The contemporary boom of global avocado consumption has drawn attention to Mexico’s industry and the expanding criminal networks that surround it. In fact, avocado production and exports – both to the United States and the European Union − display worrying signs of criminal organizations being involved in the market, human rights violations, and environmental and health impacts.

Yet, contrary to studies that have tended to present organized crime as a barrier to business, our policy report shows that the industry has grown despite, or parallel to, rising levels of violence and criminal networks.

Focusing on the state of Michoacán, the world’s n°1 producer of avocado, “Violent and vibrant” shows how international demand and organized crime groups have shaped a multi-billion-dollar industry in which politico-criminal relations continue to play a crucial role.

While the European Union and Mexico are in the final rounds of negotiations towards the “modernization” of the EU-Mexico Trade Agreement (Global Agreement) our objective is to understand the dynamics of violence that accompanied the avocado boom, including organized crime activities, human rights violations, environmental crime and harm, and the potential impact of further liberalizing trade between Mexico and the EU.

Over the past decades, the Mexican avocado market’s exponential growth has been accompanied by rising levels of violence. Between 1994, the first year that the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed, and 2021, avocado production increased by 213% and value increased by 7071% in a market that had included the European Union since 2000, when the first EU−Mexico Economic Partnership, Political Coordination and Cooperation Agreement (Global Agreement) came into force. In the meantime, between 2005 and 2015, homicides fluctuated between 17 and 24 per 100 000 people per year in Michoacán. Then, between 2016 and 2021, as the production value of avocados exploded, homicides increased as well, reaching 54 homicides per 100 000 people (2 628 in total).

Increased international demand led to an expansion of land dedicated to avocado production, to the detriment of forest cover, resulting in deforestation and the subsequent degradation of soil, water, and biodiversity. According to the Mexican National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR), between 2001 and 2018, gross deforestation occurred on 269 676 hectares (ha) in Michoacán (14 982 ha per year), of which 70.69% were transformed into grasslands and 28.16% into cropland. Moreover, official sources state that 80% of the avocado orchards in Michoacán were established illegally, initially through unauthorized land use that was then turned into legal parcels thanks to corruption of public authorities. The substitution of forests for orchards is also associated with a reduction of fauna species, while studies found traces of chemical pesticides in the aquifer, resulting in contaminated water for human consumption and associated health diseases.

Avocado production in Mexico is one of many global examples of thriving economic activities coexisting with criminal predation and the primacy of market forces to the detriment of public safety, human rights, environmental protection, and the fight against organized crime. Mafia-type connections between public authorities, local elites and organized crime are central to the expansion of the market.

While avocado production’s negative social and ecological impacts are irrefutable, from 2017 to 2021, Mexico’s exports of this fruit to the European market grew almost fourfold. In a world concerned about climate change and environmental crime, and within the framework of recent EU regulations on deforestation and the Global Agreement’s negotiations, Michoacán’s avocado industry should become a test case for innovations and the food industry’s ability to reform itself.

However, despite severe human rights violations, the use of armed violence to support and expand production, and widespread extortion across the entire value chain, both public and private decision-makers appear unable to change direction. The report shows that NAFTA and the EU’s Global Agreement with Mexico have not had a significant, positive impact on combatting organized crime and corruption and promoting human rights and general accountability, contrary to what both texts had promised.

Through a political economy approach that combines fieldwork, interviews and quantitative and spatial analysis, this report argues that illegal activities and actors are not a parasitic phenomenon, but realities that are deeply embedded in the evolution of Mexico’s local and regional economies. It reviews the violent history of rural capitalism in Michoacán, disentangles the social, economic and environmental impacts of the avocado industry and proposes potential solutions to the problems it has caused.