RICARDO BOIX, a Spanish farmer who lives off his small fruit groves in Valencia’s hilly back country, thought the theft of nearly $6,000 worth of his oranges was bad enough.
But over Easter, tragedy struck when one of the two Bulgarian farm hands he had hired to guard the rest of his crop was shot in the back and killed by robbers they had surprised.
The killing was the most serious incident yet in what fruit growers in the eastern Spanish region say is a big rise in raids on everything from oranges, picked in the thousand of kilos straight off the trees, to tools and even metal gates and beehives.
“We’ve always had robberies, but not to these extremes,” said Mr Boix, 49, who continues to work with his five full-time staff as before, unable to afford extra security for his plots spread out around the town of Cheste.
While overall crime fell slightly in Spain in 2012, robberies are up since the economic crisis began in 2008.
Last year thefts involving forcible entry into properties grew just over 25 per cent, official data shows, with the least densely populated regions among the worst hit. Prolonged recession and record unemployment have hit rural areas hard, forcing more people into poverty and desperation after a two-decade economic boom turned to bust.
Farm robbers have become more sophisticated, running illegal warehouses and networks that sell their wares to local shops, juice producers or scrapyards, farmers and police say.
“With the crisis we’ve got, people need to eat, they’re resorting to whatever they can,” Mr Boix said. His employee’s killer has not been caught.
Along with the southern region of Andalusia, known for its olive oil, orange hub Valencia is one of the regions with the highest thefts of produce and machinery and local politicians have raised the alarm, asking for more resources to fight crime.
From the theft of 300 kilos of garlic, ripped out of the earth from one family’s farm near Cordoba, in Andalusia, to truckloads of tools stolen from bigger operations, farmers say thefts are becoming more daring.
Those with meagre means are taking security into their own hands, organising night watches and vigilante groups.
In southerly Murcia, Agrar Systems, a subsidiary of German vegetable producer Behr AG with 1,000 hectares of salad fields in Spain, installed alarms on its machinery three years ago and hired more guards, but that has not deterred robbers. Pedro Maestre, one of the managers, woke up on Tuesday morning this week to find thieves had raided workers’ accommodation, now empty after the end of the season, and stolen 60 mini-fridges and other equipment.
“They came in a truck, and they’ve now been caught, but the damage is done,” he said, adding that annual losses on stolen or damaged produce were reaching €50,000.
To counter the problem, Spain’s police have sent in the cavalry, dispatching two squadrons of mounted Civil Guards to the region to Valencia to help run down thieves. But locals fear police efforts will be meaningless unless Spain changes the law that imposes only light punishment for thefts of anything worth less than €400.
“You can try and look out for your neighbours, but when you drive past someone picking fruit, with a van, in broad daylight, how do you know they’re a thief?” said Mr Boix.