Orange grove gangs are product of Spanish crisis

Tue Jun 11, 2013 10:22am EDT
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By Sarah White

CHESTE, Spain (Reuters) - 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 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 small 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 percent, 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 as Spain undergoes a painful transformation 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.

"PEOPLE NEED TO EAT"   Continued...

Farmer Ricardo Boix shows his hands as he works on a vineyard of his property in Cheste near Valencia, May 31, 2013. REUTERS/Heino Kalis