In the features produced by Hollywood organised crime consists largely of illegal liquor shipments in prohibition days, prostitution rings in inner city America, protection rackets aimed at people who cannot protect themselves against the racketeers, and shipments of cocaine, the drug of the upwardly mobile. In South Africa it has tended to be centred on delivery trucks being relieved of their merchandise.
But according to some new accounts, this form of criminality has taken on a somewhat different aspect. It seems we now have organised crime that victimises Mom and Pop businesses instead of big business, small holdings and even homes. Theft from your home is not necessarily the work of a passing opportunist.
Organised gangs are split into areas of specialisation who share the proceeds. First there are the scouts who check out the victim’s premises. They are never those who actually carry out the robbery. They are different people, with different faces, and are therefore not that easily recognised. The scouts very often include an inside man or woman, someone who knows the place and the victim, often a former or current employee.
The most sought-after domestic targets are firearms and vehicles, next on the list are cell phones that are small and easy to steal, then television sets and other domestic electronics.
Organised crime circles have their own electronic specialists. They switch off alarm systems, clone cell phones, remove sim cards which are then replaced by a new number, and handle other IT challenges.
On the rare occasion that heavy goods are stolen, transport specialists using stolen trucks are called in. According to police records, some crimes have involved teams with as many as twenty-eight individuals, only a few of which actually entered the victim’s premises.
The transport specialists come into the act also when goods are dumped in the bush some distance from the crime scene, to be collected later. This is sometimes the case in livestock theft, a form of crime which is common where I live. And here it assumes a particularly vicious aspect. Cattle are driven into the bush and their Achilles tendons (if they are called that in cattle) cut so they cannot run away. They are collected later, sometimes slaughtered and dismembered on site.
Where large amounts of cash are involved, money laundering becomes part of the game. Sometimes cross border shipments, especially for vehicles, get the goods into more lucrative markets where cars are harder to obtain.
Of course, the most useful members of organised crime teams are police and customs officers. From time to time some are arrested, but few policemen have the stomach for arresting their mates. Enormous numbers of firearms have disappeared from police inventories and cannot be accounted for. Most of them are probably in use by organised crime gangs now.
The size of the organized crime economy, of all types, is so big that in some areas it challenges the straight economy. On the local Hammanskraal advertising WhatsApp group, cars are advertised with or without papers. Those without papers sell for much less.
Organized crime is kept alive by ordinary citizens buying goods they know must have been stolen. People try not to think about the origin of a cell phone, a TV, a hi-fi, a pair of shoes or jeans, or a Toyota Corolla which is offered at a quarter of the real price. It is more comfortable not to think about it.