MEXICO CITY — Citrus growers in the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz guard their groves as lime prices surge to the point that pistol-packing thieves pick pieces of fruit right off their trees.
Truckers, meanwhile, travel with escorts — especially after criminals started targeting their vehicles and commandeered a cargo of limes worth nearly $50,000 this month.
"There are a lot of people stealing limes, even entering the groves with weapons," says Adriana Melchor, director of fruit exporter Inverafrut.
Limes have always been a coveted crop in Mexico, where a squirt of the small citrus brightens the taste of everything from tacos to tequila to guacamole.
But a combination of poor winter weather, plagues and threats from organized crime have caused production to plunge and prices to rise — a trend that has many Mexicans calling the citrus "green gold."
Newspapers are covering the shortages as prices rise to more than $6 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) in some places. La Prensa, a tabloid catering to the cost-conscious working classes, replaced its usual blood-soaked front-page photos with the headline: "Like Meat!" and a subhead saying limes sell for the same price as chicken.
STORY: U.S. lime market squeezed by shortage in Mexico
Vendors say sales are on the decline, even though limes — along with chilies and salt — accompany many Mexican dishes.
"One year ago it was 15 to 20 pesos ($1.15 to $1.50) per kilogram. Now it's 50 pesos" ($3.80), says Mario Aguilar, who sells fruit from a market near the president's residence in Mexico City and reports people purchasing half of what they used to buy.
Taco stand operator Fidel González used to put out bowls of limes for his patrons. Now he portions out slices selectively to keep costs down.
"We have to charge the same price for our tacos, so we give out less limes," he says.
The quality of limes is also lacking, according to both growers and restaurateurs.
"We're getting a smaller-size lime and it doesn't produce as much juice as it should," says Claudio Hall, chef at Fonda El Refugio in Mexico City, where his bartenders now use twice as many limes to make margaritas.
"We just tighten our belts and pay the higher prices," he says.
The consumer prosecutor's office, Profeco, says prices have on average increased by 221% since December and promises to prosecute anyone hoarding the fruit or speculating. Profeco's director, Lorena Martínez, said the sanctions for speculation include prison terms of up to 10 years.
Melchor insists no one is hoarding any fruit — at least not in Veracruz, one of Mexico's three main growing regions and an area famous for its production of Persian limes, which are exported to the U.S. and Europe.
Production in her partners' groves has dropped from 20 tons per day to 3 tons per day, while customers in the USA have offered as much as $90 for a 40-pound box of limes, she says — more than seven times the price of $12 per box paid last year.
Melchor blames bad weather. Hurricane Ingrid stormed through last September, and unusually cold winter temperatures made matters worse.
Producers in other parts of Mexico who supply the domestic market with a smaller, more acidic lime variety suffered other problems such as a plague that wiped out the crop in the western state of Colima.
In the neighboring state of Michaocán, where self-defense groups formed to fight off drug cartels carrying out crimes like kidnap and extortion, a spokesman for the growers' association also blames bad weather. But he acknowledged that insecurity prevented some producers from working their lime groves last year.
"Producers didn't go out to their groves, didn't attend to their trees as they should have," says Leonardo Santibáñez, spokesman for the Citrus Growers Association of the Apatzingán Valley. "This brought about smaller harvests."
The growers formed a group five years ago to fetch better prices for their crops — currently 15 pesos ($1.15) per kilogram (2.2 pounds), Santibáñez says, nearly double the 8 pesos ($0.61) per kilo they received last year. The growers' increased organization and marketing muscle is getting them a better price, Santibáñez says, but he rejects suggestions they're unduly profiting at a time when production from Michaocán can barely supply one-third of the Mexican market.
"The benefit of being organized is that there's a regulation of prices, regulation of harvests, that we take care of each other because if we don't the profits will stay in the commercialization process (and) not be distributed to those in the production process."
Mexican retailers reject any allegations of jacking up prices.
"Our prices are reflecting what we are paying in the market," says Antonio Ocaranza, spokesman for Wal-Mart de México, the nation's largest retailer. "We try to provide the lowest possible price and have been working closely with authorities to share what we are seeing in the market."