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The violent underbelly of the avocado industry

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Americans consume a lot of avocados, and you may have heard how a lot of those avocados come from Mexico. But a podcast from Texas Public Radio focuses on a part of the avocado trade that you may not have heard of. In Mexico, armed groups and cartels use violence to try and control this lucrative business. The podcast is called Caliber 60, and it looks at the complicated relationship between that violence and the people being forced out of Mexico because of it, people like Linda, whose story takes center stage in Episode 1 of Caliber 60. She's from a small town in Michoacan in central Mexico. It's one of several avocado-producing communities that have experienced cartel violence. We aren't using her last name to protect her identity. Caliber 60 host Stephania Corpi and Toya Sarno Jordan pick up the story from there.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "CALIBER 60")

STEPHANIA CORPI, BYLINE: These are communities whose sole income relies on agriculture. Their land has the perfect conditions to grow a product that is in very high demand.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I eat avocados probably four times a week.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Avocado is amazing. It's probably my favorite vegetable. Is it a fruit? I don't even know. It's delicious.

TOYA SARNO JORDAN, BYLINE: In 1985, Americans ate 436 million pounds of avocados per year. By 2020, that number exploded to 2.7 billion. I mean, there are even avocado bars in New York.

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JESSICA KOSLOW: You know, last year I was in New York, and I saw avocados being sold in the Lower East Side for $4 an avocado.

CORPI: We all love our sourdough avocado toast with poached eggs or a spicy guacamole while watching the game.

JORDAN: Remember this year's Super Bowl ad, the one where Anna Faris plays Eve in the Garden of Eden and New York City is now the Big Avocado? And then the catchy (singing) avocados from Mexico?

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

JORDAN: How are avocados in one of the most expensive ad placements in the world?

CORPI: Well, that's easy. This is a $3 billion business driven by a voracious demand from the U.S. And the main producer is Linda's home, the Mexican state of Michoacan.

LINDA: (Speaking Spanish).

CORPI: So for people in Michoacan, changing their crops to avocados meant having more income, living in a better house and finding a livelihood that could give them new opportunities in the agriculture business.

JORDAN: But new money doesn't go unnoticed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Over the weekend, the U.S. temporarily banned Mexican avocados due to a security threat, a threat highlighting the criminal element that continues to afflict the avocado market.

JORDAN: Avocado imports came to a screeching halt right before the 2022 Super Bowl, and the rotten underbelly of this industry was exposed in the United States. But this story is way bigger than avocados.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORPI: Ixtaro, Linda's quiet hometown in Michoacan, had remained relatively calm at a time when other parts of Mexico had become battlefields for organized crime.

LINDA: (Speaking Spanish).

CORPI: Before streets were paved, kids had fun playing outside on dirt roads.

LINDA: (Speaking Spanish).

CORPI: Neighbors organized parties, and, like in any small town, everyone was invited.

LINDA: (Speaking Spanish).

CORPI: You'd chat with anyone you'd meet. Everyone knew everything about everyone. That's why the arrival of unfamiliar men didn't go unnoticed.

JORDAN: They weren't from around town.

LINDA: (Speaking Spanish).

JORDAN: They never said where they came from or shared their names.

LINDA: (Speaking Spanish).

CORPI: The first time Linda saw weapons in Ixtaro, they were hanging off the shoulders of these men who drove by in SUVs. As weeks went by, disappearances became more frequent and the SUVs multiplied. So did the guns.

LINDA: (Speaking Spanish).

CORPI: By the third week, there were four trucks filled with more men. They stopped occasionally to buy things at the store and continued on their way.

JORDAN: But the real problems began when they decided to stay.

LINDA: (Speaking Spanish).

JORDAN: They started squatting in abandoned houses, many left behind by people who migrated to the U.S. But once all the empty houses were taken, they began forcing families out of their own homes.

LINDA: (Speaking Spanish).

JORDAN: At gunpoint, people were cast to the street. How do you say no to an armed group of men?

LINDA: (Speaking Spanish).

JORDAN: Linda recalls that these men often got drunk, and gunshots could be heard throughout the evening. The still nights of Ixtaro had ended. But why?

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LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Cartels across the country are fighting for the lucrative drug trafficking routes into the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: So the latest figures are around 39 dead. Now, this - as you said, this is an area right on the border of Michoacan.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: The average American now eats seven pounds of avocados a year. The demand has made a lot of farmers in Mexico rich, but it's also drawn the attention of organized crime.

CORPI: Avocados. The crop that brought money and abundance to Ixtaro had caught the eye of the narco group Los Viagras - yes, like the little blue pill. All narcos are after one thing - money, regardless of where it's coming from.

LINDA: (Speaking Spanish).

JORDAN: Linda explains that Los Viagras began charging avocado farmers a fee, one that could cost them their lives if they failed to pay. Extorting avocado farmers was Los Viagras' way into the industry and into new territory.

CORPI: Sadly, this is nothing new in Michoacan.

LINDA: (Speaking Spanish).

JORDAN: This only happens in movies, Linda thought to herself when news of violence in nearby towns began to build fear in Ixtaro.

CORPI: Many towns in Michoacan were invaded years before Ixtaro, when the infamous Mexican drug war began back in 2006. Peace died a long time ago in Michoacan.

JORDAN: And American guns are fueling this violence. You're listening to Caliber 60.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JORDAN: The size of avocados is measured by caliber, just like ammunition, and this story is about America's obsession with both. For decades, the U.S. and Mexico have been in constant negotiations over how to deal with migrants, drugs and guns moving across the border.

CECILIA FARFAN MENDEZ: One of the flows that has been widely identified is that while drugs flow north, money and weapons come south.

CORPI: That's Cecilia Farfan Mendez, a security expert at UC San Diego and co-founder of Mexico Violence, a think tank that researches violence trends in Mexico.

FARFAN MENDEZ: So increasingly, what we're seeing in Mexico is people being violently displaced from their communities from groups that are actually heavily armed.

CORPI: She adds that these displays of weapons help create a perception of power, building fear within the community, like this video released by one of the most powerful groups, Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Spanish).

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JORDAN: The video shows several dozen uniformed men armed with military-grade weapons, including 50-caliber sniper rifles, alongside a convoy of armored vehicles.

TIMOTHY SLOAN: When you go to the forensic lab where there's been up to 1,000 dead bodies - just bodies everywhere - right in the next room is the women and children looking for their disappeared. You know, you can smell them, for goodness sake.

JORDAN: That's Timothy Sloan, ATF's former attache in Mexico City. He's seen up close the deaths these weapons and drugs are causing.

SLOAN: Realistically, at least 80% of the firearms in Mexico come from the United States.

JORDAN: That's right. By tracing seized weapons found in shootings in Mexico, Sloan and his team were able to estimate that around 80% of all firearms in the country come from the United States.

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STEVE INSKEEP: In all of Mexico, there is only one legal gun store. Somehow, the country is still littered with high-powered weapons, mostly smuggled from the United States. Now the Mexican government is taking an unprecedented step, suing arms manufacturers in U.S. federal court.

CORPI: In 2021, the Mexican government sued 11 American gun manufacturers like Colt, Smith & Wesson and Beretta. Here's Alejandro Celorio, Mexico's lead attorney in the lawsuit.

ALEJANDRO CELORIO: The gun industry, the big manufacturers that we're suing, are on notice and are aware that their products are sold to cartels, to criminals. And they have done nothing to change this.

CORPI: This lawsuit seeks $10 billion for the negligence that has let millions of guns slip across the border, and we're not just talking about pistols.

CELORIO: Let's remember that in Mexico we have civilians committing crimes with military-style weapons, weapons that shouldn't be in the hands of civilians.

JORDAN: Celorio is right. In March 2022, the Mexican army seized a historic amount of high-powered weapons and ammunition, including 650-caliber weapons, 130 long guns and 3 million rounds of high-caliber ammunition. And as mentioned in the previous news clip, there's only one legal gun store in the country compared to the over 52,000 in the U.S.

CORPI: Celorio believes the Mexican government is doing the best they can to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.

CELORIO: The governments have been doing their job, but what about the corporations?

JORDAN: The lawsuit has been criticized for being politically motivated, but something needs to be done. More and more military-grade weapons are being found in crime scenes in Mexico. Now the concern isn't just how many, but how big?

CORPI: Viral videos from the 2023 capture of El Chapo's son Ovidio Guzman show narcos firing at military helicopters and airplanes with 50-caliber machine guns.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

JORDAN: In other words, these are civilians trying to shoot down Mexican military helicopters with U.S. military weapons. Violence keeps reaching new levels in Mexico.

CORPI: Left with no protection from authorities, grassroots groups sprout in Michoacan. And back in Ixtaro, that glimmer of hope was called Pueblos Unidos, or United Towns.

LINDA: (Speaking Spanish).

CORPI: Linda was excited that someone finally came to rescue them from the hold of the narco group Los Viagras. In 2020, the vigilante band of farmers, Pueblos Unidos, formed to defend their avocado crops from narco control.

IRENE ALVAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

JORDAN: Irene Alvarez, a sociologist and researcher from the Colegio in Mexico, explains that these self-defense groups emerged as a means to defend their territory. Self-defense groups like Pueblos Unidos not only fight with weapons, but with politics.

ALVAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CORPI: Small towns supported by self-defense groups suddenly had political leverage and the attention of local governments. For a community held hostage by narcos, this might be the only option.

JORDAN: Pueblos Unidos secretly approached Ixtaro, offering their help to fight off the narcos.

LINDA: (Speaking Spanish).

CORPI: Linda didn't want her children around weapons. But under the grip of narco control, Ixtaro had no choice but to join Pueblos Unidos.

JORDAN: A few months later, their true motivations came to light.

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DETROW: That was an excerpt from the first episode of the podcast Caliber 60, which is reported and produced by Stephania Corpi and Toya Sarno Jordan. It's a production of Texas Public Radio and supported by the Pulitzer Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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