For more than 10 years, Mexico’s lime industry has been controlled by various drug cartels. This fact was little known to the public until recently, when word got out that the cartels have retreated into hiding due to a successful uprising from civilian militias.
The Knights Templar (or los Templarios) have been the primary controller of the lime trade since they defeated the Zetas cartel several years ago in Tepalcatepec, Michoacan.
When it comes to lime production, cartel members control the price of the crop, as well as when and where farmers can sell it. They charged hefty protection fees and collected on a generous percentage of the farmers’ profits. Farmer Efrain Hernandez Vazquez told NPR that about 10% of his sales, or $2,000 per week, went to the Knights.
In many cases, when a farmer refused to cooperate his land was stolen. In even more cases, he was murdered.
Some civilians supported the Knights because they believed the cartel’s presence would protect Michoacan. But since their takeover, the Knights have been responsible for kidnappings, rapes, and murders of the state’s civilians. Cartel members have even been accused of kidnapping children for organ harvest.
In response, the civilians of Michoacan created vigilante “self-defense militias,” which have been fighting against the cartel since early 2013. In October of that year, hundreds of vigilantes marched unarmed into the main square of Apatzingán, which is considered “hot country” for Mexico’s lime and avocado trade. The citizens’ act of bravery was met with gunshots from cartel members, and they were forced to retreat.
In May 2013, President Enrique Peña Nieto deployed thousands of troops and federal police. But they too came up against violence and were overpowered.
The vigilante groups explained their case to local government and the forces were permitted to combine efforts. Militia members and police troops have worked together in clashes such as the one that took place in Nueva Italia in January, where hundreds of armed civilians seized a bastion that belonged to the cartel.
Numerous successful uprisings such as this one have led to the cartel’s retreat, as well as the arrests of several government officials, who have been charged on their participation in organized crime.
The United States Dept. of Agriculture reports that the price of limes is finally beginning to drop back to normal. Consumers are paying on average 30 cents per fruit, whereas a few months ago they were paying 90.
As for the lime farmers, they are rejoicing in a new-found independence from the violence and extortion of the cartel.