The Violent Roads of Mexico
|Kent Paterson||March 12th 2014|
The tangy lime is essential to Mexican cuisine. An ingredient of flavored water, the fruit is also squeezed into soups, dabbed on fish, sprinkled on tacos al pastor and utilized in countless other recipes. A cold Corona or Tecate, or a shot of tequila, without a dash of lime is almost like a root beer float minus its foamy head. Lime is the juicy salt of the Mexican diet.
It’s no small wonder, then, that Mexicans are gasping in disbelief at the astronomical cost of limes. In recent weeks, the retail cost of the product has gone through the roof, jumping by 800 percent or more in some regions of the country. An item that once sold for 7 or 8 pesos per kilo now fetches a record 64 pesos a kilo in the state of Tabasco and even as much as 80 pesos in parts of Mexico City.
In the northern border state of Tamaulipas, where more than 12,000 acres of lime produce an estimated 20,000 tons of produce every year for a mainly export market, the retail kilo cost stands at 60 pesos for limes shipped in from other parts of Mexico.
Nowadays, restaurant diners might notice less limes on their plate, or the substitution of the favored small limes with the bigger, less tasty ones. In 2014, lime is treated practically like gold.
What is behind the price spike? The answers vary, depending on the source. But considered as a whole, the convergence of different climate, market structure and public security forces could well be whipping up the perfect lime storm.
Widespread reports blame the lime crisis on the law-and-order melt-down in the state of Michoacan, which is one of the country’s largest lime producers with more than 75,000 acres of the crop.
According to accounts dating back to last year, higher lime prices were connected to the practice of the Knights Templar cartel in not only forcing lime growers to pay a protection fee, but in regulating the quantity of production and the timing of the harvest.
Writing last summer, analyst Ilan Semo noted that lime prices set off alarm bells in international financial circles of over heating inflation in Mexico, with messages to that effect conveyed to the Bank of Mexico and the Pena Nieto administration. As a result, Semo speculated that a pact had been reached with the underworld after an initial federal security thrust into Michoacan, temporarily lowering prices.
The squeeze on lime producers-and spiraling prices-commenced after the 2011 election of Michoacan Governor Fausto Vallejo, Semo wrote.
Most recently, reports have circulated that the civilian self-defense groups which arose to expel the Knights Templar from Michoacan have begun collecting a tax from lime growers to fund their own security operations.
Alfonso Arenaza Cortes, economist for the Caseem firm of Ciudad Juarez, attributed a February price surge to difficulties in bringing in the Michoacan harvest precisely because of insecurity, as well as the loss of crops in other states due to inclement weather.
Mexican government officials deny that the Michoacan crisis is the cause of lime inflation.
Instead, officials from a host of agencies place the blame on lingering crop damage from last year’s hurricanes Ingrid and Manuel, subsequent bouts of bad weather and the HLB pest infestation, popularly known as the yellow dragon disease, an ailment which saps lime trees of their productive capacity before death settles in.
The yellow dragon disease has been a particular problem in Colima, a state neighboring Michoacan that is also known as a hotbed of organized crime. In 2013, Texas state and federal agricultural authorities quarantined a property in Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley after discovering the presence of the yellow dragon disease, which is often referred to as citrus greening in the United States.
Ernesto de Lucas Palacios, Aguascalientes state delegate for the federal Secretariat of Agriculture and Livestock, defined yellow dragon as a viral disease spread by insects.
Mexico’s National Sanitary, Quarantine and Agro-Food Quality Service considers the yellow dragon menace as the “most destructive disease” in the global citrus industry. According to the government agency, the outbreak jeopardizes more than 1,000,000 acres of Mexican citrus crops in 23 states.
Lorena Martinez, head of the Federal Attorney General for Consumer Protection (Profeco), pointed the finger at as combination of adverse weather and plant disease. Martinez, however, acknowledged that highway robberies of lime shipments had affected the production and marketing of the coveted crop.
To counter price gouging, Profeco launched a verification campaign this month. Although the federal agency has no power to set or curtail prices, Profeco announced that it had temporarily suspended the operations of 14 business establishments in Mexico City for not posting lime prices or documenting the reason for the increased costs, as stipulated by federal consumer law.
In a volatile market such as the current one for limes, structural forces come into play.
Like other Mexican agricultural products, limes are transported to market by middlemen, or “coyotes,” who profit from controlling purchases and deliveries, which in turn are becoming more costly because of the monthly fuel price increases mandated by the federal government.
>From the farmer to the consumer, limes pass through the hands of racket collectors, transporters, wholesalers, retailers, processors, and even hijackers.
With limes commanding sky high prices, the fruit is now an attractive target for highwaymen.
In some instances, criminals are reportedly going straight to the source. Jorge Lara Plaisant, Tabasco lime producer, said orchard heists by lime thieves have upped the prices for the zesty product. In response to the thefts, Lara said local lime producers have organized their own self-defense force, deploying patrols to guard their crops.
Profeco’s Lorena Martinez predicted that lime prices would drop sharply by the end of the month. In the meantime, she said, consumers could switch from limes to other citrus fruit like oranges.
Kent Paterson edits Frontera NorteSur, a news service provided by New Mexico State University.