Spain's Farmers Take Up Patrols To Prevent Theft; Blame Unemployment Woes

As Spain continues to grapple with the crippling financial crisis that has plagued much of the Eurozone and deals with widespread unemployment, the Iberian nation has also experienced the unsavory statistic of rising crime rates.

Common in many cities and countries that face economic turmoil, the increase in Spain has particularly affected Spaniards living in the country’s rural regions. Sheep, rabbits and tools have all gone missing from farms in the northern town of Albeda in the province of Aragon, prompting locals to take up nighttime patrols to guard their flocks and gear.

José Briá has had chickens, tools and eight rabbits stolen from him on three separate occasions. The thefts have kept him up at night worrying that thieves, who cut his locks, will leave his gates open and his sheep will destroy neighboring fields.

“Do you realize how much damage that would do?” he said, according to the New York Times. “Do you know what sheep are like when they are scared?”

While these farmers had for a while been immune to the economic problems that faced Spaniards in Madrid, Barcelona and other cities, residents now believe that hunger has driven thieves to take their animals.

“You don’t steal eight rabbits to sell them,” said Rosa Marques, one of the organizers of the patrols. “You steal eight rabbits for food.”

Spain’s financial problems began in full around 2008, when the country’s housing market collapsed, and worsened when it became clear how deeply entrenched the country’s saving banks were in the real estate market. As housing demand halted and the prices dropped, unemployment in the country jumped by 10 percent.

“As unemployment skyrocketed, so did unemployment benefits. In a welfare state like Spain, unemployment benefits are generous,” wrote Carrie Harrington of the University of Iowa Center for International Finance and Development. “However, what was a sustainable unemployment level quickly became a drain on the Spanish government.”

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has been introducing successive rounds of austerity measures aimed at preventing the country from being forced into a public finance bailout, but some of his moves – such as a steep hike in Spain's sales tax, and the elimination of one of the 14 yearly paychecks that public servants receive – have been met with public anger.

Now more than 6 million people unemployed for the first time, Spain's jobless rate shot up to a record 27.2% in the first quarter, the National Statistics Institute said.

The agency said the number of people unemployed rose 237,400 the first three months of the year, a 1.1% increase from the previous quarter. The number of people out of work stood at 6.2 million, first time the number has breached 6 million.

The number of people considered long-term unemployed — out of a job more than a year — increased to 3.5 million while the unemployment rate for those under 25 years old was a staggering 57 percent. The government also said its survey found the number of households without anyone working had risen by 72,400 to 1.91 million.

"The situation is really bad, with all the cuts that there have been, there are families that are going through a bad time because a lot of families have all the members unemployed and they don't have any income," said shop assistant Rodrigo Limpias , 30.

These unemployment rates are what is being blamed for the majority of the thefts on farms as local officials say the crooks fall into two categories: unemployed locals or bands of Romanian and Moroccan field workers who know the area.

Despite the rise in thefts, the crime rate overall in Spain has declined, with levels of homicides and drug trafficking both dropping.

The thefts, however, have made residents in regions where the police presence is scarce feel ill at ease and in the need of taking up their own patrols.

“All of our lives we were safe,” said José Maria Chesa, a farm owner. “We left the car keys in the ignition around here. But now I spend 20 minutes at the end of the day locking everything up, hiding keys under rocks and over doors. It’s not a nice way to live.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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