Hard drives: Riding with the trackers who fight the jackers

2016-03-04 12:16
An Altech Netstar pilot and an air tracker scramble to get airborne over Umlazi in search of a stolen car. (Supplied)

An Altech Netstar pilot and an air tracker scramble to get airborne over Umlazi in search of a stolen car. (Supplied)

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Durban - On an unnamed road in the undulating gullies of Umlazi, one of South Africa’s largest townships, two men scan the side streets with loaded guns at the ready.

The beeping tone of a device which tracks the proximity of a car, stolen from Durban just minutes before, competes with a revving engine for dominance.

The ubiquitous sound of an assault rifle’s bolt sliding back and forth amid the din is ominous.

The avenues of Umlazi, etched like a lattice-work into the hillside in an imperceptible pattern, is often where stolen cars come to be reborn.

With interiors torn apart frantically in search of tracking devices in the moments after they are snatched, it is on these roads that they are fitted with different number plates, license disks, engine numbers, and in ambitious cases, even a fresh coat of paint.

Tracking companies are fighting a high-tech war against organised syndicates of car thieves and hijackers.

These pitch battles go unseen.  

The Altech Netstar tracking teams, who rove the streets of the township, don’t want to photographed.

A veteran of the vehicle tracking sector, who would only be identified by his first name Pio, offered an uncommon insight into the burgeoning car theft industry.

"We are known in this area. When people see our vehicle coming they know why we are here. Even the little kids on the side of the road know what we are here for," he said wryly.

It is little wonder, knowing who they are up against, that they would rather fade into the background.

"These guys don’t play around out here. You would be surprised at how we have to defend ourselves when we get an active call," he said.

Pointing to a rifle, he says: "We have to make this talk."

"Sometimes people don’t even know that their car has been taken. The guys [thieves] often work in groups and while one drives, the other is tearing apart the dash looking for the tracking unit," he said.

He said that tracking a stolen car was a game of cunning and nuance, using the strength of the signal emitted by the silent tracking unit as a guide to hotspots in the townships.

"We know if we are getting a certain signal, we have an idea where they will be. They have these spots where they can see us coming while they strip the car. If you surprise them somehow, they just start shooting," he said.

The cat-and-mouse game is elevated to an unexpected level with professional syndicates.

"Sometimes you go up against amateurs and that is when you find them still with the vehicles, because they don’t know what they are doing. The professionals, they are ordered and organised. It is like they have their own school for this. This is why we move fast," he said.

The stolen car is often "ordered" by syndicates.

"These guys will steal the car and try and pull the tracking unit out and, if we don’t find the vehicle, then they sell it on to whoever wants to buy it."

An Altech Netstar pilot and an air tracker scramble to get airborne over Umlazi in search of a stolen car. (Supplied)

He added that his perilous occupation was always at the front of his mind.

"The way that I see it is when someone is hijacked and they take the victim with, that person is like my family. How fast would I move if it was my wife in that car? The question answers itself."

"This is a calling for me; I can’t see myself doing anything else. We work hand in hand with the police and we phone them when we get activated. It is important to have backup," he said.

"We don’t carry rifles for nothing. We are confronting hijackers and there are times where they have even shot the driver. When you get a call and you know the driver has been shot, you get butterflies in your stomach. Once you pick up that signal, the butterflies turn into dragons," he said.

With Esau and his team trading blows with hijackers on the ground, they have an unmistakable ally in a helicopter circling above.

When the signal of a stolen vehicle is picked up, the helicopter crew of a pilot and and air tracker, scramble to get airborne. 

They track the vehicle from above, with the chopper’s rotors striking the humid air heralding their arrival.

"When they hear the helicopter, they know we are close on them. Often they will just ditch the car and run because if the chopper is near, we are around the corner," he said.  

Read more on:    durban  |  hijackings  |  crime

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