WHEN Greece adopted the euro, it poured billions into modernising its infrastructure, building spectacular bridges, roads and a new rail network for Athens.
Now, locked in recession and crushed by debt, Greeks are targeting many of those projects, stripping out the metal and selling it for scrap to feed huge demand driven by China and India.
Police now arrest an average of four metal thieves a day, compared to only a few cases a month before the crisis started in late 2009. They are accused of stealing industrial cable, electricity 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.
Some 3,635 people were arrested for metal theft between the start of 2010 and August 2012, according to the public order ministry. Officials did not keep figures before then, as cases were too infrequent.
The capital’s nine-year-old light rail system has been a prime magnet, 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 brought in.
The trend has had lethal consequences. Last month, the body of a 35-year-old man was found near Athens beside the tracks of the rail system that services the capital’s airport. He had been electrocuted while cutting live cables, police said.
Roadside crash barriers, drain covers, heavy factory doors, mining equipment, irrigation machinery and even cemetery planters made of metal have all gone missing in and around Thessalonika, the country’s second largest city.
In northern Greece, rogue metal merchants have an additional advantage – a 763-mile border with four countries that makes it easier for them to evade stepped-up police checks on local scrapyards.
Police near the frontier with Turkey last month arrested 18- and 19-year-old suspects accused of stripping nearly 1,000ft of cable from street lights, blacking out a stretch of newly built highway in northern Greece.
Recent inspections turned up another 1,000ft of stolen cable on a bus headed to Albania, and a cache of candle holders, snatched from graveyards and loaded on to small trucks that were stopped and searched at the Greek-Bulgarian border.
Inspections for stolen metal are now a priority at Greece’s 12 main border crossing points.
Antonis Tzitzis, of Thessalonika police’s department, said: “Before the crisis, we had very few cases of metal theft. Now they are multiplying exponentially. Our indications are that many Greeks accused of involvement in metal theft had no previous criminal involvement.”
Ordinary scrap metal sells on the black market for about €1 (85p) for 10kg, slightly over half the legal rate, while contraband copper fetches about 40 times that amount – still a huge reduction compared with the cable’s market price.
Paraskevas Pourliakas, head of Greece’s rail workers association, says more than 60 miles of cable had been stolen in the past three years, costing the state rail company some €10 million (£8.5m).
“They even sever cables with electricity running through them,” Mr Pourliakas said. “It’s creating a safety problem for our trains and passengers.”