By COSTAS KANTOURIS and DEREK GATOPOULOS
THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) â¿¿ When Greece adopted the euro, it poured billions into modernizing its infrastructure, building spectacular bridges, highways, and a brand new rail transit network for Athens.
Now, locked in recession and crushed by debt, Greeks are targeting many of those projects, gouging out the metal and selling it for scrap to feed ravenous demand driven by China and India.
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. They are accused of stealing industrial cable, power-line transformers and other metal objects â¿¿ 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.
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. 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.
The capital's 9-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.