Officials in Argentina have been discussing how DNA testing may be used to curb cattle rustling in Santa Fe, indicating the country may apply fresh methods to fight a deeply entrenched criminal economy.
On November 19, the Confederation of Rural Associations of Santa Fe (Confederación de Asociaciones Rurales de Santa Fe — CARSFE) organized a virtual conference with provincial officials to explore how new technologies may be used to combat crime in the province's rural areas. The main focus was on the use of DNA testing to prevent and prove cases of cattle rustling.
Guillermo Giovambattista, director of Argentina’s Genetics Veterinary Institute (Instituto de Genética Veterinaria Ing. Fernando Noel Dulout — IGEVET), shared how laboratory tests used to compare samples of suspect meat with DNA from illegally slaughtered animal corpses could help authorities in finding those responsible for cattle rustling.
The biologist explained how DNA testing had previously been adopted to detect and deter cattle rustlers in other provinces, such as Buenos Aires.
Earlier this year, local media outlet El Litoral reported on how cattle rustling had been a growing problem in Santa Fe. A state of economic crisis has been stoking near daily reports of the crime, with some citizens self-arming to protect their livestock, according to the publication.
One victim, Oscar Araujo, told El Litoral that 14 of his cattle had been killed in the space of a month. On reporting this to authorities, local authorities stated they did not have a vehicle with which to visit the crime scene nor to carry out preventative operations in the area.
Despite such logistical difficulties, authorities have made some attempt to combat rural crime in Santa Fe. In May, the Rural Guard launched a string of operations to target those involved in cattle rustling and illegal fishing across the province, arresting nine people in total.
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While cattle rustling has long affected Santa Fe with scarce successful efforts made to impede it, the use of DNA to target the crime may well deliver results.
Last year, officials in Santa Fe launched an interactive “Map of Rural Crime” to help livestock producers in reporting illegal slaughter of their animals along with a host of other criminal activities.
However, cattle rustling in the province persists and is potentially getting worse.
In September, Luciana Brero, a vet and livestock producer based in the city of Rafaela claimed there was no reliable statistical data to shed light on the situation. Meanwhile, it has been reported that victims of the crime have been turned away from police stations where no investigator is present.
Cattle rustlers in Santa Fe have been largely operating in two ways. Some groups have been herding stolen live cattle to new locations for resale. This approach has often been seen in other countries such as Paraguay, Mexico and Colombia.
More frequently, groups and individuals in the province have been killing livestock at the very sites where cattle are kept by their owners, before illegally making off with meat. DNA testing may be used to impede both such crimes.
Giovambattista claimed before the introduction of DNA tests, cattle rustling had been particularly difficult to prove and combat in Argentina. In the past, authorities usually knew who was responsible for livestock theft but lacked sufficient evidence to demonstrate this. With DNA testing, they now have a concrete mechanism through which to confirm their suspicions.
Officials have also seen a preventative effect associated with the methodology. In Buenos Aires, once cattle rustling cases had been resolved with DNA testing, Giovambattista observed that other potential thieves were temporarily dissuaded from committing similar crimes through fear of being caught.
DNA tests were first used in Argentina to combat cattle rustling over two decades ago and IGEVET now has a bank of some 10,000 biological samples from cattle that can be checked against stolen livestock.
Between 2001 and 2008, authorities solved just under 300 cases of cattle rustling in the province using this technique. And in 2019, Argentina's National University of La Plata reported over 400 cases had been solved to date using DNA testing.
However, officials at the event stressed that, for ideas like this to work, it is imperative livestock producers report such crimes.