It’s election year for the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM) which means high drama, petitions, accusations of malfeasance and more. .
The set up seemed fairly straightforward, the CRM would hold elections this year, with long time president Hipocrates Nolasco stating on April 22nd he would not seek re-election. Our piece here covered what seemed to be a fairly straightforward schedule of how things would proceed. But like so many things in life, that which should be simple and straightforward rarely is. We know from the past that election years with the CRM are never without drama and what is happening now continues that trend.
Here is a brief summary of what has happened thus far:
- On May 8th, the CRM held an assembly with delegates from each of the states in the DO. These delegates were selected during a general assembly in 2019. The smaller gathering was held in lieu of a large general assembly due to Covid restrictions on gatherings, a claim that has been disputed. At this assembly, the delegates voted to change some of the articles of operation, and to create various committees to act as checks and balances for the organization. However, during the assembly, Abelino Cohetero Villegas, former General Director and candidate for President, attempted to stop the meeting, claiming it was an unlawful assembly and that a full general assembly was necessary to vote on the proposed changes. He was removed from the meeting. The full rundown of the assembly can be read here. It is important to note that the assembly extended Nolasco’s office term by several days as it was due to expire on May 15th, before the election that has been called for May 25th in Mexico City. Delegates and candidates had until May 15th to register their intention to participate.
- On May 11th, a memo was circulated on what appeared to be official CRM stationary, announcing a general assembly in San Dionisio Ocotepec to elect new leadership. The assembly was called by CRM Vice President C. Nolasco Cruz. This was quickly denounced by Nolasco and declared false.
- On May 15th, the assembly called by Cruz was held in San Dionisio Ocotepec with more than 300 producers present. A vote was held and Abelino Cohetero Villegas was elected president, Cirilo Hernández Martinez Vice President, Pedro Méndez Jiménez Secretary and Lucio Humberto Morales Garcia Treasurer. This was immediately declared unlawful by Nolasco saying that Cruz did not have the standing to call for the assembly. Additionally, Nolasco released details about the May 25th assembly, including the the candidates for leadership.
- On May 16th, the CRM office in the Volcanes neighborhood in Oaxaca was broken into and computers (and more) were stolen. There were accusations from both sides that the other party was responsible, the people arrested allegedly had ties to Nolasco.
As of today, both groups claim they are the legitimate leaders of the CRM. The May 25th assembly in Mexico City to elect new CRM leadership is still slated to happen,
How did we get here?
During Nolasco’s leadership, the mezcal category saw exponential growth and international success. NOM-70 was created, and the input of Nolasco and others was responsible for creating three categories of mezcal (Ancestral, Artesenal, Mezcal) that would help support traditional mezcal making processes and small producers. Oh the unintended consequences of best intentions. As we discuss here, Nolasco’s leadership was not without controversy: There were frequent and difficult discussions about the size of the DO, who was in control of the very word “mezcal” and even questions about his ownership of a lab that certified mezcal.
It’s important to understand that the growing discontent with Nolasco’s leadership was happening against the larger backdrop of national politics in Mexico. The election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), and his populist campaign, empowered people to speak out more against systems they perceived as corrupt and this trickled down to mezcal producers who have been frustrated by the delays and difficulties in getting certified, the costs of certification, and the general sense that it was time for new leadership and a new direction.
Enter Abelino Cohetero Villegas… Villegas has been a part of the CRM for the past 18 years. He has worked his way up through the ranks, beginning as a certifier, ultimately becoming Director General, the number two man for Nolasco, a position he left earlier this year. Because of his different roles, Villegas has a great deal of knowledge about the CRM operation and has spent time cultivating relationships with producers all over Oaxaca and elsewhere. Taking a cue from AMLO, he began a very grassroots campaign and connected with producers over their growing frustrations. He is well liked and there is hope that he can herald through some changes that will benefit producers and open the door for more and smaller producers to become certified. He is not without his detractors, and the accusations and vitriol thrown his way includes poor management of the lab certification process, an issue at the heart of what the CRM does.
What does it all mean?
What there seems to be broad consensus on is the need for a regulatory body for Mezcal. Does this current round of chaos at the CRM diminish its standing? Absolutely, especially now that there are other organizations that have been given a green light to certify mezcal as we explain here. But the fact remains that the CRM has developed a robust organization that has grown beyond only certifying mezcal. It will take a few years for those other organizations to develop the infrastructure the CRM has, from the Mezcal.com website that highlights producers and more, to the international marketing arm and to the immense database they have built over the years that details production processes, agave reforestation, resources, producers and more.
Despite calls from some areas to get rid of the CRM, that is very unlikely. In Estado Unidense parlance, the CRM might just be too big to fail.