The citric kick of the limes which grow abundantly across Mexico – the world’s largest producer of the fruit – help give the country’s cuisine its distinctive flavor.
But aggressive price-fixing by criminal groups has sent prices soaring, prompting some eateries to stop offering limes with their tacos – and leaving diners in a sour twist.
“If you go to the taquería they tell you there is no lime, or there is one small lime for 10 people,” said Romain Le Cour, security and violence reduction program officer at the thinktank México Evalúa. “It’s almost a joke.”
Prices often peak in winter but this year they have reached unprecedented highs, due to falling production, continued exports and colder weather. The average cost of limes has tripled since January 2021 – from 17 pesos (almost a dollar) to 56 pesos per kilo, according to state data.
And amid an escalating cost-of-living crisis due to inflation, cartels are imposing increasing controls over producers during the bumper crop season – in part to fund an escalating war in the western state of Michoacán where the aggressive expansion of the Jalisco New Generation cartel (JNGC) has unleashed a bitter conflict with a coalition of local groups known as the United Cartels.
“The lime trade is a billion-dollar industry and, for any criminal group, it’s very easy and extremely profitable for them to go to the farmers and tell them what they need to pay for protection,” said Le Cour. “It’s classic mafia.”
The harvest in Michoacán in December was down 26% from the month before and almost half on the same period last year – 66,000 tons less, according to official data.
In places, cartels have reportedly limited picking to just a few days a week to more easily manipulate prices. “The cartels impose the price of the lime, they decide whether or not to pick them,” an industry worker told Reforma newspaper.
Some farmers have abandoned their fields to avoid dealing with the cartels amid serious harassment and fighting, while bandits have also been stealing large amounts of limes in transit. Others have reportedly been forcibly displaced. A producer in El Aguaje, Michoacán, told local media: “They took away our land, they took away our houses, they looted our lime orchards.”