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Organized Crime Is Targeting South Africa's 'Green Gold': Avocados

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Even if you're not a professional thief, no doubt you have an idea of what may be worth pilfering - shiny, expensive things, whether gold or diamonds. How about avocados? They are the hot item in South Africa's crime networks. And Alexandra Wexler reported on this for The Wall Street Journal. She joins us now.

Welcome.

ALEXANDRA WEXLER: Thank you so much.

CORNISH: So first of all, you start your story with just how elaborate the kind of anti-theft effort is on some of these farms in South Africa. What are the kinds of things that they're using to try and prevent these, like, massive thefts?

WEXLER: Yeah. So farmers are using all kinds of things to prevent thieves from coming into their farms and taking their avocados, which they're calling the green gold - things from electric fences topped with barbed wire, over 7 feet high, infrared cameras that detect movement, armed canine security response units and cameras that recognize vehicle license plates.

CORNISH: I was reading in your article that one of the security folks, he used to do anti-poaching, right? Like, he used to protect rhinos, and now he's working with avocado farmers. How do these thefts go down?

WEXLER: Yeah. So typically, what happens is there is a truck in South Africa - we call it a bakkie, but it's a pickup truck in the U.S. And that pickup truck will come and will drop off a group of thieves, you know, maybe three, four or five, six, seven guys. And they'll cut their way through the fence. And they basically just go into these avocado groves, and they go wild picking avocados. And in a couple of hours, they can pick, easily, a ton of avocados. And that's about how much a pickup truck can carry.

Where these avocados eventually end up is in markets where consumers can buy them as well as wholesalers. And one of the major issues that farmers cite with this, besides for, obviously, losing their avocados and losing their income from them, is that consumers will purchase these avocados - and the thieves don't know which ones to pick. So the thieves could have picked avocados that wouldn't be ripe for months still. And then the consumers buy them. And basically, the avocados never ripen. So they kind of sit there, hard as rocks, and then just go off. And so, farmers are concerned that it will turn consumers off of their product. And people who buy avocados at markets that were originally stolen then will say, you know, the last time I bought avocados, they, you know, never really ripened, and then they went off. So I'm not going to buy avocados for a while now. And that could possibly hurt demand.

CORNISH: How unusual is this? Is South Africa the only country dealing with this?

WEXLER: No. So this is a worldwide problem in countries that grow avocados. California actually has an avocado theft-reporting hotline. And in Mexico, it's something that's been a kind of centerpiece of cartel fighting. In certain parts of Mexico where avocados are grown, there are cartels battling to control the trade in this fruit which is in, you know, multiple billions of dollars.

CORNISH: Alexandra Wexler is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Thank you for sharing your reporting with us.

WEXLER: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRUMB SONG, "M.R.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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