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Strike Force Battles South Africa Copper Thieves


South Africa's recycling industry processes more than a million tons of scrap metal every year. This has created an opportunity for thieves. They are stealing copper wiring from city streets and selling it at local scrap yards. The city of Cape Town has created a special task force to combat copper theft.

Pieter van Dalen and five armed inspectors are picking through a mountain of metal at a Cape Town scrap yard.

"Yes, a lot of copper cables here," he said.

These investigators have a colorful nickname: the "Copperheads." They're searching for copper wire stolen from the city's telephone and electrical networks

In this warehouse, they discover parts from a power transformer.

"This is something you don't usually find, should not be able to find, in a scrap yard," said van Dalen.

The Copperheads unit was formed last year to fight a plague of copper theft. Van Dalen is a city councilor whose district was hard-hit by thieves.

"When somebody steals one meter of cable, you will have vast neighborhoods sitting without power for two or three days," he added. "So, it was easier to do something about catching the criminals then what it was to have the cables replaced every time."

The Copperheads raid scrap yards to cut-off the market for stolen metal. They also patrol hot spots and conduct late-night stakeouts to catch thieves in the act.

"Where's your papers?" he asked.

Van Dalen has pulled over to question two men digging a small hole. He can see exposed power lines just a few feet below ground.

"For which company are you working," asked van Dalen.

These workers are legitimate. But, van Dalen is suspicious of anyone with a shovel.

"You'll be driving around a stretch of road like this and all of a sudden you will see there is a hole. We call that the pilot hole. And, what they do is they go and check which type of cable is there, and then at night when it's dark they will dig out, about 100 meters they will take. And, every night they will come back and take another 100 meters," he said.

It its first year on the beat, the Copperheads have arrested 275 thieves and scrap dealers. The City of Cape Town says it is now spending 75 percent less to replace stolen wires. Still, not everyone is happy that the strike force raids scrap yards without search warrants.

"We have no objection and we have always been proactively mentioning to our members to be fully cooperative," said Bernard Maguire, a spokesman for the Metal Recyclers Association of South Africa. "But it's the manner in which it's being done which we are finding to be quite aggressive."

New regulations may reduce the need for aggressive raids. The new rules will soon tighten licensing standards for recycling companies and require dealers to investigate where scrap metal comes from before they buy it.

"The legitimate operators have been operating like this from the day they started their businesses. What it will do is restrict, and hopefully get rid of, all these illegitimate operators," he added.

The Copperheads say the new laws will help, but will not eradicate copper theft completely.

"This is all the stuff we have recovered," said van Dalen. "We store it in these containers."

Inside a row of unmarked evidence lockers at a secret location, Councilor van Dalen points out that drug addicts and street gang members will steal anything with copper in it.

"This is a drain cover that has been smashed up. There are parts of statues that were stolen that we have recovered," said van Dalen.

There are water meters, street lights, pipes and bathroom faucets here. Van Dalen smiles as he looks at the loot his team has seized from thieves.

"Yes, and I want to see containers filled up like this a lot," he added.

Van Dalen thinks his Copperheads are a model for how other South African cities can establish their own recycling police.

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