At first blush, it may not seem odd that Mozambican businesses are doing a brisk trade in three-legged aluminum pots, ferried by the truckload to buyers in nearby Swaziland and South Africa. In fact, it would not be odd at all, but for two things.

One, Mozambique’s only aluminum smelter sells its entire production abroad. And two, Mozambique is not importing any aluminum, either.

“Factories are exporting these things made out of aluminum,” said Isaías Rabeca, a power company executive. “We just don’t know where they’re getting the aluminum from.”

The likely answer lies just outside the tiny settlement of 7 September, along the rutted dirt road that links this destitute collection of stone-walled shacks with the outside world. Here, deep in a towering thicket of bush, thieves cut a brace of four power lines from their creosoted wooden poles in February and carted away more than 35 miles of aluminum cable before anyone noticed.

It was not the first time, not even on this particular line.

“That is the biggest and most recent incident, but the theft of cable has reached alarming proportions,” Mr. Rabeca, a regional operations director for E.D.M., Mozambique’s power utility, said in an interview. “What worries us is that we don’t see an end in sight. Every day seems to be getting worse.”

Throughout southern Africa, cable theft is ubiquitous, a sort of third-world analog to first-world thefts of car radios. In Mr. Rabeca’s district, where power lines stretch over 46,000 miles of poles, the direct losses to the utility this year amount to $250,000, a huge sum here. In South Africa, the power utility Eskom said that its losses through April exceeded $2.8 million, and that they more than tripled between 2001 and 2003.

Power companies are hardly the sole victims: telephone companies and railroads, among others, are struck nearly as hard by thievery.

The price of replacement cable, however, is perhaps the least of the costs. Theft-related blackouts idle businesses, snarl traffic, delay trains and rob the power companies of revenue. Mr. Rabeca says maintenance workers are so consumed with restringing stolen lines that expansion of electrical service to rural Mozambique risks falling behind schedule.

Finally, there is the human toll. Would-be cable thieves are regularly electrocuted in the act. Those who succeed, moreover, can wreak havoc beyond any intentions.

In 2002, for example, 25 people died and 112 more were injured when a commuter train slammed into an idled supply train in the South African province of KwaZulu Natal. Investigators blamed human error, saying that rail traffic controllers were working under “abnormal conditions” because someone had stolen six feet of copper cable worth about $2.25, disabling the signal system.

Metrorail, the national passenger system, now employs 2,500 workers to fight cable theft, but even so, missing cables snarl schedules daily. In Pretoria, passengers enraged by train delays caused by cable theft set the city’s train station on fire in 2001. Repairs cost roughly $2.3 million.

In Mozambique, long among the world’s poorest nations, so much copper electrical cable has been stripped from poles that the state utility company has refitted 90 percent of its power grid with less efficient, but cheaper, aluminum cable.

“People weren’t interested in aluminum,” Mr. Rabeca said. “But now that the copper’s gone, they’re stealing it, too.”

Poverty, of course, drives most of the thievery. Most cable is stolen in snippets of a few tens or scores of yards, often by people desperate to feed themselves or their families.

In effect, however, they are acting as legmen for organized crime, which has turned southern Africa’s stolen scrap into a lucrative industry. Experts say much of the stolen cable is fenced to scrap dealers with criminal ties, and that much of it ends up in South Africa, where it is either recycled or, often, loaded into shipping containers for export.

The trade is profitable enough that criminal gangs in both Mozambique and South Africa are staging increasingly bold thefts. So far this year, Eskom has registered five thefts of heavy high- tension cables, potential killers carrying 275,000 volts of electricity.

Last month, said Beulah Misrole, Eskom’s top risk manager, thieves made off with a 400,000-volt line, even taking down huge metal pylons to reach the cable.

Eskom deploys security guards along some high-tension routes. But “they target rural and deep rural areas,” she said. “By the time you get there, they’re gone.”

In fact, professional criminals and petty thieves alike are seldom caught, even when they are seen. In the town of Matolo, just west of Maputo, Andelino Manhiça, 55, said he had watched six men park a white truck outside his house at 3 a.m. and methodically strip a third of a mile of electrical cable from the poles lining his isolated street.

Two days later, his street still had no power. “I saw them doing it, but I was a little scared,” he said. “I didn’t know whether they were armed. There are no patrols here; nobody to assist us in an emergency.”

At the regional police headquarters nearby, an inspector, John Figrado, said his officers were too overwhelmed with work to pursue small-time cable thieves. “We have the will,” he said. “We don’t have the finances or the resources.”

Major cable thieves present a different challenge. South Africa’s utilities and government agencies long ago set up a task force to pursue the thieves; Mozambique recently followed suit. Last month, the head of South Africa’s largest scrap-metal company was arrested after investigators found 29 tons of telephone and electrical cable and copper scrap – some of it from a hijacked Zambian truck – in company containers being readied for export.

Mozambique and South Africa are also jointly combating the smugglers. To aid inspectors, customs offices at the border feature large posters displaying the identifying marks of cable from both nations.

But the smugglers are creative. They evade detection by melting the cable and casting it into a more inconspicuous form, like three- legged pots, or by burying it within large truckloads of scrap, hidden from the police and customs inspectors.

After inspections at the South African border were tightened in recent months – shipments of aluminum pots, for example, have been halted there – the smugglers began bringing their goods into South Africa via Swaziland, where border with Mozambique is porous.

Mr. Rabeca said authorities believed that they knew the identities of some major cable criminals. But “when they follow the trail to the owners, they get stopped from pursuing these investigations further,” he said. “It always gets to a point, and then they can’t go any further because they might lose their jobs. That’s how corruption works.”

In South Africa, Eskom has waged an unorthodox war against the thieves, with some success. Its tactics included a Sunday newspaper comic strip – “Black Mamba, The People’s Champion” – in which a superhero patrolled an unnamed city, collaring cable thieves and demonstrating how theft caused power failures and other inconveniences.

Along with other measures, the new tack seems to have worked: incidents of cable theft have dropped by nearly two-thirds in the last year, although the growing role of organized crime in major thefts has kept the cost high.

The theft in 7 September in February was undoubtedly the work of major criminals. The stolen cable, a recently renovated connection between Boane and Catembe, was inactive, a backup for a newly built line linking the same two towns. That, and the surrounding dense bush, is why four strands of cable could be stripped from nine miles of poles virtually without anyone noticing.

If the subsequent investigation is any indication, the thieves were far from professional. Accounts differ, but residents of 7 September say they and residents of nearby villages went on the lookout for thieves after noticing that nearby utility poles were either stripped of wires or had been cut down.

Within a few days, they came upon six men carrying cutting tools, and managed to seize one who the police say confessed to the crime and identified his accomplices. The remaining five were arrested, but released for lack of evidence.

All six were local residents, impoverished young men working for someone else. The police said that they were seeking a man whom they believed masterminded the crime, but that he was at large.

Officials of the utility company, meanwhile, initially indicated that they might not spend the $150,000 or more needed to replace the stolen cable. They have since relented, Mr. Rabeca said, but there is a problem.

“There’s no cable in stock,” he said. “We’re waiting for money in order to buy the material.”