Train robberies in the desert, cargo containers hijacked from a massive port, and tons of cathodes heading to China -- Chile is reckoning with the cost of being the world's leading copper producer.
In a particularly brazen attempt, 13 shipping containers were stolen on January 11 from a storage yard at the port of San Antonio, one of Chile's busiest, with trucks driving in to pick them up after cameras were cut and guards subdued, Gonzalo García, captain of the Carabineros, told Radio Cooperativa Chile.
The cargo was valued at some 3.6 billion Chilean pesos (about $4.4 million), according to Reuters.
Both stolen and legal copper frequently travel through Chilean ports, often headed to Asia, as InSight Crime has previously reported.
Recent seizures from the southern port of Lirquén to the northernmost port of Arica highlight the geographic scope of this illicit economy, yet the attack on the port of San Antonio to steal legally shipped copper was uncharted territory.
This modus operandi, however, has become quite common on Chilean railroads. In the last three years, over 100 attacks were reported on trains carrying copper, with the highest number, 39, happening in 2022, according to an in-depth investigation by Chilean news outlet Ex-Ante.
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In one brazen example in May 2021, armed men kidnapped four workers at a station in Antofagasta, held a gun to one of the workers, and forced them to radio the train and say that everything was normal.
A video shows the masked robbers, wearing bulletproof vests, boarding the train and quickly transferring copper cathodes (sheets of metal) to a truck before a full-sized crane arrives to hoist dozens more cathodes off in just minutes.
Most of these robberies, 39 in total along the Antofagasta Bolivia Railway (FCAB), took place in 2022. The company, which operates some 700 kilometers of rail in northern Chile, was forced to temporarily suspend transport of the metal in October, according to Forbes.
"Today, we face organized gangs, armed with logistical and material means; radios, conditioned high-capacity trucks, mining trucks to transport stolen goods, cranes to transfer cathodes, firearms, bulletproof vests, and others to commit these crimes in the middle of the desert," Katharina Jenny, general manager of FCAB, told Ex-Ante.
InSight Crime Analysis
Copper theft in Chile has become a complex and multi-layered criminal activity. Organized gangs commit large-scale robberies, while less sophisticated thieves continue to steal small amounts of copper cables to sell as scrap.
"Copper has always been stolen a lot in Chile, whether in the form of cathodes and anodes in the north or as cables throughout the rest of the country," Carlos Basso, a journalist and author of the Ex-Ante investigation, told InSight Crime. A lack of statistics on how much copper is stolen annually makes it difficult to say if there is more copper theft than 15 years ago, but what has changed is the modus operandi, according to Basso.
"In 2010, gangs robbing copper generally entered mines at night and stole. If they were caught, they would try to escape. Violence was not uncommon, but it was not as extreme as it is now," said Basso.
He stated that "gangs dress like paramilitaries, are equipped with advanced technology, and display a remarkable determination and cold-bloodedness. They attack each other, attempt kidnappings, murders, and a lot of violence in general."
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Criminal organizations in Chile now plan and execute large-scale robberies, at times violently, such as the raids on port and railway infrastructure.
While most copper theft occurs in northern Chile, the groups mimic the successful modus operandi of timber mafias operating in the country's southern region, according to Basso. “Quasi-paramilitary groups have emerged dedicated to industrial theft of wood or copper. They operate similarly, using violence to guarantee their criminal activities. They attack police and companies' security teams.”
Chilean senators are discussing new legislation to combat the uptick in copper theft, given that no law explicitly penalizes the crime. Yet, as demonstrated by the new law that punishes wood theft, the legislation helps control these issues, but they are not enough, according to Basso.
For him, good police work, determined prosecutors, and judges who are willing to act are needed. "Having better laws is ineffective if the other parts of the system fail to deliver,” he told InSight Crime.