GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Limes are to Mexican cuisine what olive oil is to Italian food and cheese is to French … you get the idea.
Here they squeeze the tangy green fruit over pretty much everything, from tacos and potato chips to fresh mango and coconut.
So it’s understandable that a sudden increase in lime prices would leave many Mexicans feeling that they are the ones being squeezed.
The average price for a kilo of limes soared 147 percent between December and February, according to figures compiled by Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography.
In some parts of the country, such as Guadalajara in the western state of Jalisco, the cost of limes has risen as much as 600 percent.
Vendors and consumers say they have never seen prices this high before.
A fruit and vegetable vendor at a street market in Guadalajara, Mexico, on March 27, 2014. (Allison Jackson/GlobalPost)
Until a couple of months ago, a kilo (2.2 pounds) of limes in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, cost around 10 to 15 pesos (77 US cents to $1.15).
Lime prices have since risen as high as 70 pesos a kilo, earning the fruit the nickname “green gold.”
“My sales have fallen 50 percent,” Juan Pablo Guerra Alvarado complained as he served customers at his fruit and vegetable stall in a street market.
“People who used to buy one kilo of limes now buy just half a kilo.”
The reason for the eye-watering prices is a shortage of limes.
Violence in the western state of Michoacan, a major production center for the citrus fruit, has led to a dramatic reduction in the harvest, vendors say.
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In the neighboring state of Colima, another prime lime growing area, farmers have been battling a bacterial disease called Huanglongbing, or citrus greening disease, that has already hit lime production in Florida.
Hurricanes followed by torrential rains along the Pacific and Gulf coasts late last year also severely damaged or wiped out many crops.
“Michoacan was practically the only state that was able to produce limes because the producers are not on the coast like in the other 22 citrus growing states,” Sergio Ramirez Castaneda, president of Michoacan-based industry group National System for Lime Production, told Spanish-language CNNExpansion.
He added that Michoacan would normally be harvesting 2,000 to 2,500 tons, but is now only harvesting 1,400 tons.
Limes for sale at a street market in Guadalajara, Mexico. (Allison Jackson/GlobalPost)
Mother-of-three Carmen Vazquez said she was shocked at the high prices for limes.
“I’ve never seen the price this high, never, never,” Vazquez said as she stocked up on fruits and vegetables for her family at the street market in Guadalajara.
“I’m buying fewer limes than before … half a kilo a week instead of a kilo.”
Many Mexicans have responded to the exorbitant prices as they do to any crisis: with large doses of humor.
"For sale, a beautiful engagement ring made of white gold and encrusted with a lime."
— Sabrina Vrhovski (@Sabritori) March 14, 2014
Others lamented that the sky-high prices were equivalent to the country’s minimum wage, which is around 67 pesos ($5.13) daily in Mexico City and other major cities.
"Something is terribly wrong when the system permits one kilo of limes to have the same value as eight hours work by a man," reads this tweet.
— yunyhelgueros (@yunyhelgueros) March 25, 2014
Limes have become such a precious commodity that gangs of thieves are even stealing them.
In March, a group of armed men stole a truck carrying nearly 16 tons of limes in the eastern state of Veracruz. The truck was later recovered without its valuable cargo estimated to have a commercial value of 948,000 pesos (about $72,500).
Even restaurants have to guard their treasured limes from light-fingered customers.
Silvana Alvarado, who runs a taco stand in Guadalajara, said she stopped leaving complimentary plates of lime wedges on the tables after customers started swiping them.
“We used to leave slices of lime on the tables, but customers were putting them in their bags,” Alvarado said.
“Now if a customer asks for lime we give it to them.”
But it's not just Mexicans who have felt the sting of higher lime prices.
Across the border in the United States the cost of limes has also risen sharply partly as a result of the shortage in Mexico, which is a major supplier.
The average retail price of limes for the week ending March 21 was 53 cents each, compared with 21 cents a year ago, according to the US Department of Agriculture statistics.
While Mexican lime prices have started to fall in recent weeks — they are hovering around 35 to 40 pesos a kilo in Guadalajara — they may not return to normal levels for some time.
"This year, we are in uncharted waters with limes," Raul Millan of New Jersey-based Vision Import Group told NPR.
"I've never seen limes at these prices."