- By Park MacDougaldPark MacDougald is an assistant editor at Foreign Affairs.
With the economic crisis in Spain (and Europe as a whole) showing few signs of abating, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that robberies are on the rise in the country. This is especially true in Spain’s agricultural eastern regions, where the large-scale theft of fruit, garlic, and farm equipment is growing more frequent.
In Valencia, whose orange industry has helped Spain become Europe’s biggest producer of the fruit, rural thefts rose 20 percent in the first quarter compared to the previous year, according to AVA, the local agricultural association.
AVA forecasts that the robberies could cost the region’s farmers, many of whom barely cover their costs from selling oranges, 20 million euros this year, up from 15 million euros in 2012 and 2011, because of lost produce and damage.
To counter the problem, Spain’s police have sent in the cavalry, dispatching two squadrons of mounted Civil Guards to the region to help run down thieves.
Though they arrived in late May, as the orange picking season ended, police say the horseback patrols have at least led to a hiatus in crimes, and are effective in startling robbers unable to hear them coming through the fruit trees….
Valencia’s Civil Guard – responsible for smaller towns outside the remit of national police – said they had already made 50 arrests related to orange thefts in April, when they began a crackdown. Those charged so far are all Spaniards.
Incidents like these have been common for a few years — 2011 saw 5,000 more agriculture-related thefts than 2010 — with criminals operating independently or in gangs to steal produce and equipment for their resale value. More recently, the phenomenon has turned violent, with the death in April of a watchman who was shot while attempting to stop a group of suspected thieves.
The reasons for the thefts range from the obvious to the arcane. It seems hardly worth pointing out that a country with 26.8 percent unemployment will experience a rash of property crime, especially if that unemployment is coupled with cuts to social services on which unemployed people would normally depend. In addition, agriculture is a sector in which defense against theft is difficult, owing to the vast amounts of land that must be policed at all hours — a problem just as present in California as in Spain — leaving farmers to fend for themselves with community patrols or hired hands.
On a more local level, Spanish law provides for little more than a slap on the wrist for those convicted of petty theft, which means that robbery could remain lucrative even if you’re caught in the act.
The economic crisis and the difficulty of policing vast tracts of land are problems that won’t disappear any time soon, and Spain’s budget troubles make additional investment in policing or surveillance technologies unlikely. Strengthening the laws for theft could offer the country some relief. But, in the meantime, orange you glad you’re not a Spanish farmer?