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Violent crime gallops across Argentina’s Pampas

July 25, 2005

By Karina Grazina

MERCEDES, Argentina (Reuters) – Argentina’s mythic gauchos
never had to worry much about crime aside from the occasional
cattle-rustling.

But in the last year, brutal crime that became endemic in
Buenos Aires’ suburbs since a 2001 economic crisis has spread
to the grassy Pampas. Criminals target farmers and ranchers,
including the cowboys known in Spanish as gauchos, who are
thriving because of a boom in the farm economy of Argentina,
one of the world’s breadbaskets.

“We are panicked at the thought we could be assaulted at
any moment,” said Alberto Despalanques, a cattle rancher from
Mercedes, 60 miles west of the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires.

“Before they stole a few animals and that was it, but now
we are seeing violent, commando-style raids. They steal trucks,
they tie people up and hit them,” he added.

Mercedes is a classic Pampas town, where Argentine cowboys
ride through the quaint streets in their colorful gaucho gear.
It is located in Buenos Aires province, a vast province the
size of Italy and a big grain grower as well as top producer of
succulent Argentine beef.

Argentina’s farm sector is booming thanks to high
international prices for grains and relatively low local costs
since the peso’s devaluation in 2002 amid economic chaos.

As a result, the countryside has begun to see more newly
rich residents while urban areas have sunk deeper into decay.
Criminal gangs took note and now organize hold-ups, ambushes
and even kidnappings in rural areas.

“When they find out you sold soybeans or beef or whatever,
they pounce on you at night,” Despalanques said.

Provincial officials say the incidence of rural crime has
fallen in recent years, but they admit that violence is up. And
to tackle this, they’ve organized a modern-day rural posse of
police officers to be aided by local scouts.

ANY GOOD GUYS?

“This year there have been more violent cases than last
year, but this is not specific to the countryside; it is a
reflection of what’s happening with crime in general,” said
Roberto Vasquez, a security official in Buenos Aires province.

Statistics show that rural crimes are down since 2002, but
analysts say government data are incomplete because many
victims are reluctant to give information to provincial police,
notorious for involvement in recent robberies and kidnappings.

A report by the New Majority Research Center underlined the
point: “A good portion of farmers do not report crimes because
they lack trust in the police.”

Ranchers used to leaving their cattle gates open and their
doors unlocked are easy prey for criminals. But many are now
turning their ranches into fortresses, just like in the
suburbs.

Some put bars on their windows, a barrier rarely seen
before in rural landscapes, while others install security
systems with automatic alarms or lights that go off when
someone approaches.

“I am no longer at ease. When I go out, I close up
everything and call my wife once an hour to see if everything
is all right, especially when night falls,” said Mercedes
farmer Guillermo Torres.

SCOUTING FOR CRIMINALS

Since the peso devaluation, robbers have also tried to
purloin grains and animals. To crack down on this, the
provincial government created rural police patrols in 2002.

These patrols have tripled in a year to more than 300 as
their duties expand to cracking down on violent crime in the
huge province.

Officials are also looking for more backup. They want the
help of local scouts, people who know the backcountry customs
and roads to help uncover criminals’ tracks through endless
flatlands.

Despite these measures and mounting evidence to solve rural
crimes, few perpetrators are behind bars.

“When they discovered how easy it was to steal in the
countryside, and get away with it, this attracted more people.
If these acts continue to go unpunished, it will be very hard
to put a stop to this,” Despalanques said.




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