El Salvador officials have announced the deployment of more than 3,000 troops to protect coffee farms from theft — a puzzling move, given that crop theft is not considered one of the major threats to the country’s coffee industry.
Justice and Public Security Minister Rogelio Rivas announced in November the National Plan for Coffee Security 2019-20, which calls for the deployment of 1,600 police and 1,700 soldiers to combat robbery, theft and smuggling of raw coffee beans, reported La Prensa Gráfica. Officials say that the security force will also protect some 50,000 coffee workers — including owners and farmers — from extortion and other threats, reported Seguridad 360.
Since President Nayib Bukele took office in June, he has initiated several hardline policies to tackle organized crime. His $31 million Territorial Control Plan put 2,500 officers and 3,000 soldiers in San Salvador and other cities to recover territory occupied by gangs in 17 municipalities.
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Five years ago, coffee theft was a rising concern, costing farmers some $400,000 in 2014, reported La Prensa Gráfica. Armed gangs ambushed farms at night, attacking trucks that transported beans. Approximately three percent of the total production that season was stolen, according to estimates by the Coffee Growers Association. Orestes Ortez, then the country’s agriculture minister, acknowledged the problem at the time, dispatching police to protect coffee farms and trace buyers of the stolen beans.
But recently, there simply haven’t been any significant reports of coffee theft, raising questions as to why this massive deployment was needed at all. It is essentially surprising that over 3,000 troops should be deployed to protect coffee plantations when Bukele deployed just 5,550 men in June to reclaim territory from organized crime gangs, a far more pressing problem.
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The misplaced decision to deploy troops to protect coffee seems to be a continuation of Bukele’s “mano duro” policies — an approach that is gaining him support. A poll conducted by Prensa Gráfica in August showed that a large percentage of Salvadorans report feeling safe in places they frequently visit, such as their neighborhoods and supermarkets, reported AS/COA. Further, according to the same poll, two-thirds of citizens also have a positive view of the police force.
The Bukele administration’s move to deploy troops to coffee farms will not have much of an effect on larger concerns for coffee farmers, which include major loss of productivity due to climate change and leaf rust fungus, as well as massive debts. Bean prices have also been hit hard recently, reaching their lowest monthly average in about 13 years in April 2019, according to the International Coffee Organization.
The criminal issue that has persisted on coffee farms is extortion, including on the payroll: gangs coerce farmers to create no-show jobs for their members. But the presence of additional law enforcement is unlikely to help as extortion is El Salvador’s pre-eminent criminal economy.