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Jamaican power company reacts to electricity theft

Power costs in Jamaica are among the highest in the Caribbean. Many poor people have devised ways to get their supply free and illegally. Now the utility company is cracking down on this theft.

Jamaica has some of the highest rates for electricity in the Caribbean. And with unemployment at 12 percent, many people in the poorest communities have devised ways of getting electricity for free, though illegally. Jamaica's main electricity supplier has lost millions of dollars over the years through this theft. Now they have finally decided to crack down by cutting whole communities off the grid.

On the streets of Jones Town -- a poor community in Kingston -- Omar, one of its residents, showed me how to steal electricity. It's something he was taught to do as a child.

"You see those two wires there, one is live the other is ground, so you get a line, stick a bamboo stick that can reach from the ground, or you can stand on and you hook it up and it goes into your yard," says Omar.

He says he would prefer legal jobs, but as long as Jamaican electricity prices stay high, he'll always find work, no matter how many communities are disconnected.

The average consumer pays around $75 a month -- which for some is a third of their salary. The electricity company, however, has had enough of electricity theft and whole communities have now been completely cut off. Many worry that cutting the power off could lead to violence. The disconnection of this entire neighborhood has seen an increased security presence to make sure it doesn't flare up, but there are entire generations who have never paid in parts of the city.

JPS is the sole distributor of electricity in the country. Last year alone, 15 percent of their total output was stolen, $30 million worth.

But Audrey Williams, a communications officer for JPS, says it's not only poor people who steal electricity.

"It spans the range, we are talking about every type of residential customer, business customers," says Williams.

About the author

Nick Davis is a reporter for the BBC.

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