How mall robbers were taken down

2015-04-05 16:20
(City Press)

(City Press)

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Johannesburg - A syndicate that conducted a reign of terror in armed raids on shopping centres last year has been smashed – thanks to their cellphones, City Press reports.

Thirty-two suspects – linked to 34 robberies – have been nabbed in intelligence-driven operations in the provinces over the past few months.

Most of the suspects are Zimbabweans.

The brazen robbers sowed panic among residents in Gauteng and the Western Cape when they raided mainly cellphone shops in malls in the provinces between August and October last year. Some are also believed to be responsible for blowing up ATMs.

It is thought some of their accomplices, who are still at large, robbed a cellphone shop in Hyde Park, Johannesburg, two weeks ago.

National police spokesperson Lieutenant General Solomon Makgale said: “Most of the suspects responsible for the robberies in Gauteng and the Western Cape are currently behind bars. There are, however, still a few of their associates – along with the dealers to whom the cellphones are sold – at large.

“We are now focusing on them.”

Dealers, who buy phones in their original packaging, send them to Nigeria, Mozambique and Zimbabwe – as the phones are blacklisted in South Africa and therefore useless. They can be activated quite easily abroad – even if they are stolen.

The police’s first big breakthrough came when a few of the cellphones used by the robbers were recovered and analysed.

Using the data, a task team set up to stop the raids, which reached a peak between August and October last year, started to make connections between members of the syndicate and how they conducted their business – because when a robbery goes wrong, gang members are quick to turn to their phones to call each other and find out what’s happening.

The cellphone data indicated the full extent of the syndicate’s crime spree. At first, their robberies were sporadic, but they soon grew more daring and regular, even hitting two cellphone shops in different shopping centres in Centurion on the same day.

But for them, their “work” had become routine.

One group was linked to robberies at the Kolonnade and Hatfield centres in Pretoria, as well as Key West in Krugersdorp.

Six of this group of 10 later travelled to the Western Cape by bus, monitored by officials from cellphone providers, crime intelligence, the task team and the National Prosecuting Authority.

It soon became clear the gang was doing “reconnaissance” in Brackenfell, Tyger Valley and Stellenbosch.

Their luck finally ran out when they apparently found themselves short of cash and decided to bomb an ATM in Bellville. A police general nearby arrested two of the robbers after a standoff. Four vehicles, cash, three pistols and plastic explosives were seized.

Using their cellphones, the police linked the suspects to robberies in Sea Point, Malmesbury and Stellenbosch.

None of them, including those arrested in Gauteng, has thus far been granted bail.

According to Makgale, the rapid response in Bellville was the direct result of cooperation between experts in the private sector and the police.

The war against mall robberies continues to be waged from a “war room” in Pretoria. Aside from cellphone data, the task team also used video recordings from shopping centres to identify individuals.

“All the information is consolidated to compile profiles of the ringleaders, as well as their modus operandi. This has allowed us to create a database that lets us centralise dossiers, which in turn ensures more thorough investigation throughout the provinces. It gives us an intelligence picture that allows us, through visible preventive policing, to thwart the plans of robbers, particularly at shopping centres,” Makgale explained.

“It is also clear that the syndicates are multidimensional in that they not only carry out different types of robberies, but also hijack vehicles, rob ATMs and commit other violent crimes.

“Crime affects all citizens, but this task force’s interaction is an excellent example of how the private sector and law enforcement officers can join hands to make the country safer for everyone,” he added.

According to the Institute for Security Studies, the past year has witnessed a 143% increase in armed robberies at shopping centres.

Gareth Newham, the head of the institute’s crime and justice programme, said: “This team’s successes prove that, despite the public’s perception, the police still possess the required expertise to fight organised crime.

“It is good news, from which the police and its top structure should learn, instead of involving themselves in petty infighting.

“To fight crime successfully, there needs to be a proper understanding of criminal operations. Otherwise, the officer on the street will only be able to achieve so much.

“Much is needed from these kinds of task teams to fight crime in all sectors,” Newham added.

Read more on:    crime

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