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Coffee theft alarms exporters

By Isabella Cota Schwarz | Special to The Tico Times

An unprecedented $3 million dollars worth of high-quality Arabica coffee beans have been stolen in the last year in Costa Rica, the National Coffee Exporters Chamber reported.

Exporters here were used to seeing one, maybe two containers (which hold 316 bags of 60 kilograms) stolen each year, but since October 2011, exporters have seen a dramatic increase, reaching a total of 19.

Coffee, Costa Rica’s most coveted commodity, is shipped from the Caribbean port of Limón, which is considered to be one of the safest and most reliable in the region.

“Even Nicaraguan coffee is shipped from Costa Rica, because shipping it from anywhere else in Central America is considered too risky,” Jorge Gallegos, trade manager at Ceca, said. The company was robbed twice this year.

“We’re concerned about Costa Rica’s image as a country that exports premium coffee. You hear about this sort of thing happening in Honduras, for example, but not here.”

All the signs point to organized crime, said Eric Thormaehlen, president of the National Coffee Exporters Chamber.

“Beginners can’t possibly be stealing our containers in this way; it requires a whole organization to manage the logistics, crew, infrastructure, crane, guns, communication system and drivers,” he said.

During robberies, truck drivers transporting containers from growing regions to the port are stopped, held at gunpoint and tied up. The robbers then take the product, store it and send the trucks back to the port with either empty or debris-filled containers.

So far, no driver has been seriously injured or killed, Thormaehlen said. Containers full of debris have made it all the way to Portugal and Israel.

Although coffee exports account for about $500 million per year, this new problem increases costs and has an impact at all levels of the industry, from the grower to the exporter, said director at the Costa Rica’s coffee institute, ICafé.

The organization estimates it would cost exporters an extra $200 per container in security costs if authorities don’t crack down on criminals, while transporting one container to Europe already costs about $3,000.

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