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Meet the Brave Farmers in Mexico Supplying your Avocados

Super Bowl Sunday is a big deal in this remote and seemingly peaceful mountain town, whose entrance is marked by a statue of an avocado.

Americans eat more guacamole for the big game than on any other day of the year, and more of the avocados for the dip are grown in the green hills here than any other place in the world.

But for the past few years, a good chunk of the profits has gone to a violent criminal gang that made millions of dollars extorting avocado farmers and packinghouse operators while strong-arming groves from landowners, said residents and local officials who recently began fighting back.

Four of every five avocados sold in the U.S. originate in Tancítaro’s home state of Michoacán, the only Mexican state certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to export avocados, mostly the creamy, dip-friendly Hass variety that locals here call “oro verde” or green gold.

Michoacán, which last year exported more than 500,000 tons of avocado to the U.S., expects a $1 billion haul in 2014. Tancítaro alone produced 157,000 tons last year, said Jose Ayala, a local agricultural official, “more than any other municipality in the world.”

Some say the fruit was tainted. “They are ‘blood avocados,’ ” said Raul Benitez, a security expert at UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico In Mexico City. “They are the Mexican equivalent of the conflict diamonds that are sold from war-torn parts of Africa.”

Super Bowl XLVIII may herald a change. In November, a band of Tancítaro residents wielding wooden clubs and old hunting rifles joined forces with well-armed vigilantes from nearby towns to run off most members of the Knights Templar, a criminal gang allegedly involved in extortion, kidnapping, rape and homicide throughout the state.

“The people were sick and tired of the situation,” said Mayor Salvador Torres, who is now guarded round-the-clock by federal police because of threats. “A day didn’t go by that one didn’t hear about extortion, a kidnapping, or a violent death taking place in the municipality.”

The Knights Templar grew out of a drug cartel known as La Familia and in the past few years moved from trafficking to extortion, stealing from every facet of this rich agricultural state, local and federal officials said. The gang took a cut of fertilizer and pesticide sales and charged a fee for every box of limes and avocados packed and trucked away. Many towns were forced to turn over 10% of municipal budgets. . .

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