* Mexico agriculture sector new target for organized crime
* High grains prices spur more theft by armed gangs
* Total number of robberies unknown, many unreported
By Mica Rosenberg and Adriana Barrera
MEXICO CITY, March 22 (Reuters) - Organized crime gangs equipped with automatic weapons and tractor trailers are branching out into raids on huge grain silos, in a sign of growing lawlessness in parts of Mexico’s north.
Attacks on warehouses and cargo trucks have multiplied into a near-weekly affair in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, where one of the worst cold snaps in decades wiped out corn and vegetable plots last month, pushing up prices of the remaining harvest and making it more attractive to thieves.
The unusual crime wave in major agricultural exporting states is a new headache for the Mexican government struggling to maintain the country’s image as a top emerging market.
Mexico’s national warehousing association AAGEDE said the spike in thefts began a year or two ago, but its members are only recently coming forward and many are still too scared to report details on the number or scale of the incidents.
Jose Jimenez, director of Mexican storage company ALMER, told of one robbery last year in a tiny town in the central state of Zacatecas where an armed commando emptied a warehouse of 900 tonnes of beans, worth around $750,000, loading up 30 trucks over the course of an entire day.
The gang left five tonnes of beans with local townspeople to keep them quiet and the police did not show up until two days later, he said.
Many warehousers are boosting spending on security, adding fortress-like protections to their installations, AAGEDE’s director Raul Millan said.
“We are building war-like trenches around our warehouses ... and guard houses, like a medieval castle,” Jimenez said. The company had to increase security spending by up to five percent, he said.
Authorities have made little progress in identifying the culprits of the large-scale robberies. Some producers speculate drug gangs may be using money earned from the sale of stolen grains to bankroll criminal activities.
Robbers can easily sell truckloads of seed and corn to intermediaries and big-city markets as buyers ask few questions about where the goods came from.
“They come in groups of 20 or 30 masked men with their own trailers,” Jesus Palomir of Sinaloa’s agricultural producers association CAADES, said. “It’s very well organized.”
Multimedia coverage: link.reuters.com/wam89p
Factbox on political risks in Mexico: [ID:nRISKMX]
Sinaloa state grows a fifth of Mexico’s corn and most of the country’s tomatoes but is also known as the heartland of the drug trade, home to the powerful cartel of the same name.
Since President Felipe Calderon vowed a crackdown on cartels four years ago, around 36,000 people have died in drug violence as rival gangs battle security forces and each other.
Some analysts say the army-backed campaign is splintering and weakening the drug gangs, pushing them to make money from new criminal enterprises.
Experts say drug cartels are diversifying: extorting a wide-range of businesses, from farmers to shop owners, and tapping pipelines to steal crude from the state oil company.
Last week gunmen locked a warehouse owner in a room and carted off vehicles full of corn in the Sinaloan town of Los Mochis, local police said. Media reports said the thieves made off with 250 tonnes of grain.
State police have documented five similar cases so far this year but say many more are probably never reported.
“Gangs are robbing bags of seed from producers in warehouses and in the fields,” said Adalberto Mustieles, head of farm services in Sinaloa’s state government. “They beat up the farmers and steal their trucks.”
Bandits are lured by higher white corn prices in Mexico, which jumped more than 30 percent in the first three months of the year due to damage to crops and rising international prices. Corn futures Cc1 in Chicago have surged about 75 percent from last summer, approaching $6 per bushel.
The perception of a supply squeeze in Mexico, the world’s fourth largest corn producer, is pushing up prices, giving gangs an incentive to step up attacks. The thefts are hurting already cash-strapped growers trying to replant after losses from bad weather.
“More and more agricultural products are being stolen and sold on the black market,” Palomir said. “It is driven by current prices.”
Editing by Philip Barbara $1=12.0605 pesos