With successful, high dollar drug busts engineered by the Coast Guard and border cops on the rise, the feared Mexican Mafia have sought to recover some of their losses by bullying farmers for fees to export their crops. And there’s nothing more lucrative than “green gold,” a popular reference describing Mexico’s avocado industry.

American avocado consumption has increased four-fold in the last ten years, largely due to guacamole, a popular side dish used to complement Mexican cuisine, by far the top ethnic food eaten here in the States. As a result, Mexico has become the world’s largest exporter of avocados, a multi-billion dollar industry. The cartels have paid close attention, and have been anxious to get a piece of the action. What’s difficult for growers is that most of the avocado orchards are located in a single geographical area, the soil rich but troubled state of Michoacan, long known for its homegrown syndicates like Knights Templar and larger splintered groups all jockeying for key turf leading to the port city of Lazaro Cardenas. What’s more, the notoriously ruthless Jalisco-based Nueva Generacion, headed by most wanted drug lord Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera, also decided they wanted to grab a bite of the enchilada.

“They want to charge us a fee twice a year,” said a grower who didn’t want to give his name out of fear for his safety. “If we refuse, they kidnap our people, steal our vehicles and rape our women.”

The fee of 50,000 pesos (about $2,500) take a big chunk out of profits and with zero protection given by state and federal authorities, growers decided to take things into their own hands. They formed “Pueblos Unidos,” which currently has about 5,000 members, to combat the cartels, and it’s working.

“We discovered that buying guns to protect our family and our land was cheaper than paying the cartels,” said a group member who also asked that his name be withheld. “No more extortion, no more violence. We’ve cleaned the area.”

Pueblos Unidos is not a new concept. Vigilante groups have fought the cartels in Michoacan for years. Former President Enrique Peña Nieto even encouraged it, rather than deploy the Mexican army in a semi-permanent situation. But without offering any government support, the republic’s current leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is not a fan of Pueblos Unidos.

“Self defense groups shouldn’t exist because the security function belongs to the state,” notes AMLO, although the cartels, especially Nueva Generacion, outnumber and are better armed than state law enforcement. “I don’t support people taking arms to fight crime, because it doesn’t have good results and sometimes criminals infiltrate in those groups.”

Growers disagree with that initial statement, and say they know their own residents personally. That said, most won’t reveal their identities and wear ski masks in public, which would indicate that they fear government arrest as much as they do the cartels. The state police do not support Pueblos Unidos, nor does the marketing group, “Avocados From Mexico.” But Mexican security analyst David Saucedo has a different take.

“The existence of these groups (like Pueblos Unidos) speaks about the failure of the state (Michoacan) of having control of its territory, and providing the population with a basic function like security,” says Saucedo.

That is a problem which must be addressed by Lopez Obrador, who has taken a passive, peace and love approach with the cartels at the expense of the citizens he represents. Mr. President, the cartels are anything but peaceful.

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Esteban "Steve" Randel is a veteran journalist specializing in current events, sports, politics and Hispanic cuisine. He is the former publisher of "The Latin Athlete" and a longtime activist in the SoCal Hispanic community.

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