SANT CLIMENT DE LLOBREGAT, Spain — Some hard-up Spaniards are stealing the earth's bounty from farmers to help get by, including one case in which a prized calf was killed and filleted overnight by thieves.
Police have added the patrolling of farmland — sometimes on horseback — to their list of daily tasks. Farmers in some areas are teaming up to carry out nighttime patrols on their own.
In villages near farming areas, several thousand paramilitary Civil Guards, regional and local police are even setting up checkpoints to sniff out not drugs or drunken drivers but stolen fruit or farming equipment, like copper wire used in irrigation systems. The Civil Guard says sometimes its officers mount "cage operations" — sealing off whole villages to check cars and trucks for, say, pilfered pears.
The stolen goods are mainly for resale: The food ends up in small roving street markets and the metal goes to scrap dealers. Last year alone more than 20,000 thefts were reported at Spanish farms. The Interior Ministry says it has no comparative figures from other years, or for so far in 2012. But authorities and farm groups blame the thefts on Spain's economic crisis and say they are a big enough problem for the patrols, which began last season, to stay in force this year.
Here in Sant Climent, a village of 4,000 just outside Barcelona in the northeastern Catalonia region, the loot this time of year is cherries — dark red, shiny and sweet — dangling like ornaments from stubby trees in orchards rising up the slopes of a river valley. They're everywhere, with people selling them from their front doorsteps and on stands inside bars for €8 a kilo ($4.50 a pound). A drawing of a cherry adorns the mayor's business card.
What is happening is hardly an invasion of starving unemployed people gorging themselves on cherries and trudging back into town with red-stain criminal evidence all over them. Nor is Spain's agricultural sector, which accounts for about 3 percent of GDP, in jeopardy. But the theft reflects a real problem for Spain's farmers and is a reflection of how harsh times are making ordinary people turn to crime.
"This has emerged because of social alarm. Because of the crisis, crime is up," said the local police chief, Ernesto Banos. "And when cherry season comes around, people say, 'what now, cherries? OK, let's go get them."
The usual suspects can be surprising, or not. "Retirees, unemployed people, young people," said Banos.
Sure, at some point we've all climbed a fence and stolen a neighbor's apple. And in Spain, theft from farms — an unguarded field is an easy target — has always been around to some degree.
"But the increase that has taken place since the crisis started a few years ago has been spectactular," said Estrella Larrazabal, spokeswoman for a farm association called Asaja. "Thieves take anything they can get their hands on."
In one case, a rancher in central Spain went out one morning to view his 200-head herd of cattle and found two prized calves which had just been released into the pack shot in the head at point-blank range, and perfectly slaughtered. They were to have been prized breeders. But only the bony carcasses, with heads attached, remained in the muddy field. "Those animals were phenomenal. They were spectacular. Really fat, very well treated, and after five or six days in the field, they killed them," said the rancher, Eulogio Morales.
Sheep rancher and lemon grower Vicente Carrion, head of the local branch of a farm lobby in the lush eastern region of Murcia, said thieves plan their hits according to what crops are getting good prices. So they are like futures traders, only instead of monitoring oil or gold, they watch artichoke or orange prices. "If there is no price, they don't touch it." Carrion said. "Prices are not stable over the course of the year. When they peak, that is when they strike."
Carrion says he knows of cases where gangs have stolen up to 5,000 kilos (2.3 tons) of oranges in one go. They act in broad daylight, picking the fruit under the thick cover of leafy groves, packing them in crates and loading them in trucks. Non-tree crops require a bit more stealth. "At night, they act when the moon is full. It is bright. They sneak in and steal your artichokes," Carrion said.
In Sant Climente, police say that every night they man checkpoints looking for stolen countryside goodies. The town is small, so strangers' faces stand out, and officers also know what kind of vehicles to look out for: "Usually beaten up old vans," said Joan Prunera, a Catalan regional police chief from a neighboring town who is helping out with the patrols. Minutes after he spoke, a farmer phoned in a tip: Someone was out there trying to sell a chain saw and an electrical generator, both apparently stolen.
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