Sun, 09 Dec 2012 13:43 UTC
Austerity-struck Paris has been hit by a wave of street muggings and grave robberies with thieves prepared to exhume bodies to steal gold and jewellery.
Last week, police in the French capital arrested three people as part of a widening grave robbery investigation.
There was further public outrage after two masked intruders shot dead a 52-year old precious metal worker when he tried to stop them stealing gold from his foundry in the chic central Parisian district of Le Marais.
Police said sky-high market prices for precious metals are acting as a magnet for thieves with scant regard for the living or the dead.
In Pantin cemetery, in the north of Paris, dozens of bodies have recently been dug up, with gold teeth and jewellery stolen from them.
Police sources said the three men seized last week were gravediggers employed by the city's cemeteries.
Last month, four other men - three from the same Pantin cemetery - were arrested and placed under investigation for aggravated theft, grave robbery and violating the integrity of a corpse.
According to a source close to the investigation, the men removed personal belongings from corpses in the freshest graves, opening them in the dead of night.
Two of the men were caught wearing miner's helmets and gloves. Their boots were covered in fresh earth.
One of the suspects was found to be carrying 10 gold teeth.
After the initial arrests, the mayor of Paris, Bernard Delanoe, expressed his outrage and ordered the city authorities to step up surveillance of cemeteries.
Home to a million graves, Pantin cemetery is the largest in Paris, though less well known than ones like Pere-Lachaise, and houses a small British and Commonwealth war graves plot.
Even closer to the city centre, a metalworker was gunned down last Wednesday when he fought back against motorbike helmet-clad thieves trying to break into the gold workshop where had been employed for 36 years.
A neighbour said she heard him shout: "I haven't got the keys!" before chasing the attackers and being shot.
Visiting the scene shortly after the murder, Manuel Valls, the interior minister, admitted: "There is a problem with regulating gold, with illegal workshops that recycle gold, which is often the product of theft or snatched gold chains."
Precious metal theft is big business is France. Earlier this year, the national rail operator, SNCF, launched a special security programme to clamp down on the massive theft of copper cables that has led to huge delays on its lines.
Paris, liked the rest of France, has seen a rise in the number of snatched gold chain thefts that is "clearly linked to the rise in market prices", according to Stéphane Gouaud, Paris commissioner of a unit tasked with fighting precious metal and jewellery robbery.
Ten days ago, his men broke an illicit gold reseller network operating out of the Saint Denis train station in a northern Paris suburb. "It was a real open supermarket for stolen gold. All the thieves from across the capital came there to sell their wares for cash," he told The Daily Telegraph.
He said a large part of their booty ended up in Belgium, where "legislation is more relaxed".
His service has focused much of its efforts on clamping down on metal recycling, a carefully regulated profession. In recent weeks, one police unit raided an underground workshop in Paris that melted metals down "without asking questions on where they came from".
The capital, he added, had seen a sudden explosion in small "buy and sell" gold shops. "We are doing our best to regulate these boutiques to make sure they aren't tempted to sell gold acquired in an underhand manner," he said.
"Criminals are constantly adapting. Right now, market prices for gold and metals are high, and they are making the most," he said.