Two abandoned plots of land stand out in the middle of vast fields of lemon and banana trees. Their owners preferred to leave when organized crime, omnipresent in Mexico, came to demand money from them.
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In Apatzingan, an agricultural municipality in the western state of Michoacan, like many others in the country, criminals impose a racket on producers that eventually trickles down to consumers.
The threat is such that shipments of lemons are escorted by police to different regions of the country, AFP noted. A situation which caused a surge in prices.
Despite an increase in national production and a slowdown in inflation to 4.44% in September, the price of lemons increased by 58.5% in one year, according to the Agricultural Markets Advisory Group (GCMA). In the capital Mexico, the price doubled in one month in August to reach nearly $4.5 per kilo.
“Prices have soared. I only buy the quantity I will need during the week, four or five pieces, no more,” explains Gabriela Jacobo, a 53-year-old housewife who lives in Morelia, the capital of Michoacan, two hours from Apatzingan road.
The sacrifice is enormous in a country where lemons are at the center of gastronomy.
“It’s not a question of supply,” but of extortion, assures Juan Carlos Anaya, analyst at GCMA.
As large as Costa Rica, Michoacan is ravaged by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), the main Mexican mafia, and criminal groups such as Los Viagras and La Familia Michoacana.
Producers must pay the equivalent of 11 cents for each kilo of lemons sold. The region produces up to 900 tonnes per day.
“Before, they would argue among themselves and let you work. Now it’s ‘I won’t even let you work’,” complains a producer from Apatzingan on condition of anonymity. “They put a price on everything,” he laments under the blazing sun between the lemon trees in his field.
The scourge extends to producers of tomatoes, bananas, mangoes and even avocados, as well as transporters and distributors.
According to official figures, extortion and theft cost the country’s businesses some $6.8 billion a year, or 0.67% of Mexico’s GDP.
In Chiapas in the south, where last weekend an unprecedented parade of Sinaloa cartel members took place to the cheers of locals, extortion and violence have caused food shortages.
“There is no electricity, no network (internet), no food, no water, no gas,” a resident told AFP.
The region is gripped by a war between the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG, which has closed dozens of businesses and forced residents to source supplies from neighboring Guatemala.
Cities like Chilpancingo, the capital of the southern state of Guerrero, have in the past faced closures in the poultry sector following the killing of breeders and traders who allegedly refused to be extorted.
Threats made last year against an American health inspector in Michoacan led to the temporary suspension of avocado exports to the United States, a very large consumer of guacamole, particularly during the Super Bowl.
To deal with these extortions, lemon producers like Hipolito Mora founded self-defense groups which, however, ended up being accused of links with criminal groups.
After the dissolution of his militia, Mr. Mora continued to vehemently denounce the narcos, before being shot dead in June.
“We are helpless in the face of the cartel in place. They charge us for everything: the basic food basket, drinks, beer, chicken. Everything is very expensive because of them,” complains Guadalupe Mora, Hipolito’s brother, surrounded by several bodyguards.
In an interview with AFP, prosecutor Rodrigo Gonzalez, head of a unit responsible for prosecuting organized crime in Michoacan, calls on “citizens to come forward” to denounce extortion. But many fear being subjected to the same fate as Hipolito Mora.
“We will last as long as God wants us to,” assures the fatalist producer hidden among his lemon trees.