By Alexander Villegas
SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chilean authorities will beef up security on trains carrying cargoes of copper, a senior official said on Thursday, after a spate of violent heists that have been blamed on international organized crime gangs.
FCAB, a major mining railway operator, suspended the transport of copper earlier this week following a series of attacks and thefts, forcing mines in the world’s top copper producer to look for other transport routes.
Chile’s interior deputy secretary Manuel Monsalve announced on Thursday new measures to strengthen train security after meeting with the general manager of FCAB, the train freight arm of Chile-focused miner Antofagasta Plc.
“Starting today, Carabineros (police force) will have specialized personnel to safeguard journeys that are considered high risk or more vulnerable,” Monsalve told reporters in the northern mining city of Antofagasta.
Monsalve said there would also be air support to provide security and improved communication to flag any threats.
“We’re not just interested in improving safety conditions,” Monsalve said. “We want to identify and stop the criminal organizations behind these kinds of crimes.”
Long a beacon of stability in Latin America, Chile in recent years has seen a jump in organized crime, apparently related to the drug trade.
FCAB said it had resumed shipments of copper cathodes on Thursday on the basis of the new protections. State miner Codelco and BHP Group have both recently said they were assessing transport options due to the train heists.
Denis Varas, president of the National Union of FCAB Workers, said there had been about 70 train robberies in the last three years and that they have become bolder and increasingly violent.
“The robbers are coming in armed, in off-road vehicles, with a system to attack a train, detain the operator, kidnap them, beat them,” Varas told Reuters this week.
Varas said robbers sometimes even use cranes and can steal up to 20 tonnes of copper at a time. He said that robbers in recent attacks appeared to have detailed information on the railway.
“They know our operation so well that they know the areas that are most isolated, where we lose radio contact,” Varas said.
Varas said the union would monitor the new security measures and stop shipments again if workers felt unsafe.
Mario Carrera, a regional prosecutor in the northern region of Arica y Parinacota, told reporters that the gangs were looking to take the copper overseas.
“We’re evidently in the presence of organized crime,” he said. “In this (recent) case the copper was going to Peru, we think that after that, based on what we’ve investigated, it would go to Asia, China, Korea or other countries.”
(Reporting by Alexander Villegas; Additional reporting by Natalia Ramos and Fabian Cambero; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)