Greeks and foreigners desperate for money are dismantling bridges, highways and rail transit systems that required billions of euros in European Union subsidies to build, tearing off metal for scrap to sell, much if it going to China and India.
The Associated Press reported that Greece’s crushing economic crisis has created super scavengers stripping the infrastructure of whatever they can. Police say they now arrest an average of four metal thieves every day, compared to a few cases every month before the crisis started in late 2009.
The thieves are accused of stealing industrial cable, power-line transformers and other metal objects – triggering blackouts and massive train delays. The profile of the metal thief is also changing, authorities say, from gypsies and immigrants living on the margins of society to mainstream Greeks who have fallen on hard times. A group of men were caught trying to take apart an entire bridge and droves of immigrants can be seen pushing shopping carts around Greek neighborhoods looking in recycling bins.
As European countries dip in and out of recession, global demand for metals has remained high due to the industrial rise of emerging powers, making stolen cables and metal used in infrastructure a growth market worldwide, AP noted.
Some 3,635 people have been arrested in Greece for metal theft between the start of 2010 and August 2012, according to the public order ministry. Ministry officials said they did not have comparative figures for previous years, as cases were too infrequent to keep data on that specific crime category. But they confirm the robberies are becoming both more frequent and more brazen, a sign of the desperate times.
Athens’ nine-year-old light rail system has been a prime magnet for metal robbers, with at least five major disruptions reported in the past six months due to cable theft that forced passengers to hop on and off trains as diesel replacements were needed. The trend has had lethal consequences: In early January, the body of a 35-year-old man was found near Athens beside the tracks of a suburban rail system that services the capital΄s airport. He had been electrocuted while cutting live cables, police said.
Roadside crash barriers, storm-drain covers, heavy factory doors, as well as mining equipment, irrigation machinery and even cemetery planters made of metal have all gone missing in and around Thessaloniki, the country΄s second largest city, amid concerns that previously law-abiding Greeks are turning to crime in growing numbers.
In northern Greece, rogue merchants have an additional advantage: A 1,228-kilometer (763-mile) border with four countries that makes it easier for them to get around growing police checks on local scrap yards. Police near the frontier with Turkey last month arrested 18- and 19-year-old suspects accused for stripping 300 meters (nearly 1,000 feet) of cable from street lights, blacking out a stretch of newly-built highway that runs across northern Greece.
Recent inspections also turned up another 300 meters of stolen cable on a passenger bus headed to Albania, along with a cache of candle holders, snatched from graveyards and loaded onto small trucks, that were stopped and searched at the Greek-Bulgarian border.
Police inspections for stolen metal have now become a priority at the country΄s 12 main border crossing points.