Pubdate: Fri, 10 Dec 2010
Source: San Antonio Express-News (TX)
Copyright: 2010 San Antonio Express-News
Author: William Pack


The drug violence in Mexico has a new potential victim: the potent
agricultural sector in that country and its multi-billion-dollar ties
to consumers, farmers and ranchers in the United States.

So far, two South Texas produce companies have changed the way they
conduct business there.

It's primarily how they move strawberries, melons, onions and other
produce out of Mexico that has been impacted rather than the growing
practices themselves, company representatives said.

While officials agreed that the U.S.'s booming agricultural trade with
Mexico was not facing significant risks from drug cartels now, they
were less certain it could stand up to several more years of
drug-related challenges.

"It's in the back of (everyone's) mind," said Curtis DeBerry, who owns
Boerne-based Progreso Produce. "It has the potential to be a problem."

Progreso already is transporting commodities grown in places like the
city of Tampico on Mexico's gulf coast and the state of Guanajuato in
central Mexico in multi-truck caravans from Ciudad Victoria in
Tamaulipas state to Texas about 300 miles to the north.

The border region is the riskiest area in Mexico, and drivers need the
added security, DeBerry said.

Drivers for Edinburg-based Frontera Produce, meanwhile, stay off the
most isolated roads and try not to travel at night while bringing
fruits and vegetables to Texas. It has onion growers in the Tampico
area, raises pineapples further south around the state of Veracruz and
produces other crops throughout Mexico.

"It's not good to be in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Chris
Eddy, Frontera's sales director.

Still, he and DeBerry said the violence has not convinced the
companies to trim Mexican operations this year, and they don't expect
other Mexican growers to behave much differently.

"There is a security issue along the border, but it has not affected
agricultural shipments across the border," said DeBerry.

At least, no one can say definitively that it has.

Extortion demands by the cartel for safe transfer of agricultural
commodities are widely rumored in Mexico but difficult to confirm.
Shipments reportedly have been stolen and drivers harassed, though
some speculate that drug cartels may not be as responsible for that
violence as other criminals hiding behind the drug-related turmoil.

Still, random violence has increased in isolated areas of the country,
raising the professional and personal risks of farmers and the chances
they may flee to safer environments.

Juan Anciso, a vegetable specialist with the Texas AgriLife Extension
Service in Weslaco, said for Mexican growers with the money and the
means to move, that's beginning.

"People are being driven away from that sector," he said. "It's too
risky in Mexico."

The financial implications of a longer drug war are

Mexico is the United States' second-largest agricultural trading
partner, with bilateral trade topping $20 billion a year. Mexican
exports nearly $6 billion of fresh fruits and vegetables a year into
the U.S., and Texas is one of its key ports of entry, said John
McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association. Avocados, melons,
limes, strawberries, tomatoes, onions and peppers are among the
biggest imports.

McClung said Mexican growers are responsible for about 60 percent of
the fresh fruit and vegetables that are consumed in and shipped from

Anciso said the issues springing from Mexico's drug war have become
more noticeable since this summer. He's talked to three sorghum
farmers in Mexico who had been stung by the drug violence and were
looking to buy thousands of acres of land in Texas.

One grower had his equipment stolen in Mexico and another faced
extortion demands, said Anciso. He suspected vegetable growers and
other farmers in Mexico faced similar problems.

"They're extorting any business that is making money," said Anciso. 
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