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Garth Rattray: Stiffer cable theft penalties needed

Published:Monday | July 6, 2015 | 12:00 AM

With all the rules, regulations and monitoring going on in the scrap metal industry, there continues to be equipment and property theft. So, in spite of its employment and limited foreign-exchange benefits, I used to think that the Government should scrap the scrap metal industry.

Cable theft is negatively and significantly impacting Jamaica's foreign-exchange spending and, since the cable companies can't absorb that massive financial haemorrhage, it must affect our monthly bills. I wonder if the foreign exchange earned from scrap metal export was worth the foreign exchange lost to theft. And, it certainly isn't worth the inconvenience, danger to society, and the entrenching of a sub-industry/culture predicated on thievery.

However, I subsequently learned that the real culprits are not the bona fide scrap metal traders and exporters; the real culprits are criminals hell bent on 'eating a food' at the expense of the entire country.

Currently, massive sections of several parishes have no cable service for communication and/or entertainment. Unconscionable cable thieves have been repeatedly making off with many kilometres of cable belonging to Flow. One of the cable companies went as far as contracting a security company to install monitoring equipment in an effort to catch the thieves, but they stole the cable soon after that anyway.

I was unable to get the figures from Flow, but LIME alone, before it was subsumed into Flow, lost more than J$400 million over the past 12 years to cable theft, yet anyone caught stealing cables can only be charged with simple larceny - a crime that may only carry a fairly short prison sentence at worst.

Going wireless

Now, LIME had acquired DEKAL Wireless in an effort to forgo the use of cables and transmit Wi-Fi signals throughout subscribing communities. However, the 'process' of signing up is astonishingly slow, tedious and tortuous.

Cable theft not only denies subscribers their landline telephone and entertainment services, it denies them security and emergency services that depend on telephones. It disrupts telephone service to police stations, hospitals, ambulances and fire stations. Cellular telephone sites send out signals over microwave transmissions, but those sites receive signals via cables. Imagine the scenario where there are multiple communities, effectively denied landlines, cellular telephone services, all the emergency services and have no entertainment or Internet access for security, education for students and to current events.

Serious crime

It was explained to me that some (foreign) jurisdictions treat cable theft as the extremely serious crime that it truly is. In those places, anyone convicted of stealing cable will be charged, not only with stealing the physical cable, but also with serious (local and national) security breaches. It's not only a matter of denying people the convenience of communication and entertainment; it's a matter of denying them security and endangering their lives and/or property.

Recently, we have been hearing that stolen copper wiring is going into the manufacture of bullets. I checked with a scrap metal exporter who explained that they are not seeing the stolen copper wire. The regulations specifically state, under Section 3 (1), that, among a list of other items, copper wire is prohibited. Scrap-metal exporters must post a J$7-million bond and, if banned items are discovered, they lose the bond and will be disqualified from the industry. The rigid system allows for five days of quarantine and for inspection by individuals in search of their stolen property before export is allowed.

It is, therefore, incongruous to have all those rules, regulations, checks and balances in place and end up lightly sentencing convicted cable thieves who steal millions from cable companies, rob many communities of telephone service, entertainment and security, and endanger many lives. This is not at all commensurate with the very serious degree of their crime.

There is nothing at all 'simple' about the larceny of cable. Modernise the legislation. Impose much stiffer penalties for cable theft in keeping with the deleterious effect that it has on our citizens.

- Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Email feedback to and