Cattle-running groups have reportedly illegally transported 22,000 heads of cattle from eastern Nicaragua to Honduras in three months, highlighting the size of a trade that allegedly relies on corrupt officials and large landowners.
According to police in Nicaragua's South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS), intermediaries including Salvadorans and Mexicans, are sent to acquire the cattle legally from Nicaraguan ranchers in various RAAS towns, reported La Prensa. These foreigners offer a better price than local markets, said some farmers, who denied having prior knowledge of the buyers' intent to traffic the cattle.
For each head of cattle, the intermediaries receive a commission of around $115. They produce false sales documents and transfer authorization forms indicating the animals will be sent to a location within Nicaragua.
The place that appears in these documents -- according to sources linked to cattle ranchers -- is a ranch belonging to a well-known public sector employee in Somotillo, in the Chinandega province on the Honduran border. Other landowners may also be involved, La Prensa says.
Once the cattle is brought across the country to Somotillo (see map from La Prensa), it is taken by other members of the network via illegal border crossings into Honduras.
InSight Crime Analysis
While official collaboration is a common theme in the illegal cattle trade, the current case stands out because even the first stage in the process -- the acquisition of cattle -- is occurring with a facade of legality, rather than the cattle being "rustled," or stolen. Costa Rican newspaper Nacion indicated that in some cases this could be linked to an ongoing drought in Nicaragua. Some 300 Nicaraguan cattle are reportedly being smuggled into Costa Rica each week, with the trade spurred by resource-poor farmers' willingness to sell their cattle off cheaply.
The alleged involvement of Nicaraguan landowners and officials is perhaps inevitable, given the logistical difficulties of smuggling large animals. Traffickers are likely to need official collaboration to falsify documents, harbor the animals, and help "legalize" cross-border transport.
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Cattle rustling is a phenomenon that stretches back many years in Latin America and appears to be growing in scale. Last year, Nicaraguan National Police Chief Aminta Granera said more than 100 groups dedicated to cattle theft had been dismantled in the first half of 2013.
The crime is often linked to small gangs, but can involve major transnational groups as well. It requires many of the same tools of the trade that drug trafficking does, including high-level business and government connections, transportation infrastructure, and large storage facilities. A major Honduran drug transport group -- the Cachiros -- got their start in the trade.