European metal thieves have been targeted by an international law enforcement operation coordinated by European Union (EU) police agency Europol.

Officials said that more than 120 tonnes of stolen copper were confiscated in Italy alone and there were many arrests, including 37 in Bulgaria.

Europol did not reveal the continent-wide haul of metal and total arrests.

“There are many organised crime groups involved in the large-scale theft of metals. They and the scrap dealers who buy copper cable stolen from railway tracks or plaques from gravestones now realise that this kind of cross-border crime is being taken seriously,” Europol director Rob Wainwright said.

The operation took place on May 27 and 28, and spanned 17 EU countries, Europol announced late on Friday May 31.

Law enforcement authorities carried out checks at scrapyards, on construction sites, along border roads and railway tracks, according to a Europol statement.

Specific scrapyards suspected of handling stolen goods were also raided.

Belgium last year suffered numerous disruptions to its railway system because of thefts of copper wire used for wiring and communications.

According to Europol, intelligence shows that stolen metal is often transported across several borders and sold as scrap, or for recycling, far away from where it is stolen.

“The crime often affects critical transport, communication and power networks, causing considerable disruption, and the costs associated with replacing and repairing the damage caused often exceeds the value of the metal stolen,” Wainwright said.

Europol will now analyse the way metal thief gangs were operating to better understand the illegal metal trade.

Carmen Paun