How Mexico's Drug Cartels Are Driving Up the Price of Limes

A lime shortage is threatening the U.S. food and beverage industry, with some bars and restaurants jacking up drink prices, charging extra for a slice—or refusing to serve the citrus at all. But there's another reason to rethink that margarita: The pricey limes you're buying from Mexico might be supporting drug violence.

Bad winter weather and severe drought has obliterated many crops this year, but the lime is a victim of several special circumstances. Most limes consumed by the U.S are grown in Mexico, where a bacterial disease called huanglongbing (HLB) has already taken out a large number of trees. Then in December, cold and rain knocked blossoms off the trees, reducing the total number of fruits that matured.

Now, in the state of Michoácan, where most of Mexico's limes are grown, a kilogram of the citrus is worth more than a day's pay. Because limes have become so valuable, the trucks that transport them have become a target for drug cartels, which block the roads and hijack shipments, requiring money from the farmers to pass. Those extra costs are then passed along to consumers. This kind of agricultural extortion isn't limited to limes: Cartels can exert control over any type of valuable export. "Blood avocados" are also an issue in Michoácan, with the Knights Templar cartel terrorizing local farmers. And when the gangs get involved, farmers become too afraid to grow the crop, which reduces supply even more.

How Mexico's Drug Cartels Are Driving Up the Price of Limes

The price of limes is about $100 per 40-pound box today, up from the usual price of around $25 a box this time of year. The cost has been devastating to not only American buyers, but also to Mexico's economy, which may have to import limes from outside its borders for the first time in history. And sadly, the issue is causing farmers to strip their trees prematurely simply to cash in on the high prices—which will only cause more problems down the line.

Here in the U.S., where a lime garnish is usually as ubiquitous as an ice cube, the shortage has forced bartenders to get creative. According to the cocktail site Alcademics, San Francisco's Tacolicious is offering a new version of their margarita that uses pasteurized lime and lemon juice, as well as a more expensive "Margarita del Cartel" with all fresh lime juice to pass along awareness of the issue. Other bars are using replacements like acid phosphate to mimic the sour flavors necessary for a proper gimlet.

Some suppliers are looking to buy fruit from Brazil, and we do grow a fair share of limes in California, although the crop doesn't come in until the summer. It's likely that prices will go down in the next few weeks, but still, this might be a good reason to switch to beer this Cinco de Mayo.

Two scenes from a citrus packing plant in La Ruana, in the state of Michoacan, Mexico. AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills