Welcome to the Spanish Wild West

With its cattle rustlers and vigilantes, there's a Western feel to rural Spain of late

Luis Gómez
Armed forest rangers watch over the olive harvest on a farm in Córdoba province.
Armed forest rangers watch over the olive harvest on a farm in Córdoba province. JUAN MANUEL VACAS

Residents of some villages in Ourense province, near the border with Portugal, are asking themselves one question: who will eat the 15,000 kilograms of meat resulting from the nearly 100 calves recently stolen by a gang of cattle rustlers? It used to be they would steal 13 at a time, but a few days ago the thieves broke their own record, making off with 53 animals in one swoop.

There is a decidedly Wild West feel about the Spanish countryside lately, where it is not uncommon to find vigilante patrols and mysterious cattle rustlers roaming the land.

There are three raids on crops or livestock every hour, and that's on a good day. These attacks take place most frequently in southeastern Spain, with Almería and Valencia the hardest hit. It is a low-key kind of violence (or low-intensity, in the industry jargon) because the countryside does not get the kind of media attention that densely populated areas do. But it has already been going on regularly for four years. And the most dangerous part is that the stolen material enters the consumption chain through flea markets, street stalls or even the conventional retailers.

The stockgrowers near Limia (Ourense) hope to get some answers soon. In the meantime, they trust that authorities will arrest the cattle rustlers any day now. "They brought a truck and two vans," says one local about the latest heist. "Since January there have been five robberies, most of them at feeding stations owned by the Coren Group. They steal the calves when they are nine months old, they have that kind of information. They have a contact somewhere who should be easy to find."

From vigilantes to hired guards

L. G.

Crop growers and livestock breeders have moved from indignation to resignation, and reached a conclusion: if you want security, you have to pay for it. That is why many organizations are now admitting the era of vigilante patrols has ended.

It was risky and it was wearing them out. "We can't be working by day and patrolling by night," says one farmer. The latest harvests — oranges — were conducted in the presence of hired security personnel. "They are hired through cooperatives or in partnership with hunting grounds," explains Alejandro García of the Coordinator of Farmers and Ranchers Organizations (COAG). "At least it sends out the message that somebody is watching."

Two of the criminals' main traits are their mobility and access to information: they act according to market prices and seasonal products. Rafael Cervera of the UPA farming union explains: "It's happening now with lemons. It was an unattractive product until this year, but the harvest was good and the freezing weather in Turkey has been beneficial to us. So now we're being raided like never before."

But the most recurring complaint has to do with the deployment of Civil Guards, or rather, with their withdrawal and lack of training. "They don't have the lay of the land, they don't have information from local residents like they used to," says a source.

A spokesman for the law enforcement agency's majority union, AUGC, agrees: "There are fewer agents because of an excessive bureaucratization of the agency. There are more people sitting in offices than on patrol."

Meanwhile, agricultural organizations are questioning the effectiveness of the police's efforts: "They said they would use digital maps of the crop land, but I haven't seen any," says Vicente Carrión, from Valencia.

The same resident quickly does the math and comes to the same conclusion as the breeders: "Each live calf is 400 kilos. That's cuts of 200 kilos after going through the slaughterhouse. Listen here, that's maybe 10,000 to 15,000 kilos of meat if we include the eight attempts in four months. You need vets, slaughterhouses to bring all that to market... I think it's going to be easy to find them."

But the Ourense cattle rustlers have not been caught yet. People suspect they are crossing over into Portugal. But there is no news of them, except when they hit.

The crisis was and continues to be the excuse for a recurring phenomenon that every so often brings together industry groups and local authorities to discuss what's to be done. The raids are far from improvised jobs, and the raiders take advantage of the defenselessness of the agricultural and livestock sectors, industry groups claim. A significant amount of the raids are well planned and require significant organizational skills as well as inside information. It is a type of crime closely linked to crops and to market prices. And growing numbers of farmers and stockgrowers have come to suspect that some of the guilty parties are among them. That is why Civil Guard spokespersons are very prudent about describing the type of criminal involved: yes, there are citizens from Eastern European countries, but there are also Spaniards.

"Everything gets stolen: copper, iron, machinery, implements, sprinklers, solar panels, calves, lambs, pigs, processed food and crops. And not in small amounts, either. We're not talking about a few kilos of vegetables that the thief will sell by the roadside," notes Rafael Cervera, of the Union of Small Agriculturalists (UPA). "We're talking about 2,000 kilos that are going to enter the consumption chain."

"We were talking about this nine years ago already, but things have changed," says Andrés Góngora of the Coordinator of Farmers and Ranchers Organizations (COAG) in Almería. "They used to go for the copper a lot, but now they steal entire crops. So it was with the spring crops, with the fruit — first the melons and now the watermelons. If they steal 2,000 kilos, you know they're going to put it on the market; if they take 300 kilos, you know they're going to sell it by the roadside or in street markets. Now they're taking beehives. But the prime target is the machinery. We need to have greater control at the ports, at the scrapyards. It's a curious thing: they draw up a catalogue of products that could be stolen, they take notes and pictures of the equipment until they find a buyer. People should watch out for secondhand material."

Official figures talk about 15,434 "instances of theft at agricultural and livestock operations" during 2010. That number rose to 20,481 the following year, representing a 32-percent hike. What happened in 2012? What about so far this year? There is no comparable data, because the new government introduced a change in the methodology. Interior Ministry sources say that 2012 figures are similar to 2011, but that there was a spike in the last quarter. But what kind of a spike, if there are no comparable numbers to work with? The perception of the problem is very different among industry associations (UPA, COAG, Asaja) and their representatives in various Spanish regions, where they insist that the trend is clearly on the rise.

On April 27, 2011, then-Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba and Agriculture Minister Rosa Aguilar came up with an action plan. The Interior Ministry was adding 1,170 Civil Guard agents to patrol duty, and ordering the drafting of crop maps to assist with surveillance. Two years later, the Popular Party (PP) government not only maintains this plan but has even added 16 agents on horseback in the Mediterranean area. That is why it is hard to understand why the Socialists are now asking the current interior minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz, to explain the situation, except if it is simply to admit that both administrations have failed. The Socialists called in the infantry and the PP brought in the cavalry, but nobody so far has been able to stop the rustlers.

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