Mexican drug cartel behind increase in lime prices

Mexico's infamous cartels are known for their tight control of drug production and export. Now those cartels are also dabbling in other businesses, like limes, a key ingredient in Mexican cuisine, and one of the country's top exports.

Lemons being swapped for limes as prices continue to climb

A worker unloads a truck-full of Mexican limes at a citrus packing plant in La Ruana, in the state of Michoacan, Mexico. (The Associated Press)

In some cases, Canadian supermarkets are now charging well over a dollar for a single lime.

The cold weather and agricultural pests have played a part in curtailing lime production and so raising the cost to consumers. But there is another factor at work here as well: In fact, the price of limes in Canada is closely tied to one of Mexico's infamous drug cartels. 

While 
these cartels are known for their tight control of drug production and export, they are also branching out into other businesses, limes being one of them.

Limes are
 an essential ingredient in much of Mexican cuisine, and one of the country's key exports. 

The green citrus fruits are largely grown in one specific region: the state of Michoacán in the country's southwest. And that's where a cartel called the Knights Templar has been elbowing in.

Gustavo Arellano, a syndicated columnist and author who writes about Mexican cultural issues, says the Knights Templar have been making their presence known in an area called La Tierra Caliente for a few years now. 

"
So what they've done over the last couple of years, is that, if they're nice, they put humongous taxes on the farmers. If they're not nice, they just kill farmers and take the land and take over lime production themselves."

Workers sort limes at a citrus packing plant in La Ruana, in the state of Michoacan, Mexico. Communities in this region had been under the rule of the cartel known as the "Knights Templar" which demanded protection payments from cattlemen, lime growers and other businesses. (The Associated Press)

Starting last year, however, things began to change in Michoacán, when local militias began to spring up in opposition to the Knights Templar cartel.

Those local militias, which are often backed by lime farmers, have been somewhat successful at curtailing the cartels. And the Mexican government has found itself caught in the middle.

"It's been somewhat chaotic given that you've had these 'alto defentas' fighting the cartel," Arellano said. "The cartels have been in retreat ... but as a result they're trying to up their antics with the Mexican military stuck in the middle. So when you have such chaos in the region, price speculators are just going to drive the price of limes up."

Canadians tend to pay a premium for limes anyway, which are generally unit-priced, a few for a dollar. But now, some stores are selling limes for as much as $1.50 each.  

In Southern California, where Arellano lives, limes used to sell for about $40 per case. Now, the case lot price is closer to $100. He said that price increase is now being passed on to consumers, with some restaurants charging for small wedges of lime.  

"Others [are] giving people lemons ... and of course the consumer knows the lemon is nothing like the lime.

"There is a bar here called Matador Cantina where they have a special: Give us a bag of limes and we'll sell you a margarita for a quarter. But they're trying to rip people off. A bag of limes is really more valuable than a margarita."

About the Author

Khalil Akhtar

Food Columnist

Khalil Akhtar is a syndicated food columnist for CBC Radio. He takes a weekly look at some of the surprising aspects of your daily diet. Khalil is based in Victoria, B.C.

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