On nights lit by a full moon, thieves leap from trucks onto trains as they roll through Chile’s Atacama Desert, before throwing 80-kilo (180-pound) slabs of copper to the ground and disappearing into the dark.
It’s a tactic known as “the cat” and the robbers are “moles” because no one knows where they come from or where they hide their loot. What’s worse for the mines that dot the desert, the robberies are becoming more common and more audacious.
About 40 incidents were reported in the first half of this year, according to the prosecutor’s office in Antofagasta, up from just six in all of 2014. The thefts started to increase late 2017 as copper rose to the highest in more than two years. While prices have slumped in the past month, the thieves seem immune to the trade-war turmoil that’s rattling metal markets.
“Specialized gangs assaulting moving convoys has become common,” Valeria Ibarra, Antofagasta’s regional coordinator of public safety, said by telephone on Thursday. “These are professionals. If they see that one company is taking security measures, they’ll just move on to the next one.”
The sheets of stolen copper cathode are taken to illegal yards and sold as scrap at a 30 percent discount to market prices, Ibarra said. In June, thieves stole 2.5 metric tons of the metal, worth more than $15,000 on the London Metals Exchange, from a moving train.
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