Mexico has acknowledged that the United States government has halted all imports of Mexican avocados as a result of a threat received by a United States plant safety inspector in Mexico.
The unexpected, temporary suspension was confirmed late Saturday night on the eve of the Super Bowl, which represents the biggest sales opportunity of the year for Mexican avocado growers — though it would have no impact on game-day consumption because the avocados had already been shipped out of the country.
Exports of avocados have become the latest casualty of drug cartel turf battles and extortion of avocado growers in the western state of Michoacan, which is the only state in Mexico that has been granted full export authorization to the United States market.
Mexico’s Agriculture Department said in a statement that the United States has suspended all imports of Mexican avocados “until further notice” after a threatening message was sent to a U.S. plant safety inspector in Mexico.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, health officials in the United States took the decision after one of their officials, who was conducting inspections in Uruapan, Michoacan, received a threatening message on his official cellphone.
The import ban was announced on the same day that the Mexican Avocado Growers and Packers Association unveiled its Super Bowl advertisement for this year’s game. For nearly a decade, Mexican exporters have spent a lot of money on expensive advertisements in order to establish guacamole as a Super Bowl tradition.
It appears as though Julius Caesar and a rough group of gladiator fans are sitting outside what appears to be the Colosseum, guacamole, and avocados in hand, attempting to soothe their apparent violent differences by eating them.
In response to a request for comment on the ban, which affects an industry that generates nearly $3 billion in annual exports, the association did not immediately respond. Avocados for this year’s Super Bowl, on the other hand, had already been exported in the weeks leading up to the event.
The United States Embassy in Mexico stated that “facilitating the export of Mexican avocados to the United States and ensuring the safety of our agricultural inspection personnel go hand in hand,” according to the embassy.
As the embassy noted on its social media accounts, “we are working with the government of Mexico to ensure that security conditions are met that will allow our personnel in Michoacan to resume operations.”
Because avocados are grown in the United States as well, inspectors from the United States travel to Mexico to ensure that exported avocados do not contain diseases that could harm U.S. crops.
However, it was only in 1997 that the United States lifted a ban on Mexican avocados, which had been in place since 1914 in order to prevent a variety of pest weevils, fungi, and other pests from entering American avocado orchards.
The inspectors work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services.
It is not the first time that the violence in Michoacan — where the Jalisco cartel is battling territory wars against a coalition of local gangs known as the United Cartels — has affected avocados, the state’s most lucrative crop.
After a prior incident in 2019, the USDA had warned about the probable consequences of striking or intimidating U.S. inspectors.
In August 2019, a U.S. Department of Agriculture team of inspectors was “directly threatened” in Ziracuaretiro, a community just west of Uruapan. While the agency didn’t clarify what transpired, local authorities said a group robbed the truck the inspectors were driving in at gunpoint.
The USDA noted in a letter at the time that, “For future instances that result in a security breach, or reveal an impending physical threat to the well-being of APHIS workers, we will promptly cease program activity.”
Many avocado growers in Michoacan say drug gangs threaten them or their family members with kidnapping or death unless they pay protection money, often reaching to thousands of dollars per acre.
On September 30, 2020, a Mexican employee of APHIS was slain near the northern border city of Tijuana.
Mexican officials claim Edgar Flores Santos was assassinated by drug traffickers who may have mistaken him for a policeman and the suspect was apprehended. The U.S. State Department stated investigations “concluded this sad incident was a matter of Mr. Flores being in the wrong location at the wrong time.”
The avocado embargo is just the latest threat to Mexico’s export commerce arising from the government’s inability to rein in criminal activity.
On Thursday, the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office filed an environmental complaint against Mexico for failing to stop unlawful fishing to conserve the critically endangered vaquita marina, the world’s smallest porpoise.
The office said it has called for “environment consultations” with Mexico, the first such case it has filed under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada free trade treaty. Consultations are the initial phase in the dispute settlement procedure under the trade agreement, which came into force in 2020. If not resolved, it could eventually lead to trade sanctions.
Mexico’s government has essentially abandoned efforts to enforce a fishing-free zone around an area in the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez, where the last few vaquitas are believed to be living. Vaquitas are drowned by nets that were placed illegally for another fish, the totoaba.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced on Monday that Mexican fishing boats in the Gulf of Mexico were “prohibited from entering U.S. ports, will be denied port access, and will be denied port services,” in response to years of illegal red snapper poaching by Mexican boats in U.S. waters off the coast of Florida and Louisiana.