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Assault on US avocado inspectors in Mexican state led to suspension of inspections

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MEXICO CITY (AP) — Two employees of the U.S. Agriculture Department were assaulted and temporarily held by assailants in the Mexican state of Michoacan, prompting the U.S. government to suspend inspections of avocado and mango shipments, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico said Tuesday.

Ambassador Ken Salazar said in a statement that the assault occurred while the employees were inspecting avocados in Michoacan. He said they were no longer being held.

U.S. officials had confirmed the pause in inspections Monday citing security concerns.

The employees work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Because the United States also grows avocados, U.S. inspectors work in Mexico to ensure exported avocados don’t carry diseases that could hurt U.S. crops.

“To guarantee the safety of our agricultural inspection teams, APHIS has suspended the avocado and mango inspections in Michoacan until these security problems have been resolved,” Salazar said.

Michoacan is Mexico’s biggest exporter of avocados.

Michoacan Gov. Alfredo Ramírez Bedolla told Mexico’s Radio Formula Tuesday that the inspectors had been stopped in a protest by residents of Aranza in western Michoacan on June 14. He downplayed the situation, suggesting they were never at risk. He said that he got in touch with the U.S. Embassy the following day and that state forces were providing security for the state’s avocado producers and packers.

“I hope we have good news in the coming hours,” he said, referring to a potential resumption of inspections.

Inspections in other Mexican states are not affected, Salazar said.

Mexico’s Producers and Packers Association said in a statement Tuesday that it was working closely with government officials from Mexico and the United States to resume avocado exports from Michoacan.

It said the incident that spurred the suspension was “unconnected to the avocado industry.”

Many avocado growers in Michoacan say drug gangs threaten them or their family members with kidnapping or death unless they pay protection money, sometimes amounting to thousands of dollars per acre.

There have also been reports of organized crime bringing avocados grown in other states not approved for export and trying to get them through U.S. inspections.

In February 2022, the U.S. government suspended inspections of Mexican avocados “until further notice” after a U.S. plant safety inspector in Michoacan received a threatening message. The halt was lifted after about a week.

Later that year, Jalisco became the second Mexican state authorized to export avocados to the U.S.

The new pause in inspections won’t block shipments of Mexican avocados to the United States, because Jalisco is now an exporter and there are a lot of Michoacan avocados already in transit.

Salazar said he would travel to Michoacan next week to meet with Bedolla and the producers and packers association.

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Follow AP’s coverage of Latin America and the Caribbean at https://apnews.com/hub/latin-america

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