(UPDATED, Nov. 2) Mexican avocado farmers became a target of organized crime in the 1990s when the industry was just beginning to experience booming growth, an investigation by Mexico’s attorney general said.

According to an Oct. 30 story published on Newsweek.com, the investigation found Mexican drug cartels used government databases to find, extort and sometimes kidnap avocado farmers.

Newsweek, citing reporting by Mexican daily Reforma, said government investigators found that organized crime groups in the 1990s illegally used agriculture ministry records to target avocado farmers and coerce them into giving them a portion of avocado earnings or face the risk of kidnapping.

Newsweek reported that Mexican authorities estimate that Knights Templar — a criminal group — still make millions through the extortion of avocado producers.

The story said that since 2013, local militias have driven out criminal elements in many parts of Michoacan, but there are still ample reports that growers still have to deal with the threat of extortion and violence.

The personal security industry in Mexico has adapted well in response to the increased presence of criminal activity, said Aaron Acosta, corporate relationship manager at Pharr, Texas-based Villita Avocados. For growers in Mexico, accounting for personal security has become an ancillary business to their growing operation, he said.

Travel from the U.S. to growing areas is generally limited to only when absolutely necessary, he said.

Ron Campbell, executive director of the Mexican Hass Avocado Importers Association, said Oct. 31 that the recent news coverage of drug cartels’ attempts to squeeze the avocado industry is quite dated. Many criminals mentioned in the reports either dead or in jail, he said.

The war on drugs touches every aspect of society in Mexico, Campbell said, and the avocado industry represents a solid alternative to the criminal culture. The avocado industry represents 75,000 direct jobs and 300,000 indirect jobs, he said.

“It is directly against the (drug trade) and creates an alternative when there wasn’t any before.” 

With 21,000 avocado growers and 49 avocado packinghouses, Campbell said the Mexican avocado industry is one of the few “extremely strong institutions” that creates a compelling alternative to criminal activity.