phosphoric acid, Naled 90 and other chemical substances, which are not listed in the catalog of insecticides allowed by the Mexican government and are totally prohibited in Europe, due to the damage it causes to health.

Despite the fact that producers know that they are harmful and that they are prohibited, they continue to buy them in stores, which they sell as if they were not dangerous. Sellers even warn of possible damage, but also highlight effectiveness in fighting pests.

Advertising throughout Michoacán is strong, commercials on local television, billboards on the roads, images on trucks, etc. Ads of these nature appear everywhere.

Use of pesticides

The use of these pesticides has already claimed the lives of several people and left behind dozens of children. However, the subject is taboo, nobody talks about it.

An investigation was conducted of the 500 children and teachers of a secondary school in the community of Toreo el Bajo, which belongs to the municipality of Uruapan, one of the richest avocado areas in the region.

On the other side of the fence that surrounds the campus are hundreds of avocado trees that are sprayed with insecticides several times a week with pressure guns, regardless of whether the children are playing in the yard at recess. When this happens, minors run to classrooms to get away from the smell, which often causes headaches and nausea.

The operation has already claimed its first victims. Maricela and Serena are teachers in this secondary and had abortions. Maricela was four months pregnant when the doctors realized that the fetus was swallowing amniotic fluid and had malformations in the kidneys.

Serena already had two abortions. In 2015, at the third month of gestation, they discovered that the twins in her womb had stopped breathing. In January of this year, she had another abortion for the same reason.

Doctors were unable to determine the causes of the malformations, but noted that there are various studies in Europe that have shown that insecticides affect the growth of fetuses.

The teachers were not the only ones. In Toreo El Bajo there are dozens of cases of miscarriages or children with malformations due to pesticides, but nobody talks about it because it would mean talking more about the avocados.

Another case was that of Gaby, a 9-year-old girl who appears to be three years old and who no longer grew up because she has a serious problem in the intestines, which doctors have not been able to treat.

Lidia, her mother, narrates that the doctors only asked her to find out if there was a history of cancer in the family or if there were chemicals in the environment, which the woman remembers perfectly: when she was pregnant she lived next to an avocado plantation and her partner worked in these fields spraying trees without adequate protection.

The little girl has developed other ailments, such as diabetes, and doctors have told Lidia that Gaby can die at any time.

Health risks

This is a reason to find out what is affecting the minors. However, Gaby’s doctor says that nothing can be documented: while pesticides cannot be blamed for their condition, they cannot be excluded either.

The doctors of the regional hospital have carried out some studies that have shown the effects of pesticides on the population and the direct relationship that exists between children’s illnesses with the use of pesticides. One of the neurologists even pointed out that cancers are associated with organophosphate insecticides used in plantations.

With these data, some people went to the Ministry of Health of the state of Michoacán, where they questioned the head of the agency about the effects on minors. He said that there are no statistics or sufficient information on these events.

He even went further when answering, “The epidemiological situation is not the same in Mexico as in Europe. The physicist, the genetic background of each region are different, we talk that in this region people are more resistant, Mexicans are more resistant to certain bacteria.”

Samples of the hair of the two teachers and five high school children were taken. The results were alarming, they all had high concentrations of at least five different toxic substances.

However, the most serious case is that of Jade, a 13-year-old girl, whose body has 11 different substances, which can cause neurological damage, reproductive problems and other conditions.

Jade and her mother live in a community that used to be a forest and is now a colony surrounded by avocado trees that are constantly sprayed with insecticides. After learning the results, Jade and her mother moved out of the community, as did teacher Serena who was pregnant again.

Narco traffic and avocados

Green gold has brought both bonanza and misfortune to Michoacán. Tancítaro, another of the avocado-rich regions, has an output of 6,674 million pesos a year, thanks to 23 million hectares of cultivation, which represent 5% of the world production.

Fernando Hernández is a kind of sheriff in the region, he explains how they have installed control on the roads to prevent strangers from entering. However, this has not worked: The Knights Templar are in the region charging producers a floor fee.

Although this is not new, violence continues to plague these regions, which managed to get out of poverty thanks to the avocado and thanks to it, they now live plagued by threats: whoever is not willing to pay drug traffickers ends up dead, the same than his family.

The violence transformed the farmers into armed warriors. The men bring pistols and spend thousands of pesos to buy the most sophisticated weapons to protect their families and assets.

However, it has not been enough to defend against organized crime. And every week a new producer or a family member appears murdered in the streets, in their cars or in the empty fields of the area.