The avocado police: how Tancitaro, Mexico took the law into its own hands


When Mexican drug cartels threatened the countrys $1.5bn avocado export industry with extortion and murder, local farmers decided to fight back

Javier is finally starting to feel safe. A gruff 46-year-old avocado grower with a laugh like an idling Harley Davidson, Javier still remembers the gruesome reports of cartel gunmen kidnapping and killing a neighbours daughter, torching a local avocado packaging facility and murdering a pregnant schoolteacher. But the memories are starting to fade.

Tancitaro, the world capital of avocado production, has finally achieved a semblance of stability. It has been over two years since the last pitched battles between vigilante fighters and cartel gunmen on the outskirts. Families whose orchards were seized by cartel gunmen are now running their farms again. The government doesnt rule here. But its under control. You can relax, he says.

That security has come at a price. The heavy, ripe fruit in the latticework canopy above his head is part of an crop that earned Mexico more than $1.5bn (1.2bn) in exports in 2016. On average, Tancitaro now ships out more than a million dollars worth of avocado every day. But Michoacan state has been riven by a conflict between rival criminal groups, who have financed their battles and supplemented their drug-smuggling income by extorting local business owners and kidnapping (and often killing) landowners for ransom. As instability and criminality has engulfed Michoacan, official statistics count 8,258 murders between 2006-2015.

So, in 2013, Tancitaros avocado growers decided to organise.

A Federal Police truck parked across from a shipment of avocados. Theres no mistaking that Tancitaro is a city based around the avocado sector. Photograph: Nathaniel Parish Flannery

Inspired by Mexicos now-well known vigilante movement led by controversial civilian autodefensa militia leaders such as El Americano, Papa Smurf, and Dr Jose Manuel Mireles, some of whom were featured in the documentary Cartel Land the farmers in Tancitaro created an all-volunteer defence force.

Wearing jeans and baggy T-shirts and cradling heavy assault rifles, this citizen police now guard checkpoints near the entrance to the town.

We cooperated to buy guns and build barricades, says Javier, who asked that his last name not be used for reasons of security. The fleteros, people who sell avocados, brought back guns hidden in their trucks. They were old guns, M1s, high-caliber R15s, Cuernos de chivo (AK-47s), M14s. But people had sticks, too.

The initial checkpoints were made from rocks and sandbags, but they have since been upgraded to medieval-style stone and cement fortresses, seemingly bomb-proof structures fitted with narrow, angled windows like archers roosts. The forts and heavily armed guards are an intimidating sight as you enter the city. Javier, however, focuses on the results.

As a community theyve achieved a manner of security, he adds.

However, while the citizen police did indeed help provide a basic level of defence, the avocado growers in Tancitaro also knew they had to be capable of fighting off armed cartels. Caravans of up to 80 commandos were attacking police and city officials in nearby towns.

Tancitaro needed to prepare for a military-style assault.

A CUSEPT officer in Tancitaro in a bulletproof truck, part of what is likely the best armed municipal police force in the world for a city of this size. Photograph: Nathaniel Parish Flannery

Visually, theres no mistaking that Tancitaro is a city based around the avocado sector. Long-haul trucks are parked along the roads, and storefront after storefront display hand-written signs: We Buy Avocado. Leave the centre of town, with its cluster of businesses made out of cinder blocks and sheets of corrugated steel, and neat rows of avocado trees extend across the valley.

Hugo Sanchez, a broad-shouldered 26-year-old former soldier, is on patrol in his GMC Denali truck, which is fitted with a custom-made machine gunners roost in the back. The windows are made of inch-and-half thick shatterproof glass. This truck is bullet proof. When theres a report, we go out in bulletproof trucks. We have four, he says.

Even Mexicos Federal Police patrols dont all use armoured trucks. In one incident in 2010 in the nearby town of Alcalde, cartel gunmen assaulted a convoy of Federal Police trucks, killing 10 officers.

But Sanchez does not work for the Federal Police. He works for the Tancitaro Public Security Force (abbreviated in Spanish as CUSEPT), funded by the avocado growers association to patrol the area.

As the truck eases down one of Tancitaros narrow roads it passes hundred-year-old mud-brick houses, as well as a few old log cabins built in a style first introduced a century ago by Italian immigrants. Most of the newest constructions are concrete, but theres a sparkling white luxury hotel, which sits empty, and a few replicas of US-style suburban homes, built by returning migrant workers.

[Now] theres more peace, more construction, more development, Sanchez says. Thats the benefit of security.

Civilian gunmen in Tancitaro. Photograph: Nathaniel Parish Flannery

Most of Sanchezs officers were affected directly during the worst years of cartel violence. One of his patrolmen was car-jacked and then kidnapped. Another officer quit as an avocado packer after two of his uncles were killed.

Sanchez says CUSEPT plays a preventative role and works in collaboration with the civilian gunmen. He nods at one as we pass: an old man, gripping a long-barrelled assault rifle, in front of one of the towns new stone fortresses. There are local [civilian] police guarding checkpoints, Sanchez says. Every day, different groups of volunteers show up to take turns watching the vehicles coming in and going out. The autodefensas are very well organised to keep doing the work theyre doing.

They are also a militia force, and carry high-powered weapons that are illegal under Mexican law.

But while Tancitaro ostensibly follows the rule of law, and has a mayor, the most powerful entity in the city is the Local Council, the avocado growers association. The Council inspects standards on export farms, hosts clinics to educate farmers of best practices, and aims to protect the reputation of Michoacan avocados. Faced with the damage the cartels were doing to that reputation (and to the safety of the farmers), the Council took the highly unusual step of creating and training CUSEPT as an elite physical security force.

We work for the Council, Sanchez says explicitly.

The avocado industry in Tancitaro has always followed its own path from the state and federal governments. In the 1960s and 1970s, growers such as Javiers father travelled to Israel to learn about avocados, and started cultivating trees as a higher-profit alternative to corn and beans. Quickly realising the need for standardised rules for production, storing, and packaging, they developed their own local institutions to ensure quality, and built their own meticulously managed, mechanised packaging factories, inviting in inspectors from the US Department of Agriculture. The entire process from when the avocados first sprout in the orchards until they are packed into refrigerated long-haul trucks and sent to the border is regulated with an almost military discipline. When Michoacans security dynamic fell apart starting in 2006, the growers association realised they needed not just to manage the farms but the city itself. And so the avocado police were born.

The see themselves as a mobile, tactical, paramilitary force. [We learned] all the things to become an elite group, Sanchez says, saying that they are focused on fighting armed groups, urban combat everything that Special Forces do.

CUSEPT paramilitary municipal police on patrol in Tancitaro. Photograph: Nathaniel Parish Flannery

Contrast that to the citizen police, who tend to wear hip-hop T-shirts under their flak jackets, and tie bits of yellow caution tape to the barrels of their guns to identify themselves when they return to town in their trucks. Guards at checkpoints check incoming vehicles to determine whether a group of gunmen are local residents or a potential threat.

Some locals whisper that a few of the towns wealthiest residents might be allied with criminal groups or helping to launder money for drug smugglers. And it remains unclear whether any of the citizen gunmen are affiliated with organised crime or involved in drug smuggling.

But while Mexico has strict laws banning civilians from carrying military weapons, and the governor of Michoacan passed a law explicitly banning armed civilian police, the federal government has shown little interest in disrupting Michoacans billion-dollar-a-year avocado export industry by demanding that the civilian guards disarm. Prosecutors from Mexico City have made no attempt to investigate and arrest avocado lords with ties to cartels.

Nor do the civilian gunmen in Tancitaro have any plans to stand down. They say that when the state and federal government can guarantee their towns security, theyll put down their weapons.

For now, Sanchez thinks the civilian gunmen are beneficial.

It was down to zero kidnappings in 2015. Five, six years ago you heard a lot about that type of situation, he says.

He is not alone. Violence in Mexico is back to historical highs, which some people feel makes the privately funded police force in Tancitaro a necessary evil. With Mexicos federal government now preoccupied with handling the Trump administration in the US, police reform has fallen out of favour, and the security dynamic has deteriorated in many cities.

Indeed, for all intents and purposes Tancitaro has reverted to a feudal society little different from medieval Europe or colonial Mexicos hacienda economy. The avocado farmers are like landed vassals: the backbone of the local economy. The head of the growers association is Tancitaros baron: the chief authority of town politics, business and security. The CUSEPT force are the professional knights who can fight off warriors from neighbouring kingdoms. The civilian police are the low-level landless peasants, the peons who form the first line of defence against intruders.

Vassals like Javier, meanwhile, just focus on their family business and enjoy the basic level of security CUSEPT and the civilian police provide. A few years ago, he cloistered his kids behind his garden walls, even building them a basketball court so they wouldnt have to venture outside to play. Now he lets them go out alone to practice soccer in the park by the army base or buy greasy carnitas tacos from the food market up the road.

Its delicate. Up until now [the civilian police] has been seen as a triumph by the people. But its a fragile solution, he says. Were [stuck] between the government and organised crime. Its not a permanent solution.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/may/18/avocado-police-tancitaro-mexico-law-drug-cartels

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