The lament of increasingly expensive limes has become widespread among America's margarita lovers and guacamole fiends.
But while we in the United States may be upset at the uptick in lime prices—which have jumped to $100 from $25 for a 40-pound carton in just a few months—the increased strain on wallets masks a very grim state of affairs in Mexico, which provides nearly all of the limes consumed in the U.S.
A spike in price—caused in part by heavy rains and a citrus disease hitting a prime lime-growing area in Mexico—has attracted the attention of criminal cartels, which have been looking to exert control over the lime economy.
Reports of extortion, violence, roadblocks, and intimidation have been trickling out of the biggest lime-growing areas of Mexico. These regions also happen to have a large presence of the brutal Knights Templar drug cartel.
The Knights Templar have branched out from drug trafficking and now make more money from mining, logging, and extorting mostly lime and avocado producers. A Mexican government official estimates the cartel earns $800,000 to $1.4 million a week from extortion—and that the organization controls the wholesale distribution center, where lime growers sell their products to the world, and where lime prices are set.
It's gotten so bad that people involved in lime production have begun to fight back. "For lime grower Hipolito Mora, it was time to organize and pick up arms when a packing company controlled by a brutal drug cartel refused to buy his fruit," the AP reported in November. Mora, along with other lime growers, pickers, and ranchers, is part of a militia formed to fight against the cartel.
Criminal involvement in produce is not new in Mexico. A 2011 Christian Science Monitor report documents how the drug wars exacerbated a spike in lime prices back then. "Be it extorting farmers, attacking produce trucks, or causing more time-consuming border inspections, criminal gangs are affecting almost every link in the produce supply chain," the newspaper reported.
So the next time you bemoan the pricey lime in your shopping cart, you may want to dial back your complaints. For Mexicans, that price tag stems from a dangerous and deadly set of circumstances.
This article appears in the April 16, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.