San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Electric Co. All Coiled Up Over Cable Thefts

Communities across the country have been left without electricity and phone service as a result of an epidemic of cable theft.

From Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean to Liberia in the northwest to San José, Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) officials say they are fighting a losing battle with cable thieves, who sometimes steal as much as three kilometers of cable in one night.

“We are in a permanent state of war,” ICE spokesman Elbert Durán said. “We invent one tactic, and it works for one day, and we have to change it the next because the thieves have already evolved.”

Some of those preventive tactics include: slippery oil or barbed wire on telephone polls, security cameras, alarms, private security, reinforcing gates and fences, armored fortresses around electrical installations and joint stings with the Judicial Investigation Police against black market scrap yards.

So far, nothing has worked for long, Durán said. Since 2003, ICE has lost at least ¢2.2 billion ($4.1 million) in stolen phone cable, the most frequent target of individual criminals and organized gangs because of its relatively high copper content, he said.

According to Arrieta, the organized cable-theft gangs sell to black-market scrap yards, which then transport the contraband to Guatemala for shipment to China and other Asian nations, many of the same countries who provide Costa Rica with the raw copper to produce wiring.

“The copper in the cables is very soughtafter and it sells for up to ¢6,000 ($11.10) per kilogram in San José,” he said. “The majority (of the stolen cables) … are sent to scrap yards, many of them clandestine, which the municipalities often don’t even know exist.”

ICE Investigator Alonso Arrieta said at least 1,906 criminal complaints for cable theft have been filed since 2003 and that so far in 2008, an average of 35 are filed each month.

Duran said the next countermeasure may be electrifying ICE installations to punish attempted thieves with a high-voltage beating.

“We’re considering electrifying certain installations,” he said. “But that could entail a lot of technical and legal problems. People will scream it violates their human rights, and it seems to be a sport in this country to block the actions of public entities with injunctions. In any case, we’re obliged to keep rotating our security measures and experimenting with new ones.”

Some affected communities have taken to organizing vigilante committees to attack suspected cable thieves. One such case went awry recently when a group of Ticos and Nicas attacked two foreign ornithologists from StanfordUniversity in California who were staking out a rare owl in Barrio Arena in Liberia earlier this month. The thieves thought the birders were cable thieves (TT, Aug. 8). One academic escaped, and the other suffered cuts to his hand and beatings, but no serious injuries.

Durán said there are similar vigilante groups operating in other parts of the country, but he declined to identify them or their communities.

“They have organized and defended the patrimony because they know what it feels like to be cut off without electricity and phones,” he said. “I don’t support violence but I understand the reasons why they organize.”

Arrieta said rural areas are most affected, but San José also suffers. Durán said the Caribbean is the most severely affected. “Many rural areas are much more exposed due to the fact their phone cables run through desolate regions, and the thieves take advantage of these circumstances,” Arrieta said. “But San José also suffers from the homeless and drug addicts who steal cable to sell to get their next fix.”

ICE declined to provide the amount of hours of lost service to clients this year as a result of theft.

“It seems to us to be better to manage this information internally,” Durán said.

They also didn’t provide numbers on the theft of regular electrical cable and cell phone tower infrastructure, also growing problems.


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