Inside SA’s cash heist gangs

Yet the cold-blooded killers behind the epidemic of cash-in-transit robberies call themselves gentlemen because they “do not terrorise their own”.

Cash-in-transit robberies have increased by 74.1 percent, involving gangs who plan their brazen crimes with military precision.

In one of the worst cases, four security guards were burnt to death during an attack in Limpopo last Friday morning. The guards were transporting money to a bank when four gunmen in a hijacked Mercedes Benz pushed their van off the road and opened fire on the van, causing it to overturn, said police spokesman Superintendent Ronel Otto. The robbers set the van alight with a flammable substance. It’s still unsure whether they got away with any money.

An exclusive insight into how organised some of these killer gangs are is the result of a three-month investigation by Jennifer Irish-Qhobosheane and her team of researchers from the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA). They spent hours interviewing convicted cash-in-transit robbers in prisons in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, some serving sentences of 10 years or more.

“Once one becomes a member of a gang it does not stop as the money is too good. That they take leave from day jobs to carry out heists is an indication of the extent of the profit they make,” said Irish-Qhobosheane.

They call their network “a unit” or “a company” and refer to carrying out a heist as “being on duty”.

Their inside intelligence on their targets is meticulous ‘ and includes which guards to kill and which ones to spare.

“We wanted to find out what makes them so effective, how they view themselves and how they are seen in their communities,” said Irish-Qhobosheane.

“We found that as long as they are big heroes in these communities, this problem will not be solved.”

A gang can be made up of 12 to 30 members who each has a set of duties during the attack.

The leader is called the commander and he co-ordinates the heist, oversees the planning and allocates tasks. He is the one who pays for the surveillance, weapons, personnel, getaway vehicles and he wines and dines corrupt police and security guards who give him inside information for a fee.

He can invest up to R40 000 to ensure he has all the resources to make his heist successful.

His team goes through a planning and intelligence-gathering phase that can take up to three months.

One convicted heister told Irish-Qhobosheane: “Some guys use the Internet to find what new security technology is being introduced, so that we can refine and adapt our methods.

“You know, it’s not only banking and security institutions who do their homework. We also analyse security developments,” he said.

Once identified, the target goes under surveillance for days or weeks. The robbers follow the cash van on its routes, noting any deviations, and carefully observe the behaviour of the security guards.

Getaway options, traffic flow and possible traffic hazards are scrutinised. In case of a cross-pavement heist, which involves three to six gang members, intelligence is gathered on the surrounding buildings, traffic and pedestrian density and behaviour.

The commander’s second-in-charge is his “confidant”, who leads once the heist begins.

The “quartermaster” is in charge of all the gang’s automatic weapons such as AK-47s, R-4s, R-5s, LM-4s and LM-5s He has to make sure the firearms are maintained and working properly.

These weapons are stolen from security guards during heists, bought from car hijackers and burglars, stolen from police or the army or hired.

The gang’s arsenal is stored at a “safe home” rented by a member.

When the planning is complete, the gang “camps” together the night before. In hotels, motels, inns and lodges, they will gather to eat, drink and sleep together ‘ all under one roof.

The next most experienced and highly valued member is the “tap-tap” driver or umgintsi. He knows exactly where to hit a cash van and the exact point on the road where the van should be “ramped”. He also arranges a back-up ramping point. The gang’s arsenal is stored at a “safe home” rented by a member

His choice of vehicle to launch his attack are German luxury cars because they are “sturdy and also have safety features to protect him”.

Once the cash van is on its side or boxed in, the “marksmen” spring into action. They do the shooting and move the cash boxes into getaway vehicles.

There is “rearguard” or a “spotter” who watches the heist from a distance. It’s the spotter’s job to warn the commander of the presence of police or additional security guards.

Spotters also call families and lawyers if any member is killed, injured or arrested.

Once the heist is in full swing the getaway drivers or amagintsa arrive to take the robbers from the scene in hijacked or stolen cars. These vehicles are the first cars used and are often left smashed.

The amagintsa prefer 4x4s, panel vans, minibuses and the Colt twin-cab because “gunmen can lie in the back and passing cars will not notice the heavily armed men”, according to one criminal.

When the gang has fled far enough from the scene of the heist, they switch to a second tier of legitimate vehicles that are parked in pre-arranged locations.

Before leaving, the gang shares the loot by “slicing the cake”, as it is called.

The most vital player in the heist is the “fingerman”, without whom the heist will not take place. He is the corrupt security guard, administration official or operation staff member who works for a security company.

He tells the commander how much cash is being carried whereto and when, and how protected the van will be, the routes the vehicle will follow and details of the security guards in the vans.

In one interview a convicted robber said: “Sometimes a fingerman will tell you, ‘Don’t worry about that security guard, because he’s scared and won’t fight back. But that other guard, he’s a problem for you and you will have to take him out’.”

Another cash-in-transit robber said the gang would not easily kill their fingermen.

“If we went around killing all the fingermen after the heist, how many would be prepared to work for us? It simply wouldn’t make sense to operate like that.” Other fingermen are corrupt policemen who often warn the gang that the SAPS are on their way. They also delay police reaction, destroy evidence at the crime scene, sell dockets to heist members or help awaiting-trial heist members to escape.

Another robber told Irish-Qhobosheane: “Sometimes the police will be paid off by us as a bribe, but there are also policemen who are actually part of, or even run, cash-in-transit networks.” ‘ SA Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA)/Sunday Times.

October 2006
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