Copper Cable Caper Beyond Cops Capabilities

Expect it to continue

The municipal water department, called by its acrymom Oomsapas, was the target of another underground copper cable caper that left a large section of La Paz and many of its residents without city water.

Copper robbers have a long history of stealing cables and wires from public utility agencies as well as private companies. They aren’t choosy. They stole the copper wiring that lights up the fourlane even before it lit up the fourlane.

 The cable is easily sold to scrap dealers at a nice price, although not as nice as it used to be.

The national financial losses are estimated to be in the millions of dollars and the disruption of services often affects thousands of consumers for several days or until the stolen material is replaced (and then sometimes stolen again). It is a headache for local, state and national governments, a huge inconvenience for consumers, and a great loss to businesses and public utility agencies. The copper thefts are carried out at electrical, telephone, hydraulic, gas, agricultural and industrial, installations.

Copper is a great conductor and didn’t used to be such a valuable commidity, so it was used in a wide, and often vulnerable, positions.

The most recent theft in La Paz occurred on May 25, when water utility workers discovered around 60 yards of cable missing at one of the municipal wells in the Los Olivos neighborhood. The value of the loss is estimated at about $5500, but the biggest problem is the supply of water to hundreds of homes in a 40 block section of the city screetched to a halt, leaving frustrated residents high and dry. Another theft took place only one week before in which fencing and cables were snatched from another well site in the city.

According to Lorenzo Nuñez, Operational Director of Oomsapas, another problem with the thefts is that the local scrap metal dealers or chatarreros, will not report the stolen goods and continue buying the materials. 

Many utility companies, especially the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), have replaced some copper cables with aluminum cables, which have a much lower commercial value and are not normally sought by thieves. Tons of copper wiring is still in use, though.

In the interior of the country, the problem is even more acute. Organized crime is involved and gangs have stolen hundreds of miles of cable, especially expensive telephone cables built with copper or fiber optic materials.

Last February, police in Mexico City arrested 43 members of an organized group of cable robbers who had worked together to rip off loads of telephone cable.

Some of the groups´ modus operandi is considered fairly sophisticated now. Their methods include sending men, dressed in Telmex uniforms and posing as employees, into areas where large quantities of cable are located in service wells. They often begin early in the morning when they are least suspected and will spend hours cutting all the available cables. Then they load them onto trucks. Then they sing all the way to the bank.

By the time they have left, telephone and internet users are just beginning to complain about disrupted service. Society has become dependent on telephone communications and a single robbery can affect as many as 14,000 telephone lines and add  great cost to telephone companies and private businesses for repairs, replacement, and the loss of communication.

Between 2010 and 2011, up to 7,000 miles of cable was stolen, which caused more than 5,000 blackouts throughout the country.

In 2014, a bill was passed to increase the length of incarceration for copper cable capers up to seven years. The new law makes the theft a federal crime when it causes interruptions in public utility services.

But in a country where only 7% of crimes are ever invesitegated, and only about 2% of crimes result in a convition, this may not stop any time soon.