Mexican avocado producers are arming themselves to fend off cartels

Avocado farmers Tacambaro Michoacan Mexico
Farm workers carry freshly picked avocados to a truck at a farm in Tacambaro, in Michoacan state, June 7, 2017.

  • Avocado and blackberry producers in southwest Mexico have formed an armed group to keep out cartels.
  • Farmers and farmhands in Michoacán state were motivated to act by frequent kidnappings and extortion demands.
  • “It’s cheaper to buy a rifle than to pay extortion,” one member of the group said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Fed up with being besieged by criminal organizations, avocado and blackberry producers in Michoacán formed their own armed group that is successfully keeping cartel members out of four municipalities.

Some 3,000 farmers and farmhands from Salvador Escalante, Ario de Rosales, Nuevo Urecho and Taretán have taken up arms over the past eight months to defend themselves and their land from attacks by criminal organizations. A spate of kidnappings in the area and frequent demands for extortion money motivated them to act.

Now, according to a report by the newspaper Milenio, an armed private security force – “a parallel authority” – operates in the four neighboring municipalities, located approximately 100 kilometers southwest of Morelia.

“With high-powered weapons, they have shut off access to their communities for drug traffickers and hitmen, choosing who comes in and who doesn’t,” the report said.

Although the armed group – called Pueblos Unidos, or United Towns – has similarities to self-defense groups that have emerged in Michoacán and some other parts of Mexico in recent years, its members reject the autodefensas tag.

“We want to be very emphatic: we’re not autodefensas; we’re not a criminal group. Here in our lives, the only things we knew how to use were machetes. … Recently there has been the need to purchase some weapons, even though we’re afraid of not knowing how to use them correctly,” one of the men told Milenio.

Mexico Michoacan autodefensa self-defence force militia vigilante
Vigilantes (in white shirts) pass weapons into the cabin of a pick-up truck in Nueva Italia, Michoacan, January 14, 2014.

The Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and Los Viagras posed the main threat as both criminal groups have sought to establish themselves in the region in recent years and have engaged in a turf war with each other.

But with their 54 roadblocks across all four municipalities the avocado and blackberry producers have kept the criminal groups out. One roadblock on the road to La Huacana, a municipality controlled by the CJNG that neighbors Ario and Nuevo Urecho to the south, is manned night and day by up to 150 heavily armed men.

Among the Pueblos Unidos members are men who have been hired by avocado producers to bolster the ranks of the fledgling security force.

“It’s cheaper to buy a rifle than to pay extortion,” one member said, referring to payments demanded of avocado producers by criminal groups, including Los Viagaras, whose members were reportedly asking for a 50,000-peso (about US $2,500) per hectare “protection” fee.

In the eight months that it has been protecting the four Michoacán municipalities, the Pueblos Unidos group has achieved good results, members say. It has driven criminals out of the area, and homicides, kidnappings and extortion have all declined.

One commander of the armed group told Milenio that there is no longer any trace of Los Viagras in Los Ates, a community in Ario.

“We had to follow them [the criminals] wherever they were. We combed the hills, walking – something that the government hasn’t done. We came together in groups of 20 to 60 to comb the hills, and we frightened them away,” he said.

The commander said that he and the other members of Pueblos Unidos don’t want to live “on the margin of the law” but have no choice due to authorities’ inaction. If municipal, state and federal forces were able to guarantee their security, the farmers would return to full-time work on their land, he said.

If the authorities don’t do that, he said, the avocado and blackberry producers should be allowed to set up their own government in the region and be given permission to legally bear arms, as has occurred in some other parts of Michoacán.

“They should give us permission to defend ourselves,” the commander said. “We also don’t want to be disarmed, and we want to be respected. … They should do the work we’re doing, and maybe we’ll withdraw.”

Mexico Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador rally campaign
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, then a presidential candidate, at a campaign rally in Patzcuaro, Michoacan, May 31, 2018.

President López Obrador on Friday made his views clear about the formation of the armed group.

“My opinion is that … autodefensas shouldn’t exist, because the responsibility for security corresponds to the state. I’m not in favor of people arming themselves and forming groups to confront crime because that doesn’t yield results,” he said at his regular news conference.

The president also said that self-defense groups are used to hide or shelter criminals. He said “they disguise themselves as people fed up with violence.”

He called on Pueblo Unidos to trust authorities, including official security forces, claiming that they no longer collude with criminals, as occurred during past governments.

However, the federal government, which officially inaugurated a new security force – the National Guard – in 2019, was unable to reduce Mexico’s high levels of violent crime in its first two years in office, with homicide numbers reaching an all-time high of more than 34,000 in 2019 and decreasing just 0.4% last year.

López Obrador asserted Friday that his administration is now making progress in the fight against violence, a claim supported to some extent by data that shows that homicides fell 2.9% in the first five months of 2021.

“We’re advancing little by little but we’re making progress,” he said before acknowledging that the security situation had “broken down a lot.”

With reports from Milenio.

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Mexico still has the most violent cities in the world, but new hotspots are emerging

Mexico Guerrero homicide crime scene
People and soldiers at the scene of a homicide in Chilpancingo, in Mexico’s Guerrero state, November 15, 2017.

  • For the fourth consecutive year, Mexico has dominated a list of the most violent cities in the world.
  • But smaller towns have risen in the rankings, reflecting new hotspots where criminal groups are fighting for control.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

For the fourth consecutive year, Mexico has dominated a list of the most violent cities in the world but smaller towns have shot up the rankings, reflecting new hotspots where criminal groups are fighting for control.

The most violent place in the world in 2020 was Celaya, a city of around half a million people in the central state of Guanajuato, according to the report by a Mexican non-governmental organization, the Citizen Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice (Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y la Justicia Penal).

The Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) have been battling around Celaya over control of oil theft, drug trafficking and other criminal economies,

A few years ago, Celaya wasn’t even on the list. But since 2018, it has shot up more than thirty places, with 699 killings in 2020, or a homicide rate of over 109 per 100,000 habitants.

The situation is similar in nearby Irapuato, also in Guanajuato, which has gone from newcomer to fifth-most violent city in the world, with 823 homicides last year.

Located only a few hours away from Celaya and Irapuato, the city of Uruapan has climbed to eighth in the rankings, with a homicide rate over 72 per 100,000 habitants. It is the deadliest place in the state of Michoacán, which has seen regular clashes between the CJNG and about a dozen other criminal factions, all seeking control of key cocaine and fentanyl trafficking routes.

And the city of Zacatecas, in central Mexico, only appeared on the list in 2019 but broke into the top 15 most violent cities in 2020. This coincided with the CJNG invading 17 municipalities in Zacatecas state in April 2020, during the country’s first lockdown and clashing with the Sinaloa Cartel and other groups throughout the year.

Latin American and Caribbean cities made up the overwhelming majority of the list, claiming 46 of 50 spots. But notably, some of the most murderous cities of past years, such as Kingston, Jamaica or Caracas, Venezuela, have dropped below smaller Mexican newcomers.

InSight Crime analysis

Guadalajara Mexico crime scene homicide murder
Forensic technicians at the scene of a homicide on the outskirts of Guadalajara, Mexico, January 10, 2018.

Bloodshed in Mexico has reached such a level that continued outbreaks of violence in individual, medium-sized cities can register on a global scale, due to larger cartels with a national presence facing smaller but entrenched adversaries.

In August 2019, InSight Crime reported that Irapuato, an important industrial and trade center in central Mexico, had become an unfortunate model for similar cities in the country. At the time, clashes between the CJNG and the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel had already been raging since 2018.

Despite the arrest of Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel leader, José Antonio Yépez Ortiz, alias “El Marro,” in August 2020, shocking acts of violence have not stopped.

The fighting is brutal but fragmented, having broken down into neighborhood- and street-level feuds that appear endless.

With the fall of Yépez Ortiz, his group began to internally fracture, with smaller groups claiming pieces of the illicit oil economy, leading to additional violence at the same time that the government was executing a plan to militarize the area.

Uruapan tells a different story as the climb in homicides there has been more sudden. While located in the western state of Michoacán, which has consistently been a patchwork of rival clans, Uruapan saw violence spike in late 2019 when the CJNG moved in and faced off against Cárteles Unidos.

The latter is an alliance between members of Los Viagras and Cartel del Abuelo, two Michoacán-based groups, who have teamed up to defend their control of drug trafficking routes.

Similarly, Zacatecas had actually seen homicides drop by 9% in 2019 before they spiked again in 2020 after the CJNG moved in.

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