AGUACATE SUR, Mexico — Avocados may be the key ingredient in one of America’s favorite snacks, but here in this rural region of Michoacan, the fruit serves a greater purpose than making guacamole. Avocados help keep a town safe from the violence that is plaguing so much of Mexico.
The financial rewards that have come from producing 80 percent of the avocados imported to the U.S. have led to a citizen council and police force made up mostly of avocado farmers taking back the town of Tancitaro from violent criminals over the past four years.
It’s simple, said Jose Antonio Flores Quezada, 29, a farmer turned policeman: “The more Americans eat guacamole, the better off we are. Avocados are our livelihood.”
Aguacate Sur is a small village within Tancitaro, which spends an estimated $1.2 million annually to fund a quasi-police force known as CUSEPT, a Spanish acronym for Public Security Corps. About half of the council’s funding comes from powerful avocado producers in Tancitaro.
Before the citizens council and CUSEPT existed, ruthless organizations such as Jalisco Generation, New Cartel, Knights Templar and La Familia kidnapped, extorted and killed locals, using profits from avocado farmers to finance their criminal enterprises.
The criminal groups had an “intelligence system” that targeted wealthy avocado farmers, according to an investigation by the newspaper Reforma and Insight Crime, a nonprofit journalism investigation organization. The criminals used information from Mexico’s now-defunct agriculture secretariat to identify targets to extort.
“These criminals ruled through fear,” explained Jose Hugo Sanchez Mendoza, the head of CUSEPT. “If they wanted to scare people, they’d kill and say this is what happens if you don’t obey. We were a town at the whim of those with guns and without mercy.”
More than 29,000 homicides were recorded last year throughout Mexico, according to preliminary data from Mexico’s Interior Ministry. That’s the country’s highest total since the government began compiling official statistics in 1997.
Many towns in a state that’s on the State Department’s highest travel advisory warning have their own civilian self-defense groups. Tancitaro has its own special police force.
Tancitaro’s unusual experiment, which began nearly four years ago, offers a lesson for other regions across the country that are battling crime and violence, said Mayor Arturo Olivera Gutierrez.
“We can’t do this alone,” said Olivera. “I don’t think there’s any place in Mexico that’s safe without civic participation.”
The citizens council’s role has raised fears among some that authoritarian rule is replacing democratic institutions.
“You cannot have security if there is not a culture of citizen participation,” Olivera said, explaining that police enforce state laws. “We also cannot do this in an arbitrary or authoritarian manner. We must work hand-in-hand with the institutions, the laws on the books, whether state or federal, but our citizens must be at the forefront.”
Most Tancitaro residents are connected to the avocado business. In the two months before the Super Bowl, a peak time for guacamole consumption, production at Frutas Finas, one of the biggest manufacturers, soared by 50 percent, said plant manager Hugo Naranjo.
“This is our moment,” Naranjo said. “We’re sending only the best avocados.”
About $1 million worth of avocados is exported daily from this region to keep up with U.S. demand. Per capita consumption in the U.S. stands about 7 pounds per person, up from 4 in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With demand from China soaring, the prickly fruit is expanding its global reach.
The perfect guacamole depends on finding a delicate mix of cilantro, salsa, lime, tomatoes and onions, combined with the right mix of avocados. Keeping Tancitaro and its surrounding communities safe, rich in natural resources, requires a similar balance.
The 80-officer police force relies on 16 volunteer crews of eight or nine men and women who take a 24-hour shift every two weeks. The vast majority of the residents have weapons, though hidden.
Both the volunteers and the police officers are mostly men and women in their 20s and 30s. All are natives of the region with clean records. They are “vetted by the council and have the right profile,” Sanchez said.
“It’s difficult to fool people you know and who know you,” explained Sanchez, who just turned down a job as a state cop because he feared his community wouldn’t forgive him. “Every day we must go out in the community and win their trust. That’s something criminal groups are good at. That’s how this works, building trust, communication between police and the community.”
Flores Quezada shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head when asked about the temporary fix. He confesses he never thought of being a cop and misses being out in the avocado fields with his family, especially his father. He misses the dew of the plants, the ripening of the fruit in his hands. But he cringes when he thinks of the extortions, the killings of friends. His only hope is Americans won’t tire of avocados anytime soon.