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The U.S. suspends avocado imports from Mexico

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Avocados from Mexico had a starring role in yesterday's Super Bowl and not just in that guacamole you were eating, but with a coveted advertising spot during the broadcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: I'm sorry. What are you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Adding Avocados from Mexico.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: They're always good.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: Want some?

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Avocados from Mexico.

KELLY: They are always good. But the fruit could soon be in shorter supply. Over the weekend, the U.S. temporarily banned Mexican avocados due to a security threat, a threat highlighting the criminal element that continues to afflict the avocado market.

Let's talk now with NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So I'm trying to get my head around this - a security threat that prompted the U.S. to suspend imports of avocados from Mexico? What was it?

KAHN: Mexico says an inspector working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture there got a threat called directly to their phone. The USDA says it was a verbal threat. Beyond that, we don't know what actually happened.

The inspectors are in the state of Michoacan, and that is the only Mexican state that's authorized to export avocados to the U.S. That's because the USDA has these pest inspectors there certifying all exports as plague-free. And that's been in place for the past 25 years.

But the security situation in the state is deteriorating. It's very dangerous due to the organized crime gangs and drug cartels that operate there.

KELLY: And these crime gangs, these cartels, they are connected to the avocado industry? Why?

KAHN: Right.

KELLY: Why are they interested?

KAHN: Yeah, this is a major crop. Exports last year were almost up to $3 billion. Avocados there are called green gold. So there's just a lot of money running through the states. And it's also fertile ground, you could say, for the crime and the drug gangs there, specifically the powerful Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which is battling for turf there with different gangs.

And avocado growers, packers and truckers - they've all complained about being extorted by the gangs. They have to pay what's known as a war tax to keep the cartels at bay so they can continue to produce avocados in the states. And we're talking about thousands of dollars in some situations that major growers and packers have to pay. And now that violence is spilling over to U.S. inspectors.

And just a quick note, Mary Louise - all the avocados that were already inspected here and on their way to the U.S. are still good to go.

KELLY: OK. I'm thinking of the farmers, though, the packers, who are going to look at a big loss of income. What is the government there in Mexico saying in response to this ban by the U.S.?

KAHN: Well, this morning, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador didn't even address the security situation in Michoacan. And instead, he tried to downplay the ban.

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ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He was saying that there's always economic, commercial and political interest behind these decisions. He seems to be saying different U.S. groups and politicians are working together to protect American interests and keep the competition out.

KELLY: And any idea in terms of timing, when this dispute could be settled?

KAHN: Yeah. Cinco de Mayo is coming up, which is another day when Mexican growers sell a lot of avocados to the U.S.

KELLY: Sure.

KAHN: And I couldn't get an answer from the USDA about what the procedures are for Mexico to get reinstated in the program. They said there's no information currently about how to do that. Mexico's president said his government is working with the U.S. to resume shipments. And the growers association here in Mexico put out a press release, saying they expect the program to resume within days. Last week, the government did send troops into Michoacan, but it was about a hundred soldiers into one city, not where this inspector was threatened, so no new operations have been announced.

KELLY: NPR's Carrie Kahn on the line from Mexico City. Thank you, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELLOTRON VARIATIONS' "WALTZING RIVERBED WAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.