Scrap metal thieves flourish

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SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) – Copper exports from the Dominican Republic are surging, but the metal’s not coming from underground.

Thieves have been cutting down power and telephone wires to sell the valuable metal inside as scrap. Their haul accounts for much of the 288 tons exported through June – an impressive total for a Caribbean nation without any active copper mines.

Soaring metal prices driven partly by demand from China have motivated bandits across Latin America, whose plundering of communication lines, traffic lights and other wiring has cut electricity to entire neighborhoods and damaged struggling economies.

“Globalization has created a climate in which these types of activities are going to flourish,” said Cuauhtemoc Calderon Villareal, an economist with the Tijuana, Mexico-based Colegio de la Frontera Norte.

The rise in copper prices, which reached a record $4.16 a pound in May 2005 and have stayed mostly above $3, has meant a bonanza for owners of copper mines. But enterprising thieves find valuable metals in more convenient places.

In Brazil, a 19-year-old homeless man was charged with sawing the arms and a replica trophy off a bronze statue of soccer legend Pele last month.

The vandalism has been disastrous for the crippled Dominican electrical sector. When thieves in Santo Domingo cut 1,000 feet of wire in May, it knocked out power to a huge swath of the capital for two hours – including a hospital, naval base and downtown hotel.

“The wire thieves are increasing the number of blackouts,” said Pedro Pena Rubio, commercial director of the Dominican state-run electric company. “They need to abandon this practice immediately.”

The Dominican government has responded by setting up an investigative task force and, beginning in April, requiring exporters to prove they obtained their copper scrap legally. Copper exports have since fallen by almost 20 percent, according to customs officials.

A probe of the 11 companies that have exported more than $1.8 million worth of copper scrap from the Dominican since January 2006 so far has not produced indictments.

Much of the country’s scrap copper goes to China, which imported 460,000 tons of the metal in the first two months of this year to help feed its booming economy.

People in Santo Domingo describe seeing some of their poorest neighbors walking down the street with reams of stolen wire wrapped around their shoulders.

“They do it right during the day, they don’t care,” said 18-year-old Noemi Ramirez, who works in an ice cream shop that depends on a diesel generator to get through daily blackouts.

AP-ES-07-29-07 0002EDT

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