In recent years, criminal groups have been asking for ransom, seizing lands and destroying protected woodlands in the region of Uruapan, in the state of Michoacan, Mexico. This is related to the avocado production industry. Criminal groups became aware of the business profit, and now seek land for exploitation. Locals have protested. On one hand, they protest for the prevention of logging in protected areas. On the other hand, directly affected farmers have demanded action from the authorities, without much result.
Uruapan is one of the 113 municipalities of the state of Michoacán, with an area of 955km2. It has 300.000 inhabitants, of which 51% are poor . This is the only Mexican state allowed to sell avocado to the US. In the past decade, exports have grown four times, with revenues close to 2.9 billion USD in 2018 . In that context, farmlands were expanded by 200% in 2018 . Such phenomena can be associated with the increasing demand of avocado in the market. Between 2001 and 2018, annual US avocado consumption increased from 2 pounds per person to nearly 7.5 pounds .
Simultaneously, as the region thrived on avocado production, there was an increase in criminality and social unrest . In the year 2000, criminal groups started to set an eye on the state of Michoacan, and by 2006 such groups took control of the state and violence got out of hand. From that moment on, the Mexican government failed to manage crime and end violence in the region  . In 2014 there was a new peak in violence as the “Familia Michoacana” and “Los Caballeros Templarios” started to extort and steal from locals. These groups invaded orchards and dispossessed farmers from their lands in the towns of the mountain range. In response, civil groups started to organise as part of a government run rural police for self defence, but eventually turned to the bad side and incurred in illegal activity as well. Some of these new groups include “Los Viagras” and “Jalisco Nueva Generación”. Additionally, other actors such as entrepreneurs and politicians have been involved with those criminal groups, for instance, the president of the “Avocado Producers and Packers from Michoacán” .
Once land dispossession has been attained, these groups incur in specific and diverse practices. Sometimes, they force avocado pickers to work for long shifts without pay. On other occasions, they block pickers from working in order to create scarcity in supply and raise the profits of their own orchards. Another practice includes hijacking an average of 4 trucks loaded with avocado everyday . Eventually, the situation evolved from land grabs and extortion, and these groups also started logging. There is no official data on the deforestation related to avocado production. Yet, the Michoacán office of the National Forestry Research Institute (INIFAP) estimates 180.000 hectares. The director of the office claims that there are no means to measure the impact of such deforestation because no one is willing to finance research and damage the industry . Still, it is very well known that in 2019, more than a dozen criminal groups started to cut timber from protected woodlands to expand their own avocado growing operations . For instance, “Los Viagras” have seized control of forests near Uruapan City and implemented taxes on residents that owned avocado trees. Besides the local discomfort, this led to violent confrontations with their rivals the Jalisco Nueva Generación who wanted a share of the profit. This caused a violent encounter between both groups, resulting in a shooting that killed about 20 members of both parties .
Juan Manuel Madrigal Miranda, ecologist and founder of the NGO “Viva Natura”, currently known as the project “Ecocentro Cupatitzio”, has recorded the effects on the natural protected areas of the south of Uruapan. He told authorities and the press that the 30 hectare pine forest in the area of “Zumpimito" is severely threatened by organised crime and logging. Criminal groups planned to invade, burn, change the use of land, and grow avocados in that area. In response, he has been trying to stop their attempts to seize over the protected woodlands. Simultaneously, the president of the area of Zumpimito was notified by such groups that they were going to seize the land. Indeed, as expected, they took the land and logged 3 hectares of forest .
Along with Juan Manuel, locals complained to the criminals themselves against the logging of protected areas. In response, they have been violently threatened by the groups performing the action. Moreover, Juan Manuel took another step and complained with state authorities about the group´s takeover of the forest. As there was no response, he took his complaint to the state´s human rights commission and spoke with journalists . So far, Juan Manuel has been threatened with death on several occasions . After he took action, state police officers broke into his home and left a note to stay silent . Apparently, municipal and state authorities have known about the illegal logging in Uruapan for years. Even the Secretary of the Environment, Climate Change and Territorial Development (Semaccdet) has acknowledged the issue, and accepts that there are no actions to protect the land .
While the developments in the region of Uruapan are recent and foster a negative panorama for the environment, there are other cases in neighbouring regions with successful efforts to protect lands. Citizens reacted to violence and producers from the neighbouring municipality of “Tancitaro”, along with the local avocado trade association, armed their own civilian police force, guarded the entrance to the area and took over the municipality government . In fact, 3000 avocado producers from the surrounding area created an armed movement called “Pueblos Unidos” to defend themselves, and have been successful in getting rid of “Los Viagras” in some parts . Yet there is much to be seen on the advancement of these conflicts.