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GPS helps track stolen manhole lids

Thieves in Bogota take 10,000 covers a year

Chris Kraul Los Angeles Times

BOGOTA, Colombia – The clue that cracked the case of Bogota’s vanishing manhole covers came from a GPS chip embedded in one of the strangely coveted items.

Thieves steal a stunning 10,000 manhole covers a year from the streets of the Colombian capital, lured by their value as scrap or as contraband resold to sewer systems elsewhere in the country.

Normally the thefts of the iron or composite plastic covers go unchallenged in the face of weak law enforcement and the menacing mafias that control the lucrative trade. The city’s water department sees the thefts – which amount to 4 percent of its 250,000 covers every year – as a cost of doing business.

But Gildardo Pineda, whose Bogota-based manufacturing company is a major supplier of the city sewage system’s manhole covers, fought back when thieves targeted him too.

Since discovering a “shrinkage” in the inventory at his factory two years ago, he has used satellite-monitored GPS chips and an undercover private investigator to trace 650 of Bogota’s stolen covers to the city of Neiva, about 150 miles southwest of the capital. Many still showing Bogota’s frog logo, the covers had been installed in Neiva streets.

In November, Pineda filed a lawsuit against the Neiva utility and its sewer system’s contractors and hardware suppliers, accusing them of receiving stolen property.

This month, that town’s prosecutor opened an investigation of Pineda’s allegations that the firms and city utility officials had conspired in a scam.

“As a company, we are happy the satellite tracking system worked,” said Pineda, a soft-spoken paisa, as natives of Antioquia province are called. “But we are very upset that small-time street hustlers have been replaced by big contractors, prosperous hardware stores and a public company.”

In a brief interview, a spokesman for Neiva Public Cos. acknowledged that some manhole covers in its sewer system were stolen property. But he said the utility acted in good faith, thinking it was buying them as new from reputable contractors and hardware concerns.

The Neiva city attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the case.

The thefts have come as a surprise to Bogota utility officials, because copper and steel items are the most coveted objects for scrap and contraband, said an official who spoke on condition he remain unnamed. But the costly synthetic covers now being ordered by most cities to frustrate the metal recyclers have created huge potential profits for thieves.

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