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Corn Heists and Crime in Argentina Port

August 29, 2014
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The 200 pesos ($24) that truck driver Hector Jofre usually carries to bribe gang members or shanty dwellers for access to Argentina’s biggest grain port did no good one night in April.

Six youths in a pickup climbed on the back of the rig when Jofre slowed near a railroad track. They opened hatches that spilled 10 metric tons of corn onto 100 meters of road and swept up as much as they could. Jofre says it took three more deliveries without pay to compensate his employer for the loss.

"It used to happen once a month," said Jofre, 31. "Now it’s every day. Truckers are getting spooked."

Truck drivers in Argentina, the world’s third-largest exporter of corn and soybeans, say theft and extortion are on the rise at the main port, Rosario. While police have pledged to step up security, escalating crime has boosted shipping fees and compounded delays at terminals, threatening the country’s biggest source of dollar income at a time when Argentina’s debt crisis has sent central bank reserves near an eight-year low.

As grain supplies arrive from a harvest that is almost complete, thieves are targeting cargo, fuel and personal belongings on trucks headed into Rosario, where increasing drug trafficking led to a doubling of the murder rate in three years. The river city handles 80 percent of agricultural exports, and is known as Argentina’s Chicago--the deadliest municipality in the U.S.--for its link with commodities and crime.

Jeopardizing Profit

While data on agricultural crime isn’t available, police and port authorities interviewed by Bloomberg News say incidents are on the rise, affecting deliveries to grain handlers including Cargill Inc. and Archer-Daniels Midland Co. Even railway owner Belgrano Cargas & Logistica SA added security after convoys were looted in the province of Santa Fe, which includes Rosario.

"The federal and provincial governments need to get a grip on the situation," said Ernesto Ambrosetti, chief economist at the Rural Society, the largest farming group. "It isn’t just jeopardizing public safety, but also the ability of the nation’s agricultural industry to operate profitably."

Government and police officials pledged to step up security near Rosario’s 28 export terminals after meeting with drivers on Aug. 6, the Federation of Argentine Truck Drivers, which represents about 6,000 drivers, said in a statement. After receiving the assurances, the union said it canceled a planned strike to protest the crime wave.

Rising Costs

Fernando Sostre, a spokesman for the Argentine Federal Police, declined to comment when contacted by telephone in Buenos Aires. Damian Umansky, a spokesman for Santa Fe Governor Antonio Bonfatti didn’t respond to two voice-mail messages seeking comment, and the provincial police office in Rosario didn’t respond to six telephone calls seeking comment.

Theft losses and demands from truckers for more pay to deliver in danger zones has sent grain-shipping costs surging, Ambrosetti said by telephone from Buenos Aires.

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