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French rural areas are facing a growing crime wave as thieves steal potatoes from the fields, grapes from the vines and expensive machinery from farms and showrooms.
On January 21, French gendarmes broke up a highly specialised international criminal organization. It wasn’t robbing armoured cars, luxury jewelry stores in Place Vendôme or tourists on the Paris Métro – it was stealing tractors.
The gang had mainly targeted dealerships for John Deere farm machinery, later selling the stolen tractors in Germany, Hungary and Romania.
The robbery that led to the network’s undoing occurred on the night of November 2-3, 2012, when three tractors were stolen from a farm machinery dealership in Haute-Vienne in the centre of France. Despite the apparently unusual nature of the crime, the local police quickly realized that this was not an isolated phenomenon. They suspected the existence of a criminal organization, and passed the case to the gendarmerie’s Central Office for the Fight against Itinerant Crime, which uncovered a network of international scope.
Tractors to order
Investigators say the gang always worked the same way. Some members, who lived in Spain, traveled to France to steal new tractors. The machines were then covered in tarps and loaded on trailers parked nearby. As the robbers returned to Spain, the trucks headed east, usually to Hungary. There another team was responsible for doctoring the appearance of the tractors and then selling them.
The authorities believe that 12 separate heists committed in France over the course of a year – in which 42 tractors worth approximately 3.2 million euros were stolen – are linked. Nine people of Romanian nationality have been arrested in Spain, Romania and France. The suspect arrested in France was charged with a variety of crimes and remanded in custody. The other eight, arrested in Spain and Romania, could be extradited to France in the coming days.
Over the past decade, the theft of tractors has been on the rise as organised crime has moved into the French countryside. The gendarmes, who had not been keeping a record of such crimes, asked the French National Supervisory Body on Crime and Punishment (ONDRP) to compile statistics. It concluded that 244 tractors were stolen from French farms in 2010, 255 the following year and 266 in 2012. These numbers do not include thefts from dealerships in agricultural machinery.
Machinery is not the only thing on farms that attracts criminals. According to the ONDRP, simple thefts from farms, excluding tractors, vehicles, fuel or burglaries in farm buildings, jumped 66.5 percent between 2006 and 2012.
Wire, fencing, irrigation equipment, tools, greenhouses, tanks and vines have all been targets. Livestock, sometimes butchered on site, and crops are being stolen from the fields.
Last summer 11 tons of peaches evaporated from the trees on two farms in Pyrenées-Orientales in the south, six tons of wheat vanished in the Vaucluse in the southeast, six more in the Nièvre in the heart of the country. In October, a farmer in Lorraine in the northeast awoke to find that thieves had taken a ton and a half of potatoes overnight. The previous week, a Bordeaux winemaker was unpleasantly surprised to discover 30 hectares of vines harvested without her knowledge.
Xavier Beulin, the president of the leading French farmers’ union, wrote an alarmed letter to Manuel Valls, the Minister of the Interior.
“Our rural areas find themselves itself facing a new form of organised looting,” Beulin wrote. “It is time to take action…What was yesterday pilfering has become a very organized system. Despite all precautions being taken, the situation is getting worse.”