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Cattle Rustling Menaces Rural LatAm Communities

Cows in Nicaragua, where rustling is growing Cows in Nicaragua, where rustling is growing

In early September, Costa Rica's Security Minister Mario Zamora announced a multi-agency strategy involving security forces, the Public Ministry and the Judicial Investigation Organization. But he wasn't targeting drug trafficking or violence; he was striking out at cattle theft.

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The announcement came two weeks after a Nicaraguan farmer with connections to Costa Rica was murdered alongside his son near the Costa Rican border in an apparent act of revenge for cattle rustling. So far this year, Costa Rican authorities have reported dismantling four gangs dedicated to cattle theft; a crime they say has escalated in recent months.  

But Costa Rican authorities are not the only ones concerned about the practice, which afflicts rural communities from northern Mexico to southern Argentina. In July, Nicaraguan National Police Commissioner Aminta Granera declared the crime was growing year on year, as she announced more than 100 cattle rustling gangs had been dismantled in the first six months of 2013. 

In the absence of a comprehensive regional study on the phenomenon, it is hard to place a value on cattle rustling. In one department of Bolivia alone, $2 million of cattle is reportedly stolen each year. In Colombia, in the first half of 2013 almost 1,300 head of cattle were stolen -- worth approximately $1 million, based on figures from previous years.

Meanwhile, the past year has seen reports of a growth in rustling in rural zones throughout the region, including in Colombia, Chile and Mexico.

In June, an investigation by Mexican newspaper El Universal highlighted the problem not only of rustling, but also of cattle trafficking. With beef prices almost doubling between Guatemala and Mexico, the newspaper reported an annual influx of up to $30 million of illegally trafficked cattle into the latter country.

InSight Crime Analysis

Cattle rustling has a long history in Latin America and in the 19th century was even employed as a form of rural protest against social inequality. Today in Colombia it is still used by rural insurgents, with left-wing guerrillas stealing cattle to menace landowners, as well as to feed troops and raise funds.

However, in most regions it is carried out by small gangs, which sell the cattle locally for quick illegal slaughter, or traffic them to neighboring countries where prices are higher. For that reason, rustling is often felt hardest where cattle pastures are found in borderlands, such as between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and Uruguay and Brazil.

As shown in the El Universal investigation, cattle theft and trafficking can also occur on a much larger scale and involve major transnational drug smuggling groups. It can even be an early step on the path towards transnational organized crime -- as local knowledge and influence over officials is critical to any kind of contraband smuggling, the transportation of one product can easily lead to another. Perhaps the most infamous example of this is Nelson and Javier Rivera -- two former car thieves and cattle rustlers that went on to be key members of one of Honduras' most powerful trafficking networks, the Cachiros.

According to El Universal, in Mexico the worlds of cattle rustling and drug trafficking have to some extent begun to merge. El Universal reported that drug-filled condoms had been anally inserted into cattle to smuggle product northwards. At the time of publication, InSight Crime had not received a requested copy of the report this claim was based upon. However, should it be true, with 1.5 million head of Mexican cattle entering the United States each year, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), this poses the question of whether such methods could be, or have been, used to transport drugs into the United States.

While cattle rustling is a growing problem in many places in the region, there have also been some success stories in attempts to fight the practice. Uruguay has reported year on year reductions in the crime since 2005. In part this is due to the presence of "Bepras" -- brigades dedicated to combating rustling -- which carry handsets to read chips implanted in the ears of all cattle at birth as part of a national registration system in place since 2003.

In Chile too, there are positive signs, with a "frontal war" on rustling reported to be yielding results following the introduction in June of a new national system of oversight for cattle transportation.

However, Uruguay and Chile are two of the countries least afflicted by corruption in the region. Elsewhere registration systems exist, but have been subverted by corrupt officials. In a case in Nicaragua late last year, two deputy mayors from neighboring municipalities were arrested for providing false documentation for stolen cattle. In Mexico, a similar problem exists, with El Universal noting the ease criminals have in acquiring the necessary paperwork to transport cattle northwards from the Guatemalan border region. If cattle rustling is to be truly tackled, then addressing this corruption rather than implementing expensive monitoring systems may be the key.

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