EL AGUAJE, Mexico — Antonio had grown limes and raised cattle on his farm in western Mexico for years, managing to eke out a living by following a rule he and many others in Michoacán, one of Mexico’s most violent states, had always known: Leave the narco-trafficking routes alone and no harm would come their way.
But now the valley of lime trees that once made this region prosperous had been set on fire, a casualty of the drug cartels’ emerging business model.
Some criminal groups are going to unprecedented lengths to muscle into mainstream sectors of the economy, including avocados and limes, threatening to disrupt the lucrative, bilateral trade partnership between Mexico and the United States, one of the largest in the world.
Mexico exports $3.2 billion worth of avocados and $500 million of limes annually, and some cartels are forcing their way into these profitable businesses, not only extorting them as they have for years, but also running the operations themselves. Some are even planting orchards and opening avocado packing plants to diversify their revenues and fund their efforts to capture more territory.
“There is an evolution toward a classic Italian-style criminal-political relationship,” Romain Le Cour, the program director for México Evalúa, a research institute focused on public security policies, said of the cartels. “When you think of the mafia, it’s a gray zone where you tie legal with illegal, the crime with business and the crime with politics.”
This evolution has even emboldened the cartels to threaten the American government’s presence throughout the country, Mr. Le Cour added, as criminal groups “understand that they have more power than anyone else, the government or the businesses they extort.”
Increasingly, farmers and communities tied to the agricultural trade have been caught in the middle of a turf war, while tens of thousands of others have been displaced, as the government struggles to clear out the gangs and quell the violence.
“It’s a conflict that never ends,” Antonio said bitterly, asking that only his middle name be used to protect his identity.
A recent military clearing operation in El Aguaje allowed families who fled the cartel violence to return in February. They drove through clouds of smoke billowing from the smoldering valley, past their ruined town square with its buildings pockmarked by bullets and graffiti: C.J.N.G., the Spanish acronym for Jalisco New Generation Cartel — the region’s most powerful cartel.
Some people, like Antonio, came back to work the farms they had been forced to temporarily abandon. Many returned only to pack up their belongings and leave again.
Hardly anyone in El Aguaje believed the government gains would last, as the town had been contested by various criminal groups for years. Recent military operations focused on the Jalisco cartel, but the newly scorched orchards were a clear sign that other cartels were trying to move in to fill the void.
In Michoacán, until recent months the only Mexican state licensed to export avocados to the United States, the cartels have cut down protected forests, forcing the population off the land to establish their own orchards. And they have started extorting minor producers, previously considered too small to be worth the trouble.
While there is no clear estimate on the extent to which these criminal groups have affected trade, the net profits from their international operations could reach up to $20 billion annually, nearly 2 percent of Mexico’s gross domestic product, according to an American official who was not authorized to give his name.
In February, a criminal group even threatened a U.S. inspector when he rejected a batch of cartel avocados masquerading as Michoacán produce, prompting a brief American ban on Mexican avocados, the first ever in the decades-long avocado trade between the countries.
The threat further signaled the growing audacity of Michoacán’s criminal organizations, which for more than 35 years have largely avoided targeting U.S. government employees.
The month before, U.S. Border Patrol agents were shot at from Mexico, most likely by cartel members involved in smuggling migrants. And in March, the American Consulate in the border city of Nuevo Laredo was fired upon after the authorities extradited a cartel leader to the United States.
The Jalisco cartel began an aggressive drive to overrun small cities and towns in western parts of Michoacán in 2020, cutting off vital roads and stretches of highway, making much of the state impassable. Last year, it took control and dug trenches along swaths of a major highway that links the state and took over Aguililla, a small city that hosts a military base. Mexican troops stationed there had to be resupplied by helicopter as they avoided directly engaging the cartels.
The cartel, considered one of Mexico’s largest and most gruesome, has since developed new enforcement tactics, recently introducing improvised explosive devices buried in dirt roads and fields to cut off population centers.
Even after government forces carry out clearing operations, the area lacks enough state, municipal and federal troops to defend the territory. Police officers are regularly fired for corruption, retire or resign because of the soaring violence and meager pay.
In El Aguaje, the orchard fires were set by the Viagras, a group that is part of a criminal collective called the United Cartels. They took control in September 2020 and started ransacking the town.
“They were breaking and entering, robbing our houses, stealing everything they could — farm animals, goats, horses,” Antonio said. “They took everything, everything, panties even from the elders. What do you want a pair of used panties for?”
Last year, the Jalisco cartel pushed the Viagras out and took power. It largely left the population alone — so long as locals residents did not disrupt the flow of drugs.
Outside town, the Viagras started taxing everything from cattle to limes, sometimes asking for as much as a third of farmers’ revenues. The military finally intervened in February, but seemed focused on clearing out only the Jalisco cartel.
As that group retreated, the Viagras set the orchards ablaze so their rivals could not take cover to carry out counterattacks against them.
Security analysts say the government’s strategy has been selective, waging battles largely against the Jalisco cartel, but not the smaller groups that equally terrorize residents.
“In the past we have seen pushes against groups that pose a P.R. problem for the government, and Jalisco’s tactics were getting too brutal to ignore,” said Falko Ernst, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group.
“I’m not seeing positive signs that the government will expand its current operation to go against other groups like the Viagras,” he added.
Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, rode to power in 2018 on the slogan “hugs not bullets,” promising to tackle the cartels by increasing spending on social programs.
But halfway through his term, Mr. López Obrador’s strategy has not worked. In 2021, there was a nearly fivefold increase from the previous year of internally displaced Mexicans — 44,905 people — who fled cartel violence, according to Mexico’s Commission for Defense and Promotion of Human Rights. Thousands more have gone north, trying to cross into the United States and seek asylum.
That has not stopped the president from claiming victory, recently announcing that he had ended Michoacán’s internal displacement problem and that residents who had fled could return. Shortly after his remarks, 17 people were marched out of a funeral and executed, a prominent journalist was killed and a local trade leader was gunned down.
Still, the governor of Michoacán, Alfredo Ramírez Bedolla, an ally of Mr. López Obrador, said he believed the president’s strategy would persuade residents to return.
“The military has done an exceptional job of recovering these territories,” Mr. Ramírez said in an interview in February. “Now comes the part of the civil government, building infrastructure and economic development.”
Infrastructure spending in Michoacán has lagged behind much of the nation for years, but Mr. Ramírez promised a $183 million investment plan for this year, tripling the state’s 2020 infrastructure budget.
With little faith in the government’s ability to protect them, some towns have decided to take up arms. In Tancítaro — known as the world’s avocado capital — the city established a self-defense unit in 2014, tired of cartels extorting their crops, assaulting their women and kidnapping their children for ransom.
Tancítaro’s mayor, Gerardo Mora Mora, said they had to choose between defending themselves or “see our future end.”
The Tierra Caliente region of Michoacán, the area at the crossroads of the state where El Aguaje is nestled, was recently the scene of fierce fighting. Home to the leader of the Jalisco cartel, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, known as “El Mencho” — one of the most wanted men in Mexico and the United States — it was strategically situated for the cartel to move drugs, while the Viagras sought to control the region to extort lime farmers.
On a recent visit to Naranjo de Chila, Mr. Cervantes’s hometown, a resident recalled how the military and the Viagras laid siege to the town and prevented food from coming in for eight months. During the siege, the Jalisco cartel erected a warehouse to supply the trapped townspeople: medicine for the sick, food for the starving. It brought in supplies by small propeller plane, the resident added.
The Jalisco soldiers trained at the town square, performing drills as residents looked on. On one side of the square was a cavernous workshop where the cartel created its “monsters,” or sports utility vehicles they souped-up by welding metal plates to the doors to make them bulletproof and assault-ready.
Three days before the military finally breached Naranjo de Chila, the Jalisco cartel fled, residents said. Before leaving, it used a backhoe to bury its heavy weapons.
Some residents accused the government of collaborating with the Viagras, which Mr. Ramírez, Michoacán’s governor, denied. “What there is, is a great advance by the army, of the federal government.”
But the advance inspired little faith.
“The town felt safer under Jalisco cartel,” said a resident, who asked that his name not be used, fearing retaliation. “We don’t like them, but we don’t like the government more.”
Oscar Lopez and Juan Jose Estrada Serafín contributed reporting.