Today, not only do politically-correct individuals have to worry about conflict diamonds---diamonds mined mostly in strife-ridden African countries that provide revenues for despots and violent militants---they also have to worry about “conflict minerals” that are used to make a wide range of electronic products and provide revenues for violent insurgencies. One example of this, highlighted in the film “Blood in te Mobile,” by Danish filmmaker Frank Piasecki Poulsen, is the eastern Congo where obscure minerals used to make cell phones and other devises, is proided by mines controlled by insurgents. [Source: Kevin Mahler, The Times. October 30, 2011]

According to Wikipedia: Conflict minerals are minerals mined in conditions of armed conflict and human rights abuses, notably in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by the Congolese National Army, and various armed rebel groups, including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), a proxy Rwandan militia group. The looting of the Congo's natural resources is not limited to domestic actors; during the Congo Wars, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi particularly profited from the Congo's resources. These governments have continued to smuggle resources out of the Congo to this day. The profits from the sale of these minerals finance continued fighting in the Second Congo War, and control of lucrative mines becomes a focus of the fighting as well. [Ibid]

“Mines in eastern Congo are often located far from populated areas in remote and dangerous regions. A recent study by IPIS indicates that armed groups are present at more than 50 percent of mining sites. At many sites, armed groups illegally tax, extort, and coerce civilians to work. Miners, including children, work up to 48-hour shifts amidst mudslides and tunnel collapses that kill many. The groups are often affiliated with rebel groups, or with the Congolese National Army, but both use rape and violence to control the local population. [Ibid]

Insurgent Groups in the Congo Involved in Conflict Minerals

The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda is the primary remnant Rwandan Hutu Power rebel group in the east of the of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is often referred to as simply the FDLR after its original French name: the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda. It has been involved in fighting from its formation on 30 September 2000 throughout the last phase of the Second Congo War and the fighting which has continued since then. It is composed almost entirely of ethnic Hutus opposed to Tutsi rule and influence in the region. The FDLR was formed after negotiations between the Army for the Liberation of Rwanda and the remnant Hutu military command agreed that the ALiR be dissolved. Paul Rwarakabije was appointed commander in chief of the entire force, but ALiR had to accept the political leadership of the FDLR. [Source: Wikipedia]

“According to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, the FDLR is believed to be responsible for about a dozen terrorist attacks committed in 2009. These acts of terrorism have killed hundreds of civilians in Eastern Congo. On August 24, 2010, the United Nations confirmed that rebels from the FDLR and from the Mai Mai militia raped and assaulted at least 154 civilians from July 30 to August 3, in the town of Luvungi in North Kivu province. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who had made protecting civilians and combating sexual violence central themes of his presidency, was reported to be outraged by the attack. Atul Khare, deputy head of the U.N.'s peacekeeping department, was dispatched to the region, and Margot Wallstrom, the organisation's special representative for sexual violence in conflict, was instructed to take charge of the U.N. response and follow up. The United Nations had withdrawn 1,700 peace keepers in recent months, responding to the Congolese government's demand to end the UN peacekeeping mission. [Ibid]

“The National Congress for the Defence of the People (French: Congrès national pour la défense du peuple, CNDP) is a political armed militia established by Laurent Nkunda in the Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in December 2006. The CNDP was engaged in the Kivu conflict, an armed conflict against the military of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In January 2009, the CNDP split and Nkunda was arrested by his ostensible backers, Rwanda. The remaining CNDP splinter faction, led by Bosco Ntaganda, was planned to be integrated into the national army. The CNDP under the command of Col. Sultani Makenga was accused of massacring 67 civilians in 2008 in the town of Kiwandja in North Kivu. The head of the UN Human Rights Commission, Navi Pillay, accused Makenga of committing war crimes. [Ibid]

Different Conflict Minerals

According to Wikipedia: The most commonly mined minerals are cassiterite, wolframite, coltan, and gold, which are extracted from the Eastern Congo, and passed through a variety of intermediaries before being purchased by multinational electronics companies. These minerals are essential in the manufacture of mobile phones, laptops, and MP3 players. [Source: Wikipedia]

“Columbite-tantalite (or coltan, the colloquial African term) is the metal ore from which the element tantalum is extracted. Tantalum is used primarily for the production of capacitors, particularly for applications requiring high performance, a small compact format and high reliability, ranging widely from hearing aids and pacemakers, to airbags, GPS, ignition systems and anti-lock braking systems in automobiles, through to laptop computers, mobile phones, video game consoles, video cameras and digital cameras. In its carbide form, tantalum possesses significant hardness and wear resistance properties. As a result, it is used in jet engine/turbine blades, drill bits, end mills and other tools. [Ibid]

“Cassiterite is chief ore needed to produce tin, essential for the production of tin cans and solder on the circuit boards of electronic equipment. Tin is also commonly a component of biocides, fungicides and as tetrabutyl tin/tetraoctyl tin, an intermediate in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and high performance paint manufacturing. [Ibid]

“Wolframite is an important source of the element tungsten. Tungsten is a very dense metal and is frequently used for this property, such as in fishing weights, dart tips and golf club heads. A significant amount of the tungsten is used as tungsten carbide. Like tantalum carbide, tungsten carbide possesses hardness and wear resistance properties and is frequently used in applications like metalworking tools, drill bits and milling. Smaller amounts are used to substitute lead in "green ammunition".[7] Minimal amounts are used in electronic devices, including the vibration mechanism of cell phones. [Ibid]

Metal Theft

A surge in worldwide metal prices encouraged thieves around the global to steal metal items wherever they could be easily snatched. Demand for metals such as copper and lead has boomed as rapidly developing countries including China and India race to build skyscrapers, factories, homes and gadgets for a rising middle class. [Source:Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times, March 27, 2012]

“Even wealthy European countries are struggling with the problem. Germany’s rail system has also taken a big hit. Henry Chu wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Even though the sums that metal thieves earn from scrap dealers are often surprisingly small, the money is proving irresistible at a time of high unemployment, economic belt-tightening and painful government cuts.... Authorities suspect that organized gangs may be behind some of the heists. [Ibid]

“To discourage them, experts are urging stricter regulation of the scrap metal business, an industry governed by 48-year-old rules that critics say are hopelessly out of date and inadequate for contemporary conditions. Why, for example, are people still allowed to trade in large metal items for cash upfront, no questions asked? Why not require some form of identification? "The best way of tackling this is to work with scrap metal dealers so the thieves who are taking the metals have nowhere to sell," Glyn Hellam, a spokesman for the British police told the Los Angeles Times. "What we really need to do is stop the market for stolen metal.” [Ibid]

Metal Theft in Russia

The theft of copper wire, aluminum cables and other metals from power lines, communication cables, telephone poles, railroad power systems, military complexes and factories was a serious problem in Russia in late 1990s and early 2000s. The metal was mainly taken by desperately poor people who had few other means to make money and sold what they could get their hands on as scrap through dealers with connections to organized crime. [Source: New York Times]

“An estimated 15,000 miles of power lines were pulled down in the 1990s with the rate 10 to 20 times higher in the late 90s than in the early 90s. Millions of people lost their electricity. Towers used for nuclear submarine communications, entire aluminum phone booths, manhole covers, rock motors and fuel tanks, torpedo parts, and copper shell casings were taken. A nuclear power plant had its aluminum sensors stolen. The problem was particularly bad in coal mining regions, where thousands of people lost their jobs, and military facilities, full of underpaid soldiers. In the Kuril Islands, people stole metal slabs from the airport runways. [Ibid]

“Some of the metal is melted down into ingots and exported overseas. Between 1995 and 1998 the export of copper scrap increased from 28,600 tons to 356,000 tons and the export of aluminum scrap increased from 11,900 tons to 367,000 tons. Some of it found its way back to the power companies that were ripped off. [Ibid]

“In the late 1990s around 700 electrocutions and 500 deaths a year were attributed to metal thefts. Many people were hurt or killed stealing copper wire. In one case five sailors suffocated while trying to take copper cables and metal from inside of decommissioned submarine. The problem became so bad that the government placed tight restrictions on scrap metal dealers. [Ibid]

“One -12-year-old boy who tried to take some copper wire from a coal mine told the New York Times, "The first wire was dead, and we cut it and hid it, and we came to take another one, but it turned out to be live." The boy said a "bright explosion" occurred. He managed to pull his hand away and was overcome by the sight and smell of burned flesh. His thumb and forefinger were so badly burned they had to be amputated. [Ibid]

Metal Thieves in Japan

In Japan, high metal prices in the mid 2000s encouraged thieves to plunder car barriers, chains, electric cables and stainless steel grating used to cover ditches along the sides of streets and sell them as scrap metal. Large temple bells, fire bells, playground slides and metal water storage basins used by farmers were all targeted by metal thieves. Metal thefts in 2006 resulted in losses of over $20 million. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun]

“Among the items that were taken were 52 stainless steel car barriers, worth ¥4.6 mullion, stolen from parking lot entrances in Osaka; a 100-kilogram tide gate taken in Ehime Prefecture; 38 fire-lookout-tower bells valued at ¥4.1 million stolen in 12 cities and 1,027 storm grates worth ¥8.4 million taken in Ibaraki Prefecture. Some rail companies hired guards to prevent thieves from taking tracks. [Ibid]

“It is suspected that the metal was sold to small scrap metal dealers and then was exported to China. Sometimes the thieves reprocessed the metal into sheets and bricks so it couldn’t be identified or linked to it original source. Sometimes these chores were done by the scrap dealers. [Ibid]

In November 2006, four men were arrested after stealing 275 metal grates worth $50,000 in Osaka. In 2007, more than 150 metal bridge nameplates were stolen from bridges in Fukushima and Tochigi prefectures. Most of the nameplates were 15 centimeters long, 30 centimeters wide and 1.5 centimeters thick and made bronze, They cost between $250 and $350 to make. [Ibid]

Metal Thieves in Britain

Henry Chu wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Thieves in Britain are ripping up railway and telephone cables, prying off manhole covers and carting away aluminum access ramps for the disabled. Children shiver in schools where heating pipes have been stolen. In a development Prime Minister David Cameron denounced as "absolutely sickening," memorials to fallen soldiers are being pilfered at the rate of one to two a week.” In 2011, “grave robbers dug up six tombs in a Welsh cemetery, apparently in search of lead coffin linings. In the English coastal town of Blackpool, despairing officials were forced to pull public artworks from display after thieves lifted three of four lead-based figures from a park and part of a statue from the seaside promenade. [Source: Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times, March 27, 2012]

“An estimated $1.2 billion a year is sucked out of the British economy by metal thieves. “The nationwide epidemic prompted Scotland Yard to announce in December that it was forming a unit devoted to tackling metal theft. But apparently someone forgot to notify the poachers, who, that same day, helped themselves to a large outdoor bronze sculpture by noted artist Barbara Hepworth, valued at $800,000, in South London. [Ibid]

“Thieves have targeted Britain's extensive railway network so often that the British Transport Police says thwarting them is second in importance only to preventing a terrorist attack. Officers arrested more than 1,000 suspects last year who allegedly tried to take everything from copper cables -- the preferred booty -- to cabinet doors and rails. "Often it's just two to three people wandering down the railway and dragging off what they can get," said Glyn Hellam, a spokesman for the force. "The vast majority of the railway runs through rural locations where you can't have people stationed at all times.... It's impossible to patrol.” [Ibid]

“The effect of the plunder can go far beyond the economic. In December, thieves took 100 yards of cabling from a generator in a hospital in Llandough, Wales, forcing doctors to cancel 81 operations, including several for cancer patients. In another brazen attack, the attempted theft of a communications cable in Hertfordshire knocked out phone and Internet access across a broad swath of the southern part of the county, including at the control center of the local constabulary. Police had to switch over to backup systems to make sure they didn't miss emergency calls. The thieves themselves can be at risk of dire consequences: Ten people have been killed in the last year filching metal, many of them electrocuted while trying to yank out cables alongside rail lines or at power stations. Public sympathy has not been high. [Ibid]

Metal Thieves Target Churches in Britain

Reporting from Hatfield Broad Oak, England, Henry Chu wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Naomi Wormell is a vicar, not a vigilante. But these days, she finds it hard to choose Christian charity over some swift---and terrible---retribution. The centuries-old church she leads in this quiet English village has fallen victim to a plague sweeping across Britain. Like hungry locusts, metal thieves have repeatedly attacked St. Mary's Church, swooping down on its roof in the dead of night and stripping away large sections of its Victorian-era lead cladding. Six times over a four-month period, the heartsick residents of Hatfield Broad Oak awoke to discover yet another piece of their history stolen, most likely to be melted down and sold for scrap. [Source: Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times, March 27, 2012]

“Wormell admonishes her congregation to resist the urge to give divine wrath a helping hand if the church's newly installed alarm goes off, even though she confesses to the same temptation. "I've asked parishioners not to come out with pitchforks, because these are violent men," she said of the metal thieves. "I don't want to bury any parishioners." "As a child, you always imagined that people didn't steal things from churches, because as they walked out they'd be struck down by a lightning bolt from God," said Mike Nash, the longtime treasurer of St. Mary's. "It's a desecration of something that's sacred to a lot of people.” [Ibid]

“With police resources stretched thin, some potential victims have had to come up with their own solutions for protecting themselves. Just ask the congregation of St. Andrew's Church in the community of Hornchurch on the outskirts of London. Like St. Mary's in Hatfield Broad Oak, St. Andrew's belongs to the Diocese of Chelmsford in southeastern England, which reported nearly 100 instances of metal theft in 2011, making it the hardest-hit diocese in all of Britain during a record year for such crimes. [Ibid]

“The glittering prize at St. Andrew's, a drafty stone building dating back to medieval times, is its copper-covered roof. More than a century old, it managed to survive a bomb that landed perilously close during the Blitz in World War II. But it was defenseless against the thieves who started ripping off pieces in April. During one especially bad week in the summer, thieves struck three times. So parishioners decided to take turns spending the night in the church to catch raiders red-handed. They bedded down in the chancel and used flashlights after dark to keep as inconspicuous as possible. "You don't fully appreciate how cold this church can get until you sleep here through the night," Andy Losq, the organist, said. [Ibid]

“Only once did the sentry squad catch a pair of would-be robbers in the act. After the men clambered onto the church roof, the self-appointed guards hidden inside alerted police, who arrested one of them. The other fled. At least a quarter of the copper roof has been stolen, which led to another disaster in October when heavy rains soaked through the exposed wooden ceiling and flooded the organ below. The instrument is out of commission as it awaits repairs costing about $24,000. [Ibid]

“An alarm system installed at St. Andrew's seems to be doing the trick in preventing more thefts. Attacks on St. Mary's in Hatfield Broad Oak have also tailed off since the church added its security system. But a third of its lead roof is already gone and will cost tens of thousands of dollars to replace. Wormell, St. Mary's vicar, wants to avoid drastic security measures, such as setting up surveillance cameras around the church's perimeter. "There's that balance between keeping it an open place that anyone can come into but also keeping it secure enough so that no one walks off with it," she said. "This is a church, not a fortress.” [Ibid]

Manhole Cover Theft in Columbia

Reporting from Bogota, Colombia , Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times, “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 who 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. [Source: Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2012]

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. [Ibid]

Using GPS Chips to Fight Back Against Manhole Cover Theft in Columbia

Chris Kraul wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “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. [Source: Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2012]

“In November 2011, 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." Aspokesman 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. [Ibid]

“Pineda got involved in March 2010, when he discovered that dozens of manhole covers about to be delivered to the Bogota sewer system had been stolen from his inventory over several months. An undercover informer quickly identified as suspects several employees who insisted on working during shifts when supervision was light. What Pineda couldn't figure out was where and to whom his nonrecyclable manhole covers, each weighing 120 pounds, were being sold. To determine that, he got permission from the Bogota water company to randomly insert GPS chips into three of every 100 manhole covers he made. (Before that, the utility had limited its suppliers to inserting chips in only one cover per 100 because of the cost of satellite tracking services, which can run as much as $1,800 per hour, Pineda said.)

The tracking service quickly traced three of his stolen covers to Neiva, so Pineda dispatched private eye Jorge Izkierdo, a former national police intelligence officer, to the town. His survey of Neiva city streets turned up hundreds of covers stolen from Bogota. Izkierdo's conversations with city officials revealed that the stolen covers were coming mainly from two hardware firms, which he alleged had acted as fences for thieves. Those suppliers, he charged, resold the covers to public works contractors, which then billed the city for new covers at $300 each. [Ibid]

“Most company executives might have forgotten the case, for fear of reprisals or to avoid the expense of a lengthy investigation. Not the 56-year-old Pineda, who said that wouldn't do for someone like him, a native of the town called El Santuario, where people are known for courage, entrepreneurship and obstinacy. He said he had ignored more than 1,000 extortion threats and even burned down his own farmhouse on the outskirts of Bogota rather than give in to leftist guerrillas who demanded monthly "vaccinations," or a slow drip of payments in money and livestock. "The only thing we from Santuario fear is being afraid.” [Ibid]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, U.S. Department of Energy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated August 2012

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