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

(1135 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 the large ranch enterprise we bought his 4000 square kilometers of ranch next to us bordering on our land and left him 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 income from the oil. He is not poor, but he is no longer very rich.

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

Some years ago, in 1992 he lost one of his grandchildren through a kidnapping. The 14-year-old girl, Anne-Maria Arango Armbula-de Suiza,called “Ini” was the daughter of his unsuccessful, stupid and loud-mouthed eldest son. She, as well as her German mother Brigitte, from Aschaffenburg, Germany,  and her older sister Arabella, often came to my brothers 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 clever stories for the local newspaper in Goiania and had her own local radio program that was transmitted twice a week. We all liked her very much.

Despite her young age, she was also a terrific helicopter pilot, being able to fly 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, and still is, 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 is 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.The chip and a plastic label has all the data of the animal.

The cattle rustlers drive their large eighteen-wheel trucks into areas that are remote and 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 covered.

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 Armbula-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 actual vehicles of the thieves 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 absolutely sure that Ini, who had a Canadian and a Brazilian license, was up to the task and knew the risks. After initial hesitations and a lot of flying with her, the chief pilot agreed to the scheme. Her mother also agreed 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 off so that the driver would not see us. Ini proofed 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 the paint was released late and covered the windscreen of the truck. 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 death. The kidnapping had nothing to do with our flying adventure. No one was saying exactly what had happened and why this abduction took place.

Two weeks after the abduction of the girl, 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 own security people who have very good contacts in the area, told me that it had been a business abduction.

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

In spite of everything, it is worth to live in Brazil and the positive things are still much greater than such negative incidents, however sad they are on a personal level.

©2019 ajs Bert Berger

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