THESSALONIKI, Greece – 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 — 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.
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 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 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.
"We've had (metal) theft in the past, but there's been a spike in the number of cases recently, with a greater number of criminal gangs involved," Antonis Tzitzis, head of Thessaloniki police's department for crimes against property, said in an interview.
"Before the crisis, we had very few cases of metal theft. Now they are multiplying exponentially," he said. "Our indications are that many Greeks currently accused of involvement in metal theft had no previous criminal involvement."
A disused army-built rail bridge network in northern Greece and its 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) steel girders has become a favorite site for thieves.
The bridges have been targeted on at least three occasions, in one case leading to the arrest late last year of a 36-year-old man and two women, aged 36 and 40, as they were removing a bridge support, 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Thessaloniki.
Three years of financial crisis and tough austerity measures have pushed Greek unemployment nearing 27 percent, with more than half the country's population aged under age 25 now out of work.
Northern Greece has been hardest hit by the recession, about to enter a sixth year. The border regions of Epirus and Western Macedonia have a jobless rate of more than 28 percent.
Stealing metal, especially higher-priced copper from cables, is adding to problems at the country's loss-making state rail company and other public utilities.
Ordinary scrap metal sells on the black market for about €1 for 10 kilograms ($.06 per pound), slightly over half the legal rate, while the contraband copper fetches about 40 times that amount — still a huge reduction compared to the cable's market price.
Paraskevas Pourliakas, head of Greece's rail workers association, says about 100 kilometers (more than 60 miles) of cable has been stolen in the last three years, costing the state rail company some €10 million ($12.8 million).
"They even sever cables with electricity running through them," Pourliakas said. "It's creating a safety problem for our train and passengers."
Gatopoulos reported from Athens.