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BOGOTA, Colombia – Jhon Ávila is tired of keeping tabs.
“In two years, I have been robbed of 10 cell phones,” the 21-year-old college student said.
And he is not alone in his frustration.
Three million cell phones were stolen in Colombia last year, after 2.1 million were swiped in 2009, according to the country's National Police and the Association of Cell Phone Companies (ASOCEL).
Colombia has a large number of cell phone users, as 88% of households have at least one cell phone, according to the country’s National Department of Statistics (DANE). By comparison, 86% of households have access to running water.
But President Juan Manuel Santos wants the thefts to stop.
“I just signed a decree with drastic measures to put the brakes on the sale of stolen cell phones,” he tweeted after signing the legislation on May 20.
Presidential Decree 1630 of 2011 establishes the creation of two national databases of cell phones: One for those authorized to operate in the country without restrictions, and another for those registered as lost or stolen.
The country's cell phone operators must run a phone’s serial number through both databases before activation.
“This is how we combat petty theft,” Santos tweeted.
“I am sick and tired of people coming to my shop to tell me that their cell phones got stolen,” said Daniel Ortiz, owner of a cell phone shop in downtown Bogotá. “They come to this area because everybody knows that many of the cell phones offered for sale are stolen. There are some honest businessmen, like me, but everybody knows that the stolen cell business is a pandemic and now has foreign links.”
One of the most common practices by cell phone burglars is known as “put the phone to travel,” which means sending the stolen phone to other countries in Latin America, where they are re-sold at high prices, said Brig. Gen. Francisco Patiño, commander of Bogotá’s Metropolitan Police. “The cell phone mafia in Bogotá has international links. They have to take the stolen phones out of the country because mobile phone companies have made it harder to unblock the phones to use them again [in Colombia].”
Patiño added: “A burglar can get between $50,000 (US$28) and $150,000 (US$83) Colombian pesos per phone. But when the cartels resell them in other countries, they get almost full retail price.”
The profits made on selling a stolen cell phone are generally small. But thieves are killing to get their hands on them.
Colombians were shaken by the death of Rev. Gustavo García, chaplain of the Universidad Minuto de Dios, who was killed during a robbery in which his cell phone was taken on May 13.
“Father García was on the phone with another priest in Ecuador when somebody took away his phone,” Rev. Diego Jaramillo, president of the university, said to Colombian media. “He put up some resistance and got stabbed. In Bogotá, a life is worth the price of a stolen cell phone.”
Hours after the slaying, Santos promised to improve personal security in Bogotá by hiring 500 more police officers at the request of Interim Mayor María Fernanda Campos.
“We are answering her request with 500 new men, 100 of them with motorcycles, to reinforce security in the capital,” Santos said during a speech in the city of Buenaventura hours after the killing.
Police have made strides in the fight against cell phone robberies.
The National Police has recuperated more than 28,000 stolen cell phones this year and more than 3,500 suspects have been arrested for allegedly stealing cell phones in major cities like Bogotá, Cali, Barranquilla and Medellín, according to a statement.
Still, thieves are trying to sell stolen phones to the many shops in downtown Bogotá.
“I always keep my establishment stocked with legitimate goods,” Cristian Ricón, owner of a cell phone shop said. “But the volume of people trying to sell me cell phones that I suspect are stolen is huge.”
The stolen phones “are easy to identify,” he added, “just by looking at who’s selling them to you.”
Ricón isn’t selling stolen cell phones, but other retailers are – just ask Jhon Ávila.
He recently went to a cell phone store in downtown Bogotá to see whether he could find it for sale.
“I found one of the cell phones stolen from me,” he said. “It even had my contacts’ phone numbers on its memory card.”