The seizure of tons of stolen copper near Santiago, Chile — set to be sent illegally to China — suggests that increasingly daring robberies may be fueled by the Asian powerhouse’s thirst for the mineral.
During an operation on January 13, over 50 tons of copper cables were seized from a company in Lampa, north of Santiago, with an estimated value of $250 million, Chile’s investigative police (Policía de Investigaciones de Chile – PDI) announced on Twitter.
The copper was to be smuggled to China as shown by falsified documentation found during the raid, PDI detective Jorge Sánchez told the press.
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This is but the latest in an increasing string of copper thefts throughout Chile, the largest copper producer in the world.
More daringly, the country has also seen a number of attacks on trains carrying copper extracted from remote Chilean mines in the Andes or the Atacama desert. In 2015, just one attack on a copper train was reported but this shot up to 46 in 2018, railway company Grupo FCAB told Bloomberg.
Chile created a special police unit in February 2019 dedicated to fighting copper theft. “They (the gangs) can attack a train anywhere simply by placing obstacles on the tracks. They climb up, cut the supports holding the cathodes and load them up onto trucks specially adapted to take the weight,” the unit’s director Luis Millapán told Bloomberg. “They use high-frequency radios and special clothing to withstand the frozen temperatures of the desert and they know the area like the back of their hand.”
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The discovery of a China-bound shipment of contraband may provide a missing piece to reveal the full picture of Chile’s copper theft puzzle. There is no evidence currently linking China to Chile’s other copper robberies but the country has a track record of soaking up global copper production, both legally and illegally.
In 2015, China received over $50 million worth of copper concentrates from Peru which, while legally mined, contained arsenic levels above China’s own legal norms, Metal Bulletin announced.
In 2017, China was embroiled in a diplomatic standoff with Zambia after 31 Chinese citizens were arrested in the African country for illegal copper mining, Reuters reported. This was just one in a string of incidents surrounding Chinese investment in Zambia’s copper industry, according to Quartz.
And trade frictions may also be contributing to an increase in illegal copper from Chile to China. In 2019, trade frictions led exports of copper cathodes between the two countries to drop by 20.7 percent, Chile’s undersecretary for international economic relations, Rodrigo Yáñez, told China’s state-owned press agency, Xinhua.
China has also been cracking down on imports of copper scrap, partly to protect its own domestic copper industry, and to receive only high-quality copper material from abroad, which is also likely driving up demand for the illegally sourced metal.