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Metal Thieves Are Stripping Argentina Bare

Bronze busts, plaques, even manhole covers and copper wiring have fallen prey. A 5-year-old recession is blamed for a rise in crime.

March 02, 2003|Craig Fagan | Associated Press Writer

BUENOS AIRES — The century-old Spanish Club stands on one of the capital's busiest avenues, but its bronze balconies were too tempting: Thieves came in the night and stripped away 660 pounds of ornate railings gracing the belle epoque mansion.

The audacious theft was just one of thousands by bandits who feed a flourishing black market in the resale of metals stolen or scavenged from the streets.

With Argentina in the fifth year of a devastating recession, anything that glitters is gold for thieves: bronze busts, commemorative plaques, statues of the famous, door knockers. No metal object is safe: 1,200 manhole covers, 20 traffic lights and 10,000 electric meters disappeared last year in Buenos Aires.

Some fear that the country is being stripped bare, but are at a loss on what to do about it.

"What can you do?" the Spanish Club's manager, Manuel Santos, said with a shrug after the railings were wrenched from the building's graceful facade. "There really is no way to stop these people."

Since Argentina devalued its currency in December 2001, bronze and other metals have become coveted contraband for people desperate for cash.

Even the capital's imposing white Obelisk -- a stone spire similar to the Washington Monument -- fell victim, with thieves prying off several bronze shields adorning its base.

"All of a sudden, we have these crimes," said Juan Iriarte, 30, standing in the shadow of the Obelisk. "We used to be a rich country and now we have hit bottom."

Officials in Buenos Aires, a city of 13 million people, are particularly concerned about the theft of statues like those honoring France's Marie Curie, Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral and Argentine patriot Domingo Sarmiento.

"The monuments weren't constructed to withstand this onslaught," said Eduardo Malis, director of the city agency that maintains parks and statues.

Argentina's two leading telephone companies say thieves stole 97,000 miles of copper wiring last year. At times, whole neighborhoods, police stations and hospitals have suddenly found their phones dead after overhead lines were taken.

"When poverty leads to crime, you know the situation is grave and that respect for rules has been lost," said Pablo Talamoni, spokesman for one phone company, French-owned Telecom.

On the black market, stolen scrap metal garners 15 cents to $1 a pound, far below what it costs government and industry to replace it.

Officials in the capital say they are beefing up police patrols to safeguard statues and increasing investigations of suspected traders in scrap metal.

But experts say crime is a deep problem, arising from the widening class disparities and a more general lack of respect for law among Argentines.

The thefts are only part of a crime wave gripping Argentina. Extortion kidnappings, armed robberies and shootouts in the streets have become common in a country once touted as Latin America's safest.

The economic crisis is not the only factor encouraging metal thefts, experts add. They say Argentine laws are lenient on those who steal public property, with short jail terms. And with the courts and prisons overburdened by violent crimes, the prosecution of theft cases gets less attention.

Whatever its roots, the disappearance of national treasures and broad swaths of city infrastructure is disheartening for city leaders.

"These thefts are the product of an economic crisis that has driven certain people to steal just to make a few pesos," Buenos Aires Mayor Anibal Ibarra said in a radio interview. "If this continues, no bronze monument or plaque will be left."

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