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By Sarah White
CHESTE, Spain (Reuters) - Ricardo Boix, a Spanish farmer who lives off his small fruit groves in Valencia's hilly back country, thought the theft of nearly $6,000 worth of his oranges was bad enough.
But over Easter, tragedy struck when one of the two Bulgarian farm hands he had hired to guard the rest of his crop was shot in the back and killed by robbers they had surprised.
The killing was the most serious incident yet in what fruit growers in the eastern Spanish region say is a big rise in raids on everything from oranges, picked in the thousand of kilos straight off the trees, to tools and even metal gates and beehives.
"We've always had robberies, but not to these extremes," said Boix, 49, who continues to work with his five full-time staff as before, unable to afford extra security for his plots spread out around the small town of Cheste.
While overall crime fell slightly in Spain in 2012, robberies are up since the economic crisis began in 2008. Last year thefts involving forcible entry into properties grew just over 25 percent, official data shows, with the least densely populated regions among the worst hit.
Prolonged recession and record unemployment have hit rural areas hard, forcing more people into poverty and desperation as Spain undergoes a painful transformation after a two-decade economic boom turned to bust.
Farm robbers have become more sophisticated, running illegal warehouses and networks that sell their wares to local shops, juice producers or scrapyards, farmers and police say.
"PEOPLE NEED TO EAT"
"With the crisis we've got, people need to eat, they're resorting to whatever they can," Boix said. His employee's killer has not been caught.
Along with the southern region of Andalusia, known for its olive oil, orange hub Valencia is one of the regions with the highest thefts of produce and machinery and local politicians have raised the alarm, asking for more resources to fight crime.
From the theft of 300 kilos of garlic, ripped out of the earth from one family's small farm near Cordoba, in Andalusia, to truckloads of tools stolen from bigger operations, farmers say thefts are becoming more daring.
Those with meager means are taking security into their own hands, organizing night watches and vigilante groups.
In southerly Murcia, Agrar Systems, a subsidiary of German vegetable producer Behr AG with 1,000 hectares of salad fields in Spain, installed alarms on its machinery three years ago and hired more security guards, but that has not deterred robbers.
Pedro Maestre, one of the managers, woke up on Tuesday morning to find thieves had raided workers' accommodation, now empty after the end of the season, and stolen 60 mini-fridges and other equipment.
"They came in a truck, and they've now been caught, but the damage is done," he said by telephone, adding that annual losses on stolen or damaged produce were reaching 50,000 euros ($66,000).
SENDING IN THE CAVALRY
In Valencia, whose orange industry has helped Spain become Europe's biggest producer of the fruit, rural thefts rose 20 percent in the first quarter compared to the previous year, according to AVA, the local agricultural association.
AVA forecasts that the robberies could cost the region's farmers, many of whom barely cover their costs from selling oranges, 20 million euros this year, up from 15 million euros in 2012 and 2011, because of lost produce and damage.
To counter the problem, Spain's police have sent in the cavalry, dispatching two squadrons of mounted Civil Guards to the region to help run down thieves.
Though they arrived in late May, as the orange picking season ended, police say the horseback patrols have at least led to a hiatus in crimes, and are effective in startling robbers unable to hear them coming through the fruit trees.
"We can get access to areas where cars and other patrols can't," said the sergeant in charge of the squadrons, as he saddled up his horse for a late afternoon outing over rocky outcrops and through remote fields.
Valencia's Civil Guard - responsible for smaller towns outside the remit of national police - said they had already made 50 arrests related to orange thefts in April, when they began a crackdown. Those charged so far are all Spaniards.
But locals fear police efforts will be meaningless unless Spain changes the law that imposes only light punishment for thefts of anything worth less than 400 euros.
The robbers who stole oranges from Boix earlier this year were caught, but found with small amounts in their possession after stealing the fruit in several raids. They were eventually let off with a small fine.
Despite more police patrols, many locals said they felt vulnerable and powerless to keep crimes in check.
"You can try and look out for your neighbors, but when you drive past someone picking fruit, with a van, in broad daylight, how do you know they're a thief?" said Boix.
(Additional reporting by Rodrigo de Miguel and Susana Vera; Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Giles Elgood)