A few weeks ago I was scouring the Brunnenmarkt for limes for a Sriracha noodle recipe I was experimenting with, but noticed something rather peculiar: despite my exhaustive efforts, I turned up nothing. There were lemons, grapefruits, every variety of oranges and numerous other citrus fruits I couldn’t identify – but not a single lime. I finally caved and went to Billa, where I couldn’t justify the price for something as simple as the spritz for my noodles. It was odd, especially thinking back to recent encounters with several tequila shots that were served with oranges.
Later that week, I stumbled across an article in The Kitchn that alluded to high prices of limes and the potential involvement of Mexican drug cartels. After a bit of poking around, I discovered that recent developments in the Mexican criminal underworld have given rise to regional mafias who are putting the squeeze on the local lime industry – driving up prices and decimating exports.
A significant percentage of limes are grown in southern Mexico, in the states of Michoacán, Guerrero and Veracruz, and in recent years, they have been subject to adverse weather and a fungal outbreak — causing crop yields to plummet. However, this season, they have maintained relatively steady production in the state of Michoacán, which has been spared most of the disease and bad weather, according to National Public Radio.
The intermittent dips in production have caused lime prices to spike several times within the past few years, which generally led to increased returns for the remaining lime growers and shippers. However, in Michoacán, the increase in lime prices has incentivized regional organized criminal groups to extort money from growers and shippers hoping to capitalize on the swelling profit margins.
Michoacán is the primary operating territory of the Mexican criminal group, the Knights Templar, a splinter group of La Familia Michoacána, which was dismantled in 2011, according to PBS. Other local groups include Los Rojos, an offshoot of the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO), and the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (CJNG). According to InSight Crime, there has been a recent uptick in violence in neighboring Guerrero as a result of the decline of the BLO, as regional groups struggle for dominance in the yawning power gap.
There is, however, an intricate connection between these groups and the recent flurry of Internet forums and newspaper queries on the lime shortage with titles like “The lime panic of 2014” and “Mexican restaurants in U.S. squeezed by surging lime prices.” While bartenders in Manhattan, to restaurant managers Vienna conjectured about trends in black market for “green gold” and were forced to cut lime juice like cocaine, there was something much more serious at work.
At present, there is a protection racket operating in the Mexican lime industry that is surprisingly formal and organized. In fact, crime in the region is so formalized that one shipper told the Christian Science Monitor that the criminal groups are issuing receipts for trucks that pay the local gang for safe passage. This isn’t necessarily a unique phenomenon, however, as rackets control tons of markets, including everything from jewelry to antiques and textiles.
However, the situation in Mexico is distinct because these groups feed off the relative weakness of the Mexican government in the region. Although the groups in Middle and South America are generally referred to as drug cartels, the term “cartel” is a bit of a misnomer. These organized criminal groups are in direct opposition to one another and are interested in pushing out their competitors to develop a monopoly on the drug market, instead of cooperating as in a cartel. In this context, it is more useful to evaluate these groups from the standpoint of protection rackets or mafias.
It’s common knowledge that whenever there is prohibition of a good with a high demand, e.g. the US in the 1920s, it is likely that some kind of bootlegging or organized criminal network will emerge. In the case of Mexico, the prohibition of cocaine, heroin and marijuana (and subsequent high demand in the US) has led to the emergence of organized criminal networks that operate to fill this demand. However, with respect to the lime growers, these networks have begun operating extortion rackets, which makes them mafias and places them squarely in another market: the market for protection.
Mafia scholar, Diego Gambetta, and author of the seminal The Sicilian Mafia, writes that it is at this point when a group comes into conflict with the state. As protection racketeers, they are essentially challenging the state’s monopoly on force. But according to CSM, not only were local groups running protection rackets, they were imposing specific demands on the farmers including determining where they could sell their crops and at what prices. This is yet another feature of a mafia, organization, which also seek to control the market that they protect. These local groups reinforce their power through gruesome murders and these graphic demonstrations show that these groups have the power to execute people at will, and directly oppose the local government.
Ultimately, it hasn’t been just the limes that have fallen victim to Mexico’s drug war. Since former President Phillipe Calderón embarked on the war in December 2006, more than 60,000 people have been killed, according to Human Rights Watch, fuelled largely by weapons shipped illegally from the US, who obtains 90 percent of its cocaine from Mexico. This drug market is immense. According to the US Department of Homeland Security, Mexican drug cartels make between $19 and $29 billion annually, accounting for a major part of the US drug market that hovers around an estimated $60 billion per year.
The Mexican state has made gains in recent months. Last March, Mexican authorities claim to have taken out the leader of La Familia Michoacán, “El Mas Loco” or “The Craziest One.” However, there is some dispute as to this report’s authenticity because they also claimed to have killed him in 2010. However, these gains are consistently undermined by power struggles as regional groups struggle for political and economic control. Ultimately, the Arizona Department of Agriculture has stated that due to their pervasiveness and integration with the legitimate enterprise, one can no longer confirm exactly where Mexican limes come from, nor can they assure that they have not been subject to the rackets of Mexican mafias.
We may hesitate before paying an extra few euros for our mojito or a margarita, but rarely does one consider that something as subtle as a minor price hike could be rooted in something so complex and sinister, especially given the fact that something as innocent as a lime may have been obtained at the expense of another human being.