The Knights Templar, or Templarios, are best known for being one of the most dangerous drug cartels in Mexico. What you may not know is that they have a side business: controlling the Mexican lime industry. Over the past decade, the Knights Templar and other cartels have illegally seized packing plants and lime farms across Mexico, forcing many to shut down and causing the price of limes to skyrocket.
Now, for the first time in nearly a decade, the drug cartels’ reign over the Mexican lime industry is coming to an end. Several cartel leaders have been arrested by federal police; three mayors and a former governor of Michoacan, a lime growing state in western Mexico, were also arrested. In early 2013, concerned farmers and locals took matters into their own hands by forming civilian militias in an effort to fight back. A little over a year later, the Knights Templar’s influence has waned and farmers are back in control.
When they were in power, drug cartels controlled nearly every aspect of the lime business from where farmers could their limes to when they could to sell them. They extorted money or “protection taxes” from farmers and their families, taking a cut of the farmers’ weekly profits. Under the threat of retribution, the farmers complied. Efrain Hernandez Vazquez, a lime buyer and farm manager in Michoacan recalls, “You’d make the money and they would take it. They charged so-called taxes, quotas on everything.” Each week, Vazquez surrendered about US$2,000, or ten percent of his sales, to the cartels. The cost of the fruit itself rose as well; a 40-pound box of limes would cost as much as US$35, putting stress on Mexican buyers and distributors.
Some farmers lost more than their profits: some lost their lives. In April 2013, 14 lime farmers were killed in Apatzingan, a city in Michoacan, after demanding better protection from the local government.
Consumers in the United States have also felt the squeeze from these cartels as the cost of a single lime jumped to US$0.90, an 81 percent increase from 2013 according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The U.S. imports nearly 90 percent of its limes from Mexico so its impact was significant and widespread. Since the rise of civilian militias and federal intervention in Mexico, consumers are now paying an average of US$0.30 per lime. Similarly, the price of a 40-pound lime box in Mexico is now going for closer to US$6, down from US$35. Much of this price shift can be attributed to the cartels’ decline.
Farmers are now enjoying some of the highest profits they have seen in years as they can once again manage their own businesses. Vazquez has plans to expand his lime operation now that he has the money and freedom to do so.