When the violence in Mexico’s tequila-producing region was nearing its peak, distillery owner Felipe Camarena awoke one night at his home in the town of Arandas to the sound of machine gun fire. It continued sporadically through the rest of the night.
“It was awful,” the distiller said, insisting he saw 15 bodies carried away as he peered through his bedroom window, though the local press later reported only two deaths. “I thought, ‘Is this a war or what?'”
Around the time of that incident in 2011, tequila producers in the highlands of Jalisco state in western Mexico faced a wave of threats, attempted kidnappings and extortion, Camarena told VICE News. He said criminal gangs would also charge them a quota for importing agave — the spiky blue cactus-like plant from which tequila is made — from neighboring Michoacán.
The violence, that was primarily blamed on the Zetas drug cartel, has faded in the last couple of years as the organization has lost influence in the region and the country after its main leaders were captured or killed by government forces, and it lost several key turf battles to rivals. But the shadow of organized crime still hangs over the emblematic industry in signs that smaller distillers are being pulled into networks laundering criminal profits for groups such as the New Generation Jalisco Cartel, or CJNG.