A Short Story – Cattle Rustling and how to Catch the Thieves

(1119-2 words)

Our ranch neighbor lives 60 miles (about 100 km) from our house. A few years ago, his numerous, some well-educated, some outright stupid, children got him into financial trouble through their real estate speculation.

A year after I had taken over our large 6,000 square kilometer ranch enterprise, we bought the 4,000 square kilometers of the ranch next to us bordering on our land and left our neighbor in a ten square kilometer plot with an oil-donkey. He and his whole family, thirteen children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, now live off the oil income. He is not poor, but he is no longer very wealthy.

He flies a Vietnam era Bell Hue helicopters and lives in a compound that is almost a small village. In remembrance of the Mexican revolutionary, we call him Pancho Villa because he flies around in his helicopter with two colts, 45 pistols in his holster, and an Uzi machine gun on the empty pilot’s seat next to him. His real name is Jos Doroteo, Arango Arambula.

Some years ago, in 1992, he lost one of his grandchildren through a kidnapping. The 14-year-old girl, Anne-Maria Arango Arambula-de Suiza, called “Ini,” was the daughter of his unsuccessful, stupid, and loud-mouthed eldest son. She and her German mother Brigitte, from Aschaffenburg, Germany,  and her older sister Arabella, often came to my brother’s ranch, have afternoon tea, ride horses, play Polo or Squash with us and go up in the hot air balloon with me. Ini was beautiful and very bright, spoke fluently English and German, besides Portuguese. She wrote funny and creative stories for the local newspaper in Goiania and had her personal local radio program transmitted twice a week. We all liked her very much.

Despite her young age, she was also a terrific helicopter pilot, flying one of our small Robinson 22 two-seat helicopters by the seat of her pants. These small helicopters are used for driving cattle and for controlling individual herds. The pilot and his helper are a new form of a cowboy. In the summer of 1992, cattle rustling was a big issue on our ranch as it is on other large ranches. The people who steal the livestock are well organized and usually steal animals for which they already have an order. Cattle are marked with a chip and a label that is on one of their ears. It is a bit like the piercing of an earring. Some of the animals are still branded. But today, the chip and a plastic label have all the data of the animal.

The cattle rustlers drive their large eighteen-wheel trucks into remote areas and are often not well controlled by the ranch managers. There they cut off the ear of the animal and then heard them into their large trucks. Then they drive the trucks with forged papers of their load into one of the towns, usually in another nearby state where the “client” is already waiting, having arranged a purchase in a rigged public auction. Sometimes the auction is dispensed with, especially when the recipient is sure that all the links to the original thefts have been obliterated.

Often the stolen cattle go directly into small operation slaughterhouses, and then their meat ends up in meat packers as half bodies of cows. When in the month of August 1992, Ini had some vacations and spent time with her mother Brigitte Arango Arambula-de Suiza on my brother’s ranch, I suggested to Ini that we could try and stop some of the thieves by marking the top of the large eighteen-wheel trucks with a bright paint so that they could be identified before they disappeared to some nearby towns and sold our cattle cheaply.

I had talked to my chief pilot about it, suggesting that we could fly our small helicopters over the trucks when we were sure that they were the thieves’ actual vehicles and then empty some bright paint on their roofs. Ini was immediately ready for the adventure. Our chief pilot, a Canadian with lots of flying hours, who at the time was short of well-qualified pilots, though wanted to be sure that Ini, who had a Canadian and a Brazilian license, was up to the task and knew the risks. After initial hesitations and much flying with her, the chief pilot agreed to the scheme. Her mother also decided that Ini was allowed to go ahead with the project.

The idea was that Ini flew low over the truck, starting from behind so that the driver and his crew could not see us, and I then would empty a large bucket of bright red, rapidly drying paint over the top of the truck. That way, the truck could later be identified and stopped by another group of my brother’s people. Apart from the required flying skills, this was not without danger since many of the thieves had Kalashnikovs, illegal submachine guns, which they used. The key was to approach the truck from behind, empty the paint bucket and then immediately turn it off so that the driver would not see us. Ini proved to be an incredible pilot, and over ten days of flying, we identified 23 trucks with our method.

Only once did we endanger ourselves when I released the paint late and covered the truck’s windscreen. All the people driving and loading the trucks were arrested and served considerable time in Brazilian jails.

Two weeks later, on the weekend, when Ini was driven back by the driver and a security contingent to her German boarding school in Brasilia, she was kidnapped on the road. The driver was given a note to carry to her grandfather, and the three-security people were shot dead. The kidnapping had nothing to do with our flying adventure. No one was saying precisely what had happened and why this abduction took place.

Two weeks after the girl’s abduction, her finger was sent in a packet to the grandfather. Three weeks later, we found the girl’s body on the main road in the area, thirty-five kilometers away from our house. Later it was said, the abduction was done by criminals who were after Pancho Villas money. Though, my security people, who have excellent contacts in the area, told me that it had been a business abduction.

This type of incident is quite disturbing. The situation has vastly improved, but such cases still occur. Sometimes it is the drug or smuggling business, but it is more often about land or concessions and political rivalries.

Despite everything, it is worth to live in Brazil, and the positive things are still much more significant than such adverse incidents, however sad they are on a personal level.

©2019 ajs Bert Berger
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