Debt Crisis: Greece hit by wave of metal thefts
Train lines, bridges, cables and even cemeteries have all been targeted for scrap to feed a market driven by China and India.
Police 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 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.
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. 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. 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.
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: An 800-mile border with four countries that makes it easier for them to dodge stepped-up police checks on local scrap yards.
Police near the frontier with Turkey last month arrested 18- and 19-year-old suspects accused for stripping nearly 1,000 feet of cable from street lights, blacking out a stretch of newly built road that runs across northern Greece.
Recent inspections also turned up more 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.