TELECOMS firms LIME and Digicel have suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in losses over the past 18 months from thieves who have raided cellular sites across the island, the Jamaica Observer has learnt.
According to a highly placed source, the thievery has grown worse since the Government's recent indication that it intends to reopen the scrap metal trade which was shut down by the previous Administration because of the rampant theft of vital infrastructure.
"Over the last year-and-a half, 50 of LIME's cell sites have been hit by the thieves who have taken cables, batteries, fuel, and generators valued at a combined $100 million," said the source who has knowledge of police investigations into the matter.
He said that over the same period, Digicel's losses have amounted to $245 million as the thieves have hit 112 of that company's cell sites. Of the $245 million, he said, property valued at $45 million was stolen since the announcement of the plan to reopen the scrap metal trade.
The most recent theft was foiled early last Tuesday morning at Digicel's site in Point Hill, St Catherine. Digicel officials, responding to an alarm around 2:00 am, surprised 12 men who had cut into pieces the cable to the cell tower and packed them in the trunk and on the back seat of one of two cars.
The thieves had also removed two deep cycle batteries from the site. However, when the Digicel team arrived, some of the men escaped in one of the cars, while the others fled on foot.
The car loaded with the cut cable was seized by the Digicel team.
"Three weeks ago, the Digicel site in Caymanas was robbed of cable valued at about $10.5 million," added the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Donovan Betancourt, Digicel's head of facilities management and technical operations, confirmed the thefts and the fact that they were being investigated by the police.
"There is an ongoing investigation into the theft of batteries, fuel and other items from our cell sites. However, Digicel is unable to give any details on this at the moment as it is a police matter," Betancourt told the Jamaica Observer.
A LIME spokesman confirmed the thefts through our source, but did so only on the understanding that he would not be named.
According to the source, a businessman has already been arrested in connection with the robberies which the police strongly suspect are being ordered by an organised network that sells the batteries to businesses that provide solar solutions to consumers.
"We are asking people who have bought deep cycle batteries in recent months to verify that they have not purchased stolen property," the source said, adding that both phone companies are co-operating with the investigations in an effort to stop the thefts and vandalism of their properties.
The deep cycle batteries, the source revealed, come in two colours — grey and red. The red batteries, he said, are the more expensive because they pack greater power and are more durable.
He said that the businessman who was arrested, and is now out on bail, was held with six of the red batteries installed in his motor vehicle to power a car stereo system. "These red batteries are the ones being sold to minibus drivers and other motorists," said the source.
He said that the batteries cost in the region of $50,000 each, but are being sold to the public at $10,000. "Some of the guys even sell them for as little as $5,000 because all they want is some money," he said.
In relation to the fuel theft, the source said that at some sites, immediately after the engineers and contractors fill the tanks and leave, the thieves strike.
"In some communities the thieves are protected by the people because the spoils are usually shared," he said, explaining that the fuel is most times sold on the black market to minibus and truck drivers, as well as the owners of diesel generators.