Attack on USDA Employees Halts Inspection of Avocados, Mangos From Mexico

Lorenz Duchamps
By Lorenz Duchamps
June 19, 2024US News
Attack on USDA Employees Halts Inspection of Avocados, Mangos From Mexico
Employees work at an avocados packing plant in the municipality of Ario de Rosales, Michoacan state, Mexico, on Feb. 21, 2022. (Alfredo Estrella/AFP via Getty Images)

The United States has temporarily suspended safety inspections of avocado and mango shipments due to security concerns for its U.S. personnel in the Mexican state of Michoacán—the country’s main avocado-producing state.

In a statement on June 18, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar said two employees of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) were recently “attacked and detained” while inspecting the tropical fruits in Michoacán.

He said the two APHIS workers are no longer in captivity, noting both U.S. and Michoacán state authorities are “closely monitoring” the situation.

“At the U.S. Embassy, ​​our top priority is protecting our staff across the country,” Mr. Salazar said. “To ensure the safety of our agricultural inspection teams, APHIS has suspended inspections of avocados and mangos in Michoacán until these safety issues have been resolved.”

The suspension won’t block all Mexican exports of avocados and mangos to the United States, as only non-inspected shipments are affected, Mr. Salazar said, pointing out that products already in transit won’t be affected.

He also indicated that the pause won’t affect other Mexican states, where APHIS officials will continue inspecting the popular fruits.

“This determination is based on the existing concern for the safety of personnel in Michoacán, not phytosanitary concerns,” Mr. Salazar said.

Because the United States also grows avocados domestically, American inspectors work in Mexico to ensure exported avocados do not carry diseases that could contaminate U.S. crops.

Meanwhile, Mr. Salazar will meet next week with Michoacán state Gov. Alfredo Ramírez Bedolla and export representatives of the Association of Producers and Export Packers of Mexico (APEAN) to address security in the region and “other important issues,” the U.S. ambassador said in Tuesday’s statement.

Mr. Bedolla told a local radio station on Tuesday that the two APHIS inspectors had been stopped in a protest by residents of Aranza in western Michoacán last week.

The governor downplayed the situation, suggesting the two workers were never at risk. He said that he contacted the U.S. Embassy the day after the incident and that state forces were providing security for the state’s avocado producers and packers.

In a statement on June 18, APEAN said the incident was “unconnected to the avocado industry,” adding the organization is working closely with U.S. and Mexican government officials to resume avocado exports from Michoacán.

Mexico’s Avocado Boom and Organized Crime

This isn’t the first time the U.S. government has halted inspections of avocados in Michoacán, where gang violence and extortion are rampant.

A similar situation occurred in February 2022, when U.S. officials suspended avocado shipments for about a week after a USDA safety inspector received threatening messages.

Many avocado growers in Michoacán say drug gangs threaten them or their family members with kidnapping or death unless they pay protection money, sometimes amounting to thousands of dollars per acre.

There have also been reports of organized crime bringing avocados grown in other states not approved for export and trying to get them through U.S. inspections.

Mexico supplies 81 percent of the avocados eaten in the United States. The next biggest export markets are to Canada, Japan, and Spain, the USDA said in a report released in April. Most of these avocados come from Michoacán.

The avocado sector in the country has grown steadily during the past five years due to strong demand, with a whopping growth rate of nearly 75 percent between 2014 and 2023.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.