Rise of the crop rustlers

Farmland robberies have spiked since the crisis struck and desperate growers are demanding action Tools, machinery, fuel, copper and foodstuffs are all being taken

Farmer José Alapont from Silla, Valencia province, stands in his onion field which was ransacked by thieves the night before.
Farmer José Alapont from Silla, Valencia province, stands in his onion field which was ransacked by thieves the night before.JOSÉ JORDÁN

Spain's farmland is under attack. Growers declare themselves unable to protect their crops from increasingly frequent raids by thieves.

It's been said there have always been crop rustlers around, but the crisis is creating an untenable situation, says José Alapont, 69, a third-generation farmer from Valencia.

"The day before yesterday I'd just watered a field and they took 300 onions, which are not even worth much, but they stomped [other crops down] all over the place... The worst part about the theft is that they destroy everything, and the costs become much higher. We're sick and tired of all this."

Some farmers live in isolated little villages, others are concealed by surrounding forest land, yet others own vast expanses of cropland, but they all share the same concern: the unremitting raids on their properties. In 2011 there were 20,481 cases of theft at agricultural and livestock operations, including robberies of tools, machinery, fuel, copper and food, according to the Interior Ministry. That is 5,000 more thefts than reported the previous year. Associations estimate that figures remained stable in 2012, but they have noticed a spike this year.

In the Valencia region, one of the hardest hit by crop rustling according to the agricultural association Asaja, theft was up 17 percent in January and February 2013 compared with the same months in 2012. The Valencian Agricultural Association (AVA) reported damage worth 15 million euros last year, while the forecast for this year is around 20 million.

"The problem is they always steal less than 400 euros' worth, which means they get away scot-free, but the damages often reach 15,000 to 20,000 euros, because two or three weeks of harvesting may be lost while the equipment is being repaired," explains Sergio Carbó, spokesman for AVA.

Patrolling is not our job. Ours is to work by day and rest at night"

For years, farmers have been requesting tougher criminal sanctions to dissuade "expert thieves who steal 200 euros' worth of stuff a week yet nothing happens to them."

Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón met with Asaja representatives this month and promised them that the upcoming reform of the code will add one- to three-year prison sentences for agricultural theft, regardless of the value of the stolen articles. But ministry sources said it is impossible for the reform to be implemented before the summer, which is when most thefts take place.

The Union of Small Agriculturists criticizes a lack of effective policing in the countryside. "We need more Civil Guard patrols out in the fields, and you can tell there have been spending cuts because they used to show up from time to time," says Montserrat Cortiñas, vice-secretary general of the union. "People are really disconcerted and worried because every single theft creates a huge sense of insecurity. They're literally inside your home."

Alapont, the farmer whose onion crop disappeared, is also the president of the agricultural committee of the town of Silla, 13 kilometers south of Valencia. Every summer, from June to August, they organize farmer patrols that go out in threes along with the rural guards, preventing theft and confronting rustlers. They head out around 8pm and watch over their crops until 4am, just two hours before getting up again to do their regular day's work. But this year they are considering starting their vigilante work in May.

"It works, but it's not the system that should be used," notes Alapont. "We've been doing it for over 15 years; before that, thieves used to take away the more expensive fruit such as melons and watermelons. Now it all gets stolen: onions, potatoes, oranges..." When the patrols detect a thief they call in the Civil Guard, but the rustlers often disappear into the brush.

"Patrolling is not our job. Our job is to work by day and rest by night," says Armando Caballero, who has just spent 5,000 euros on an irrigation system that is twice as expensive but harder to pull out of the ground than the one he had stolen last October.

We confronted them, but they beat us up and even took the shed doors"

The Valencian region is an ocean of orange trees divided into small properties of half a hectare to a hectare each. Many of these fields are owned by elderly people who hire farmhands to harvest the crops for them. Since their faces are unfamiliar, the neighbors cannot tell whether the people picking fruit next door are supposed to be there or not.

"I'm 78 years old; four or five years ago I was already retired, but I went to help my son with the orange trees," recalls Juan Faus, a farmer from the Valencian village of Rótova. "We saw three individuals stealing our tools and confronted them because we were sick and tired of it. But they beat us up and even took the doors of the shed."

José Antonio Ruiz is a grower from Cheste, where in early April some thieves shot and killed a watchman in an orange grove. Ruiz says homes are now also getting broken into and the villagers are scared. "When you hear these stories, your get goosebumps. It could happen to anyone."

In other parts of Spain, growers are bracing themselves for looting when their own crops are ready for harvesting. In Daimiel and Argamasilla de Alba, north of Ciudad Real, vineyard owners are already getting their plants pulled out of the ground - thieves are making off with the sticks that train the vines to sell them at scrapyards or take them out of the country, as though they were copper.

"They just don't stop! They steal everything that sells on the market and now they're even going into homes with people inside, and when they get caught they say they came to beg for food and money," says Cristóbal Jiménez, a vineyard owner in Argamasilla de Alba.

"You'd have to use city technology to watch the countryside. It is relatively cheap to protect the most valuable things, like machinery or crop silos," explains Jesús Antonio Gil Ribes, a professor of agricultural engineering at Córdoba University.

Still, Gil Ribes insists it is practically impossible to eradicate agricultural theft on Spain's farmland, which covers over 20 million hectares, or around half of the national territory. "It is obvious that one cannot control everything, but those citizen patrols are dangerous because there could be an undesirable clash."

"The star of the show is copper, but they steal anything they can sell. For a few grams of copper they take the sprinklers. To make 1,000 euros, they destroy equipment worth more than 6,000 euros," says Jiménez, the vineyard owner. "If they come two or three times, insurance companies raise your rates and demand you put in extra security measures. But how are we going to install alarms in the fields? What if a bird sets one off at 3am? That won't work."

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