MEXICO CITY — For the second time in eight months, Mexico’s army is combing through Michoacan state’s lime-growing valleys to re-establish order as vigilante farmers battle with drug gangs.
In Michoacan, where the Sierra Madre mountains run into Mexico’s Pacific Coast, federal forces intervened last week after masked farmers stormed government buildings in more than a dozen towns and threatened to take over the city of Apatzingan, leading to at least one civilian death, the Interior Ministry said. The farmers’ self-styled community police groups, which raided police stations to strip officers of their weapons, said at least four people died in a clash with the army.
Unlike the last time, though, when soldiers managed to quickly push back the cartels seeking to extort farmers, clearing the way for the transport of produce into Mexico City, their presence now has further stoked the conflict.
Michoacan is Mexico’s biggest farming state by production value, according to 2012 data compiled by the Agriculture Ministry. It’s the country’s biggest avocado producer, second-biggest lime producer, third-largest in tomatoes.
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In a country where limes are a staple used in everything from tacos to margaritas, the escalating violence is adding to expectations for a surge in prices.
The price of limes, which has the second-highest weighting among fruits monitored in Mexico’s inflation gauge, doubled nationwide in the first four months of 2013 after vigilantes blocked roads. Distributors of the fruit say extortion by cartels has also led to higher prices.
“This conflict will definitely have an impact on agriculture prices, and that will be reflected in inflation, probably in coming months,” Marco Oviedo, Barclays’ chief Mexico economist, said in a telephone interview.
The jump in lime costs follows the Jan. 1 increase in some sales-tax rates and implementation of new levies on junk food and sugary drinks.
The price of limes rose to 18 pesos ($1.36) per kilo on Friday from 10 pesos a month earlier, according to the website of Mexico City’s main wholesale produce market. Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo said Friday that the conflict hasn’t had an impact on inflation and that rising lime prices were caused by poor weather conditions.
While some armed brigades are cooperating with the army, others are refusing to return to their towns. One group took over another village on Friday in defiance of federal government orders.
The farmers in Michoacan are refusing to lay down their arms until the government captures leaders of the Knights Templar, a spinoff of the Familia drug gang, Jose Manuel Mireles, a vigilante leader, said in an interview posted on YouTube last week. The Knights are linked to methamphetamine trafficking and widespread extortion of businesses, allegedly with the help of corrupt local officials, according to the government.
Jesus Murillo Karam, Mexico’s attorney general, said in November that some vigilantes were arrested for ties to a rival cartel from neighboring Jalisco state. The groups deny any involvement with organized crime.
The government appointed a commissioner to head security efforts in Michoacan last week, including overhauling the state’s law-enforcement agencies, disarming local police accused of working with cartels and having vigilantes give up their weapons. The government said Saturday that federal forces have completed their task of taking over policing duties in targeted areas without further incident.
Federal efforts to impose order in Michoacan have rarely brought success. In a headline-grabbing blow, investigators arrested 10 mayors in the state in May 2009 on charges of working for drug smugglers. But the prosecutions collapsed, and all charges were dismissed.
Templar bosses in Michoacan have been uncommonly open about their identities. They post YouTube videos that show their faces and have been seen in public in several towns. Journalists have found several mansions that belong to them in the towns of Nueva Italia, Antunez and Paracuaro.
The arrival of caravans of federal police to the region hasn’t stopped all gang-related violence.
Zaragoza said that at least 10 businesses had been firebombed or torched by gangsters in a week in Apatzingan, “despite there being 10,000 federal police or soldiers.” Some 160 of the 850 businesses in his chamber shut down last year, unable to withstand the pressure of extortion from the cartel, he added.
Rubido, the National Public Safety System secretary, said Sunday in a statement that 38 people had been arrested in the past week, and that one of them, Jesus Vasquez Macias, 37, was “one of the leaders who generates the most violence” within the Templars.
But vigilante spokesman Estanislao Beltran said Vasquez was a hit man for the Templars, not a leader.
This article includes material from the Los Angeles Times.