Cattle theft, an unnecessary evil

By: Fernando R. Funes Monzote (Finca Marta agroecological project)

The theft and illegal slaughter of older cattle are one of the most serious problems that plague Cuban agriculture in the entire national geography. During the last decades, this phenomenon has been among the main sleeplessness of the farmers in Cuba and is one of the fundamental causes of livestock depression in the country.

This issue requires determined, directed, and articulated action to ensure calm on the ground and reduce the negative effect on the nation’s economy. The intention of these reflections is to denounce a scourge that corrodes us, which must be ended, through urgent measures to curb this unnecessary evil among all.

Last Sunday, May 17, the day of the Cuban peasant, between four and five in the afternoon, two of our cows were stolen from us. They were recently calved: Mariposa with nine days and Martica with eight. We had cared for them with zeal, even in the most difficult moments of the dry season we kept them well fed and in good physical condition for the delivery. They left us the calves, who do not stop bellowing, calling their mothers; now we will have to feed them the way we can.

We use the milk from our cows for self-consumption, for breakfast and to face the intense work of the day. We make the surplus cheese or feed the families of the team members. We are not high milk producers because the farm has only 8 hectares, of which a good part is planted with vegetables and trees, but we do have milk all year round as we usually keep five cows, in addition to oxen, steers, and calves. With the manure, we produce biogas that we use permanently for cooking, and we sell between two and four animals annually to the state company in charge of purchasing cattle. The prices we obtain for these animals are extremely low and do not stimulate their sale.

It is not the first time that cattle have been stolen from us, and this is the third time that animals have been removed from the farm. Thus we have lost four cows, a heifer and a calf just one-month-old. Cattle theft is like a plague, like cancer that wears down the Cuban countryside. It creates discouragement, apathy, and discomfort in the peasantry, which feels demoralized and unprotected.

Since we noticed the absence of the cows, ten men have spent two days and nights searching the mountains for any trace of the animals or those responsible for the event, but we have not been successful.

In our surroundings the panorama is terrifying. Perhaps this word sounds exaggerated, but I am right when you consider, for example, that Tato, a neighbor of the community, has been robbed in recent years of 62 cattle and 2 equines, and that Machadito has been little stripped a little bit of absolutely all its animals. Bulls, cows, oxen have been stolen from him… “the finish”, as he himself defines, “respect for the law has been lost and the bandits are at arm’s length”.

And so far this year, only in the closest environment, it is known that:

  • Torres, who lives in front of the school, in less than a month, four cows were taken from the corral.
  • Leoncito de Banes was brought a team of oxen and a heifer.
  • Our neighbor Sara a few days ago had her oxen team stolen and a mare with her calf.
  • Papito, who is going to sell all his cattle because he can no longer with the bandits, had a cow stolen that was in the days of giving birth.
  • Pedro Mirabal had two cows killed inside the corral, they cut off their legs and left them bleeding.
  • Vito, Don Mariano’s, was brought in by the team of oxen a few days ago.
  • José was robbed of a “very cute” bull, the remains of which they later found on the hill.
  • They took a heifer to Valiente and he wants to “remove” the animals.
  • Manuel was robbed of the mare.
  • Arzola had the calf taken from the corral.

The bandits’ campaign for their respect and the police are said to fear them. The worst thing is that some speculate that they have even conspired with thieves. In my conversations with municipal authorities, they have told me that when they capture the criminals and turn them over to the prosecution, they are sometimes acquitted for lack of evidence, apart from insufficient sentences.

The action of the police has to do, on the one hand, with the complexity and profusion of the problem and, on the other, with the mechanisms of action, which are usually not very effective. On the three occasions that we have been robbed (and I take our own case to get closer to the reality of the problem so that it is not seen as an abstract statistic but rather as something concrete), we have made the complaint at the National Revolutionary Police station, as provided by law. There they give us a certificate of theft of larger cattle if the animals do not appear, or of theft and sacrifice if their remains are found. Then the police officers come to the farm.

and inquire about the case, go through the scene, take a statement, and leave it as an open case that must be clarified or incorporated into other cases. They once brought in a sniffer dog that we took to the place where the animal was allegedly removed, but it was ineffective in keeping track of it. None of the three cases has been clarified.

Slaughterhouses are strategic, well-hidden places where they slaughter animals and prepare meat for buyers. It is also possible to find animal remains in other places such as a refuge or even in areas near the farm, but the most common procedure is for thieves to move the animals to where they are sure not to be discovered. Although the people of the area know the location of the illegal abattoirs, the usurpers continue to commit crimes, as most of the time the theft cannot be proven or they manage to sneak away.

On the other hand, there is a demand for beef and a large number of people are willing to receive it in order to feed their family. Even the inhabitants of towns and cities support those who are in charge of the distribution and sale of meat, without worrying about the origin.


A large number of thefts remain anonymous, many people have stopped reporting because “it is a tedious process, you have to dedicate the day to it and in the end, nothing is solved.”

For some reference, I do a very quick search on the internet and find in the Granma newspaper of July 13, 2015, an article that describes the debates of the Parliament’s Agri-Food Commission: “… during the first half of 2015, the theft and sacrifice of greater cattle decreased in 1 728 heads, taking as reference the same period of the preceding calendar, and the only provinces that do not ride the national ‘train’ tending to decrease are Cienfuegos, Pinar del Río, Havana, and Guantánamo; Despite the efforts, this crime requires greater integration of the different actors that must act in its detection and prevention, and the energetic rejection of the population, the report states.

After that date I did not find any official statistics on the theft and illegal slaughter of cattle on the Internet. Yes, alternative media news appears denouncing the situation in specific places on the Island and recent news on Radio Reloj about the situation of this problem in the province of Camagüey. Probably the National Office of Statistics and Information handles these figures, but more transparency is needed to have a better perception of the social and economic magnitude of this phenomenon.

How does the system work?

It is necessary to describe, for those who do not know, the details of this illegal activity. It is a fairly well-organized and hierarchical system in which everyone “wins”, except the farmer, who sometimes also wins (if he is in conspiracy with the criminals), but who is mostly the one who is abandoned, mistreated, and discouraged. Five actors can be identified in this system:

The peasant: raises the animal, cares for it with the means at his disposal, until the moment he is a victim of theft. It may be the rare case that the farmer, guided by various economic or social reasons, illegally delivers the animal to a non-state buyer. In this case, it is even rarer for a peasant to give a slaughterer a recently calved cow, a heifer close to calving, an ox that breaks down a team, or other animals of great utilitarian or sentimental value.

The deliverers: they are experienced people, generally young men who know the area, the mountains, each shortcut, and each ravine very well. They may be people who are very close to the place of the robbery and who have ties to thieves or buyers. The deliverer offers only the information on where to act or can also take the animals to a specific place. These people usually know the dynamics of the farm and promote the blow at the right time.

The thieves-slaughterers: they are trained in stealing and killing, they execute the dirtiest and cruelest part of the chain. They have no scruples and are determined about everything. It is increasingly common for them to act in broad daylight, even under intimidation, and feel unpunished.

The buyers-sellers: they are “money” people, who have the resources to pay the meat in cash and store it. They are the ones who incite and even organize the handovers and the thief-slaughterers. They also have a means of transportation and the essential links with consumers.

Consumers or consumer-sellers: these may be local people, but generally they are people from other places, who are pending the call for the availability of beef, which they use for their own consumption or for sale to third parties.

When the cows are locked up at night to take care of the bandits, it doesn’t graze half the day. It is generally confined from 7:00 pm to 7:00 am in improvised stables or dairy farms without material conditions. Instead of grazing in the early morning, with the cooler temperatures of the day, they graze in the hottest hours, facing heat stress and loss of appetite. For others, in pastures that are close, because the farmer-rancher is doing other tasks and must also watch over the cows. As a consequence, when available, forage needs to be cut for animals to eat at night. In the springtime, when there is good growth of the grass that the animals could take advantage of, this passes its consumption time and reduces its quality.

Ethologically, cattle have three fundamental activities: grazing, resting, and ruminating. These activities are distributed over a third of the day, that is, eight hours for each activity alternately. This means that during the day the animal also rests and chews the cud, which further reduces grazing time. It could be estimated that for this reason alone, at least 30% of the total milk production at the national level is being lost, which has nothing to do with the genetic potential of livestock, which would total about 100 million liters of milk. On the other hand, the impossibility of carrying out adequate grazing and rational management of pastures, and because of the abandonment of pastures with aroma and marabou (not only due to the infestation but also due to the insecurity of keeping the animals in such areas), perhaps is losing between 20 and 40% of available grazing areas.

Therefore, when we talk about the impact of the insecurity to which farmers and ranchers throughout the country are subjected with respect to livestock farming, we must mention this negative impact on the adequate use of agricultural land for production and the use of pastures and forages. On the other hand, and not least, it is perceived that many of the people who steal cattle are young and tend to be a way to recruit others who see the activity as a lucrative option. Of these topics, as of the others previously treated and other related ones, it could be deepened even more in the analysis, but we advance in the proposal of alternatives or solutions.

Viable solutions

There is no doubt that there are brave peasants to arm gangs against the bandits, but they would stop working the land, gangs would form and there would be confrontations to the death. This method has already been tried and failed, even the government and police have previously dismissed them. There would be injustices because a fact cannot always be clarified easily and taking the law on your own is not an alternative. There are those who are determined to kill whoever comes to steal their cattle, which has cost me so much sacrifice, however, this generates a spiral of violence.

There would be many isolated measures that could be taken, but complex problems like this require comprehensive responses. We must think that viable solutions come from that connection between the grass that grows in our fields and the dish of the final consumer. By this, I mean that it will be necessary to finish considering beef as an agricultural product to which we should have direct access through regular production and marketing networks. In other words, legalize the slaughter and marketing of cattle. The farmer must have the right to consume and market the beef he produces, subject to the same sanitary procedures as other productive animals. It may be even after fulfilling delivery commitments for subsidized social purposes or other conditions, but beef must have market prices and decentralized forms of marketing.

With this, theft and illegal killing will not be completely eliminated, because there is also the theft of minor cattle, such as pigs, rams, goats, etc., but it would guarantee:

  • The incentive of the farmer to be able to directly access the product of his work in a legal way.
  • Consumers’ access to high demand and valuable food in diets high in animal protein.
  • Discouragement and disarticulation of slaughter gangs, which in some cases could be incorporated into the marketing and sale of livestock in a regulated manner.
  • The increase in the use of pastures, the encouragement to clean pastures invaded by aroma and marabou, and the increase in livestock production in its entirety.
  • The increase in productive and reproductive indicators based on market sales quotas.
  • The increase in employment, as a result of a higher yield per area and the increase in work in livestock.

Many other benefits as well as damages will emerge from a measure like this. New organizational and economic challenges will come from the measures and procedures related to the legalization of slaughter and the sale of cattle in a decentralized manner.

Obviously, the strategy followed in order to control the theft and illegal slaughter of larger cattle has not been successful due to the seriousness of the issue we face and the negative multiplier effect it causes.

It is clear that it will not be magical, and that extraordinary effort will have to be made to reach this ideal, but there is no doubt that the most daring and socially sound work, dedication and political and economic measures will be those that will promote greater success in achieving tranquility. , increases in agricultural production, welfare, and social justice to which we aspire.


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