Lime producers in the Mexican states of Michoacán continued to suffer unstable and possibly violent conditions, with pickers ceasing to harvest around 130,000 metric tons (MT) of the fruit, website Vanguardia.com.mx reported.
The news comes just over a month after lime packers in the state requested government protection following a fatal attack that reportedly left eight industry workers dead.
The sectors of Apatzingán, Tepalcatepec and Buenavista are considered among some of the most productive lime producing zones in Mexico with 30,000ha planted, according to the Mexican paper.
The rise of organized crime and self-defense groups in the area, however, has diminished production by 35%, packing representative José Hernández told the website. Producers in Buenavista and Tepalcatepec indicated they have suffered total losses.
Hernández said the groups have created a "critical" situation for the estimated 7,000 industry workers in Buenavista where it has become difficult to find work and supplies.
Hipólito Mora - the La Ruana police chief and a leader of local self-defense efforts - said all five packing houses in the municipality of Buenavista Tomatlán were being closed. He added that the zone produces 70% of the state's limes.
Control of the packing houses fell into drug cartel power several years ago and has been a major source of area conflict, El Pais reported.
"You must remember that we are not in this for the fun of it. The people of this region live from their crops and livestock, while thousands more depend on the lime harvest. We have all been affected. Today I spoke with the Coalcomán community police chief and they are defending themselves against the same thing we are," Mora told www.vanguardia.com.mx.
The Knights Templar Cartel has been linked to much of the criminal action impeding production in the state. The group allegedly threatened truck drivers and burned down a packing house in Buenavista in March.
The organization is composed of the now defunct La Familia Michoacana cartel.
Mora indicated that hundreds of federal officers had been sent to Buenavista and Tepalcatepec on Saturday to protect residents against organized crime. Michoacán was the first Mexican state to receive military intervention due to the drug conflict.
Spanish paper El País described entrances into La Ruana, officially known as Felipe Carrillo Puerto, as an "extreme sport." To enter the city, visitors must first pass federal guards, followed by a control point run by the Knights Templar Cartel. Once in the small town of around 10,000, trust must be gained from self-defense groups formed to fight the cartel.
Given the difficult conditions, Mora said lime picking, packing and transportation has only been possible for less than a three-week period this season.
In late February, producers attempted to take up arms against criminal groups but were met by threats and fines, Mora told www.vanguardia.com.mx.
El País reported that clashes between self-defense groups and the cartel continue strong, so much so that majors brands such as Bimbo, Coca-Cola and Pemex no longer sell their product in the small town.
Beyond the exit of Apatzingán, the cartel check point and the tire road block, the Spanish paper reported that travelers arrive to Buenavista, where they are greeted by a sign reading, “Welcome to the town of Buenavista, free of fines and templar knights."
Mora explained to El País that conflict in the area began to build up several years ago when the Knights Templar began to take over La Familia Michoacana.
La Ruana is also known for marijuana cultivation and methamphetamine production, illicit industries that drug traffickers have fought for control of. To make drug sales more profitable, extortion in the small town began to run rampant, El País explained.
The worst reportedly came when the area's five citrus packing houses were taken over and traffickers began to buy limes at MXN2 (US$0.16) a kilo, well under the market price of MXN3.5 (US$0.28).
Limes are La Ruana's key industry and producers have been at odds with organized crime since the takeover.
Related story: Mexico eliminates tariffs for limes, tomatillos