In the Media

Foreign criminal syndicates 'behind metal thefts in Britain'

PUBLISHED March 31, 2012

Authorities say the "serious" international criminal syndicates are likely behind attacks on the country's historic buildings, railways and national infrastructure.

Intelligence suggests gangs from Africa and China are stealing valuable metal to "finance and fund organised crime" while causing "serious harm" in Britain.

The Daily Telegraph has learned police are now investigating whether the gangs' "methodology" includes sending associates to Britain or instead forming lucrative partnerships with established local crime networks.

On Friday, it was disclosed that an operation involving dozens of officers from six forces, seized more than £500,000 worth of smuggled metal from ports along the east coast.

Sources involved in "Operation Chisel" say evidence has, for the first time, provided "proof of how the metal theft epidemic has now become a highly organised international operation".

In a series of intelligence-led raids, authorities recovered dozens of stolen cars, which had mostly been stripped down, caravans, a "large quantity of national infrastructure cable" and more than 1100 liquid propane gas (LPG) cylinders.

The investigation, headed by the Eastern Region Special Operation Unit (ERSOU), uncovered evidence to suggest the smuggled metal was bound for China, West Africa and India and Northern Cyprus.

Cargo containers were raided at ports in London Thamesport, Tilbury, Felixstowe, Harwich and Dover.

Meanwhile Calor Gas, the multinational company owned by the Dutch SHV Energy, said thousands of cylinders have been recovered from African countries including Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Gambia and Tanzania.

Last year more than 200,000 gas cylinders were stolen across Britain by scrap metal thieves, costing the industry more than £9 million.

The cylinders are not only being melted down as part of wider operations in Africa to steal valuable metal in other items but are also sold commercially as a whole.

Officials say that unless they are treated with care by experts the cylinders could cause "devastation".

Det Insp Gary Brotherhood, the officer in charge of the ERSOU, said the smuggling operations were "clearly the work of serious and organised crime groups using this as a means to finance and fund organised crime".

"These groups, based in this country and also overseas, are interested in making money from the commodities that have been shipped there," he told The Daily Telegraph.

"Metal theft is a very lucrative market and these organised crime groups will then target these commodities... either to fund other criminality or for profit.

"The shipping routes that have been identified we believe are linked to organised criminals networks in the UK as well as countries where these items were going to. We think there has to be a local market demand for these commodities."

He added: "It is fair to say that the theft of cables has been prolific and we are going to target these gangs who believe they can steal and cause disruptions here.

"This investigation will have significantly disrupted sophisticated criminal networks."

The UK Border Force (UKBF) commissioned Operation Chisel, which involved officers from Norfolk, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire and Suffolk police forces.

The government agency, formerly known as the UK Border Agency, supplied "cutting edge technology" as well as intelligence on international smuggling for the operation which undertaken over the past few months.

Officials from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and Environment Agency are also involved in the ongoing operation as investigations continue.

Evidence is to be sent to national intelligence databases at the Home Office and the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which is also involved in the operation.

Authorities say any arrested criminals caught smuggling gas cylinders could face charges including shipping of dangerous goods.

Bill Form, the Border Force Assistant Director for Central Region UK, said authorities were determined to crack down on the illegal operations.

"Where international crime gangs are involved, we are determined to stop these goods being smuggled out of the UK.

Paul Blacklock, Calor's head of strategy, said the company had noticed a marked "escalation" in the thefts involving its goods.

Over the past year thefts of cylinders has cost the company more than £4.5 million, with more than steel gas cylinders being stolen.

"For a long time we have suspected that many … cylinders were disappearing, not just into the illegal scrap trade but also as part of a more organised criminal underworld," he said. "What these criminals are doing is highly dangerous."

Official figures have shown that more than 1,000 metal theft offences are occurring every week in Britain.