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Image depicting rolls of copper. A gang stole $4.4 million in copper from a Chilean port this week.

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Gang Steals $4.4 Million Worth of Copper from Chilean Port

Copper theft is often a nuisance crime, such as this Oklahoma man’s burglary or the church in Alabama where someone stole the wiring for the congregation’s HVAC system. Sometimes, it’s a criminal-gets-what-they-deserve crime when they try to steal copper wiring actively carrying current. Utilities in Canada in particular deal with the thieves, as evidenced by this 2018 Security Management article, a problem that persists four years later.

The scale changes a bit when the theft occurs at a port in a country that is the top exporter of copper in the world. On Wednesday, Chilean authorities reported a copper heist at the country’s San Antonio port that resulted in the theft of approximately $4.4 million dollars worth of the metal.

A group of 10 armed assailants entered the port and stole 13 shipping containers, 12 of which were loden with copper, from Codelco, the state-owned mining operation that is the largest copper producer in the world, according to Reuters.

“There was one guard and four workers that they tied up and beat and left locked up,” Juan Carlos Catalan, a local prosecutor, told Reuters. The workers were able to free themselves and alert authorities.

“It is a gang that may be working in San Antonio because we have other crimes with similar characteristics,” local police captain, Gonzalo Garcia, told Radio Cooperativa, as reported by Reuters. The heist appeared to be well-planned and involved multiple trucks to transport the material away from the port.

“They cut off the security cameras and once the cameras were cut off, the other part of the gang went in to intimidate the guards and the workers,” Garcia said.

Catalan said they were examining security footage to try to put together leads, but no suspects had been detained.

In a prepared statement to Reuters, Codelco said the copper was insured.

Organized criminal gangs have been targeting Chile’s precious metals miners for some time. A Reuters report from October 2022 described a rash of railway copper thefts that left Codelco and other mining companies struggling to find ways to move their products to market.

“During our research, we've observed organized criminal groups at work in the illegal copper economy, stealing everything from cables and minor parts to concentrate and copper cathodes,” Pilar Lizana, a researcher with Chilean thinktank AthenaLab, told InsightCrime in June 2022. “And this copper theft is international in scope: large seizures at national ports indicate that the stolen proceeds are exported to Asia, primarily to China.”

Lizana continued: “Copper theft is certainly less visible than other criminal economies in Chile, but it has a million-dollar impact on the national economy and on the country's development. … The illegal copper economy presents a major challenge for the State, and agency coordination is fundamental.”