KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — Jamaica's government announced a campaign Tuesday to crack down on the longtime problem of thieves stealing livestock and crops from ranches and farms across the Caribbean island.
Organized rustlers working on Jamaica's rural back roads often strike in the dead of night and sometimes even butcher cattle right in the field. Other thieves prey on farms, grabbing goats and chickens or hauling off vegetables and fruit.
"It has now become a very big commercial operation," Agriculture Minister Roger Clarke said, noting that some gangs are now operating with big trucks so they can make bigger hauls.
Glen Harris, president of the Jamaica Agricultural Society, said agriculture losses from thievery approached $70 million last year in Jamaica, where roughly 200,000 people make their living off farming.
Clarke's agency will make a renewed push for all farmers to register with the government and ensure they follow the law by issuing receipts for sold produce and animals. Officials said a paper trail tracking sales will be vital to catching criminals.
The receipt program was actually begun about seven years ago, but Clarke said it was never properly implemented
Many of Jamaica's farmers have resisted the receipt system, believing that the government will use it to tax them more. Some illiterate farmers will also need help filling out the paperwork.
Glen Cruickshank, who owns a 68-acre (27-hectare) farm with coconut trees and some livestock in St. Mary parish, said thieves steal his fruit at will and recently carried away a calf. He doesn't live on the farm, but says two trusted hired hands manage the property.
"The thievery is very frustrating. This is our hard work," Cruickshank said, adding that he is confident the receipt system can help reduce thefts.
Police Commissioner Owen Ellington said Jamaica's severely backlogged justice system needs to get tougher on such crimes. He said farm bandits rarely are sent to prison.
The maximum fine for someone convicted of traveling with agricultural produce without an official receipt is nearly $3,000, but the penalty is rarely enforced.