Theft: Side Effect of High Coffee Prices

I had sent this tweet last night: "Stolen: Container of coffee. Where: Guatemala. Contents: Sweet Maria's and Stumptown coffees. Description: Big metal box. Call me if found." It was not a joke... We lost 98 bags of coffee (Pulcal - Hacienda Carmona) that was en route from Antigua to the port, just over an hour away. I don't know the details yet, if the truck was stopped by thieves, or if anyone was hurt. It might have been the driver was paid off, and simply drove away with it. It is no wonder. With the current prices for even low grade coffees, a container of our coffee that is about $150,000 of contents, can be taken somewhere, blended and re-bagged, and sold for $100,000. That is a lot of money in Guatemala, as anywhere. In the past, the low prices made this impractical, but now it makes perfect sense. Trucks have been traveling to port in convoy, with security in front and back to prevent this, but something went wrong in this case. I am sure insurance will pay eventually (and the container might be found yet, perhaps for a "fee"). It's just that great Pulcal coffee is lost for now. It's the second theft that has directly impacted us. About 6 weeks ago a Pacamara lot from El Salvador that we had contracted was stolen, not bags of coffee, but it was stolen from the trees! A crew of thieves came to the farm in the morning, locked up the manager, told the farm employees to go away (if they knew what was good for them), and proceeded to strip pick the coffee off the trees. Sounds odd to steal like this when it requires so much labor, but it is happening all over Central America this year with the prices so high. Normally they come in to the farm at night and pick, which is sad because they damage the trees, pick recklessly, and the result is a big income loss for the farm. Owners have had to hire security to combat the thieves, which has driven up their costs dramatically as well. Who would have guessed that such a fortuitous situation for coffee farmers and all who work in coffee, an income bonanza, would result in more insecurity. I have heard of vigilante responses to the thieving. Two men who tried to steal a loaded coffee truck in Huehuetenango were supposedly lynched by the community!

[...] coming to strip the

[...] coming to strip the coffee off the trees in broad daylight! You can read the entire article here. #dd_ajax_float{ background:none repeat scroll 0 0 #FFFFFF; border:1px solid #DDDDDD; float:left; [...]

Tom: Thanks for sharing this


Thanks for sharing this disappointing news. One morning at SCAA I was headed out of my hotel for a meeting and glanced at a headline in the paper: "Thefts rise as price of gas goes up." I wondered whether the same thing would be happening in the coffeelands. The next day I met with a roaster who buys from a coop we support in El Salvador and learned that theives not only made off with 351 sacks of their coffee -- they killed four security guards in the process, working men who left behind families. No amount of security will compensate for those losses.

There have been advances in banking technology in coffee producing countries that permit electronic transfers of funds -- a measure that could reduce some of the security risks associated with buying and selling coffee in the remote reaches of the coffeelands. But there is no way to wire the product, which means this will continue to be an issue, especially when prices are high. Is the answer more security? More guns guarding our coffee? It is the most trusted approach here in Central America. And while it may deter, it may also mean that next time more lives will be lost.


[...] Thompson from Sweet

[...] Thompson from Sweet Maria’s wrote last week about a container load of coffee (approximate value 150,000USD) that went missing in Guatemala, whilst en route to the port of Antigua. Usually containers are transported in secure convoy, but something went wrong in this case and the truck and its container have disappeared. [...]

I am really shocked by these

I am really shocked by these numbers - 6% costs for security, 3 to 5 to 10% for cherry theft. It was much less of a "bonanza" year for farmers with these added costs and loses... thanks for letting me know. -T

Sorry to hear about the news

Sorry to hear about the news Thom. Haven't spoken with the Zelayas either. Will probably get more details today. But this has been an ongoing issue all of this harvest, which as you correctly point out has had an effect on quality in many cases. Both theft and the negative effect on quality were topics discussed at the Symposium a couple of weeks back. On average in Guatemala, security costs were 6% of total cost this harvest. Additionally theft of cherries off the trees ranged from 1-3% for medium to large farms, and small holders suffered even more, 5-10%. We're trying to minimize these unfortunately negative consequences of high C market prices. We also feel your pain, and so does our bottom line.

I am sure the Zelayas have

I am sure the Zelayas have insurance of some kind, haven't reached them yet. But I am also sure it will take a long time to receive payout. The general security problem is a big concern, and if you judge by the billboards for all the politicians, a big campaign topic too. Public trust is so eroded in Guatemala that you add this temptation of a now-valuable commodity, and things just spiral downwards. The quality issue I saw was mixing of wet coffee and dry coffee. They want to get the coffee off the farms, off the patios, and into the warehouses so quick (to prevent theft) that a lot of quality practices are being ignored.

I'm so sorry to hear about

I'm so sorry to hear about this Tom, and all the more so 'cause that's coffee from a farm I know very well (used to buy most of El Pulcal's crop in the mid-90's). This kind of theft is something that happens every time there is a price spike like this, and this time it looks like we could be dealing with an elevated C market for several years at a minimum. As I said elsewhere, in my perfect world this kind of stuff only happens to the corporate giants who can handle the hit, not heroes like you guys and Stumptown!