Is the net at last closing in on cash robberies? There’s been six arrests this week in what appears to be renewed resolve from the police, who have even apparently compiled an ‘interest list’ of more than 122 suspects.
Not good enough - said a panel of experts meeting in Sandton on Thursday, 31 May - what’s needed are arrests and successful prosecutions of syndicates, based on intelligence-sourced information and proper co-ordination between investigators, prosecutors and the courts.
There have been over 140 heists in the past 140 days and retailers have a one in four chance of being hit, said Richard Phillips, joint CEO of Cash Connect, which manages money on behalf of the retail sector. But we shouldn’t ignore other cash robberies - 207 non-residential burglaries every day and 57 armed robberies at retail outlets.
“CIT’s should not be seen in isolation – the foot soldiers may change, but the gangsters and syndicates are the same.”
The spectacular nature of CIT heists attracts attention and dominates front page news.
But, cash is critical to our economy and cash crime, of which CIT heists form a part, is the real issue here.
84 Percent of all transactions are cash, with R136-billion in circulation at any given time, moving from the Reserve Bank and distributed to the consumer via banks and ATMS on CIT vehicle networks.
There are 59 500 cash collections per day and 2144 armoured vehicles on the road – moving targets and CIT heists aren’t new to the South African criminal landscape.
There were 467 CIT heists in 2006/7, which were brought under control, thanks to dedicated police task teams. In 2016, the figure stood at 278 and jumped significantly to 378 in 2017.
According to Dr Mahlogonolo Thobane, who did her masters dissertation on CIT robberies, this breed of criminal is at the top of the food chain. They are regarded as heroes and providers in their communities and maintain a certain lifestyle, even boasted on social media. They operate in splinter groups and are recruited for their specific expertise: as drivers, or shooters – known as ‘madubula’ – and ‘off-ramp’ operators who wait nearby and drive the getaway vehicle.
Dr Thobane interviewed 40 cash robbers in prison and said of these only five didn’t consult sangomas, from whom they obtained muthi to become ‘invisible’. Some muthi is hallucogenic, giving robbers an exaggerated sense of reality. Prison, she said, was no deterrent to cash robbers, merely an interruption to their criminal careers. After being released, most took up where they had left off, which questions the rehabilitative role of prison.
‘Some robberies are even planned inside prison. They sit there, bored with nothing to do. Organised crime is alive inside our jails”.
Anneliese Burgess, author of the recently published book HEIST! said very little stolen cash was ever recovered. Of the R465 million taken in the ten heists she details in her book – all of which were prosecuted - only R63 million was recovered and the police stole R14 million of this. Robbers had little fear of being caught because invariably some aspect of the criminal justice system would fail.
The solution, panellists agreed, was not only for cash companies to increase security measures by further reinforcing vehicles, or by finding other innovative ways to guard cash. Although the technology is available, it’s simply too expensive for an industry that needs to balance what retailers can afford with the cost of cash collection and maintenance. Instead policing and crime intelligence needs to improve.
Crime specialist Dr Johan Burger from the Institute for Security Studies said crack police squads, like the Cato Manor Unit in KZN, which had helped bring down armed robberies to an all-time low in the province before it was disbanded in 2012, needed to be reintroduced.
Anti-crime activist Yusuf Abramjee said CIT robbers were currently able to run rings around over-stretched police, precisely because there are no dedicated teams to deal with sophisticated criminals. CIT heists are difficult to police because cash is transported over vast distances and there’s no way of knowing where they’ll strike at any given time. One minute there’ll be a heist on a busy Gauteng highway, the next on some rural byway in the Eastern Cape, or Mpumalanga.
Dr Thobane said research from incarcerated robbers indicated that there was no way to commit these cash robberies without inside information and police involvement.
“They all have insiders and intelligence from within the industry…they have even used police cars as getaway vehicles because they knew no one would stop and search them.”
Cash robbers are able to easily access weapons, said Burgess.
“It is mainly a gun problem and this pipeline should be cut – as well as the source of explosives”.
There has been a 300 per cent increase in the use of commercial explosives in retail cash robberies.
Dr Thobane said robbers obtained their weapons from police and security officers – either willingly or by forcibly disarming them – and they also bought them at hostels.
Dr Burger pointed out that there had been a sharp increase in all aggravated robbery crimes – ATM bombings; kidnappings and cash heists – but said Police Minister Bheki Cele was making the right noises and speaking to the right people. With the appointment of a permanent Crime Intelligence head and a new head of the Hawks, things could begin changing.
“But the impact will be slow – there’s plenty of ‘internal fixing’ that needs to happen within the police. We need dynamism. We need priority committees to deal with priority crimes.”
Burgess cautioned against a ‘kragdadige’ approach – big talk from the police was often not supported by action from the rest of the criminal justice system.
Phillips agreed: “There are solutions out there, we just need a coordinated response. We are waiting with huge anticipation to find out what plans Minister Cele has to combat cash robberies. But, my call is that the Minister should consider the broader issue of cash crime as it affects, Banks, ATMS, Retail and Cash in Transit. Cash crime is a crime against the economy and thus the state. In my opinion, the only way to take control is for all components of the justice cluster to work together in a co-ordinated approach. It worked well once, there’s no reason it shouldn’t work again, he said.