The Daily Mail presents a stunning investigation into how cars are robbed in day light beofre eing shipped to Uganda for Ugandans.
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Take care of your new dream car – car-jackers and car key house burglars are targeting Audis, BMWs and Range Rovers to order… and shipping them to Africa for despots, warlords and their rebel armies. Live’s award-winning writer followed their journey from rural Leicestershire to Kampala
Car thieves today are international syndicates who not only pay local toughs to burgle and hijack but also have the connections and expertise to dispatch their goods abroad for sale in countries like Zimbabwe
At 4.30pm on a clear spring afternoon, Shellie Rhodes, a lawyer and a young mother of two, was returning home in her Audi Q7. She lived in the upmarket village of Church Langton in Leicestershire, a virtually crime-free area.
She had seen the silver Vauxhall Astra prowling her cul-de-sac, she realised later, but at the time was more focused on rushing home to feed her sons, Jacob, five, and Joseph, four.
As she parked the Audi and stepped out on the neat, semi-circular driveway, a man in a black ski mask galloped towards her from the idling Astra.
‘Give me the keys or you’ll get hurt,’ he screamed. Shellie did as she was told.
‘Don’t call the police or we’ll come back and get you,’ he shouted as he jumped behind the wheel and peeled out of the driveway, his accomplice following on behind in the Astra.
Rhodes first went inside to check on the children, then called the police. And – like many similarly desirable cars stolen from Britons in very similar circumstances – the Q7 began its long journey to a place quite unlike Church Langton: it was heading for Kampala, Uganda.
A few days after the Audi theft, Surrey fireman Paul Burton advertised his year-old BMW X5 on the Auto Trader website.
He wasn’t to know that a source in Africa was scouring the online classifieds looking for black BMW 4x4s, cars that are easy to sell in any one of a number of nearby countries.
Jonathan Green in South Africa
Nearly all the cars they target are black: the vogue for African gangsters and politicians alike. Thieves were dispatched to the address.
Two Pakistani men visited Burton’s home, while a third parked 500 yards away on a side street. They stole the car during a test drive, asking Burton to get out and investigate a rattle in the boot and steaming off down the road when he got out.
‘The car was uninsured,’ says Burton. ‘I have a £48,000 loan to pay off, which is probably going to bankrupt me.’
His and Shellie’s vehicles joined 16 other cars stolen from eight counties in the UK that month at Felixstowe docks. There, the thieves changed their number plates, then loaded them into containers bound for Africa.
So while police were left scratching their heads over the apparently unlinked thefts, the cars were out at sea, on ships carrying countless identical-looking containers between the UK and the South African ports of Durban and Port Elizabeth.
Over the past decade, vehicle anti-theft devices have become so effective thieves can no longer make off with your car by hot-wiring it. Now they need the keys, and will hijack and burgle to get them – if the car is right. In 2010, around 20 per cent of the 120,000 cars stolen in Britain were the result of key burglaries.
Car thieves today are international syndicates who not only pay local toughs to burgle and hijack but also have the connections and expertise to dispatch their goods abroad for sale in countries like Zimbabwe or Uganda. Big trucks and 4x4s end up ferried to feed massive demand in any one of Africa’s numerous wars.
As trucks are shot to pieces or blown up there is an insatiable demand for new vehicles from which to fight. Libya at present, according to detectives, is being flooded with stolen cars which are used by the rebels. And the hub of this trade is South Africa, a country whose violent car hijackings have spawned an underworld industry in stolen vehicles, where slick teams expertly take care of various stages of the process.
Recently, detectives uncovered links to Al Qaeda and the trade in stolen luxury cars. Pakistani syndicates with family and connections in the UK – and links to Al Qaeda – who steal cars are exporting them to Pakistani contacts in South Africa.
Detectives are following the money trail, which leads back to terrorist groups in Pakistan.
‘We’re finding Pakistani syndicates who are heavily into this,’ says Colonel Jakes Van Zyl, a former South African police officer now working in the private sector to combat organised crime syndicates.
‘They are all involved in human trafficking, gun running and cocaine.’ Now terrorist groups are viewing it as an easy way to make money.
Recovered stolen British cars in a pound in South Africa – the Audi belongs to Shellie Rhodes, the Range Rover Sport next to it belongs to Ken Blackburn
British police officer Detective Constable Vince Wise, a tall man with salt-and-pepper hair, works for the Association of Chief Police Officers’ Vehicle Crime Intelligence Service (AVCIS). We meet on the docks in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where he’s investigating the trade in stolen British cars.
‘The scale of vehicle crime is changing,’ he says. ‘It used to be that criminals would nick an Austin with a coat hanger and take it for a joyride.
‘Now we’re seeing serious criminals stealing high-end cars, which are then exported to Africa, and used as a deposit in a drugs deal or for other organised crime. You can’t make more money quicker than you can with stolen cars.’
British cars, once in South Africa, enter a complex web of corruption. The first stage is ‘ringing’ or changing the cars’ identity; the final stage involves handing vehicles to couriers who drive them out of the country.
First, criminal syndicates pay off corrupt customs officials when they bring in the cars through the docks.
In January 2011 police officer Johan Nortje, 51, was murdered on the driveway of his home by hitmen employed by smuggling syndicates. They had carried out the job for just £2,500. Nortje had been disrupting smuggling routes into Durban, the largest container port in Africa and the busiest in the southern hemisphere.
But Nortje was an anomaly, says Captain Digby Thomas, who works closely with the British police in tracking down car syndicates.
A forged South African log book
‘At every step palms are greased,’ he says, as we drive round the vast mountains of containers on the docks. Two and a half million containers pass through Durban every year.
We drive to a ramshackle compound where rows of cars are lined up. A man in shalwar kameez eyes us suspiciously.
‘Stolen cars are mixed in with legitimate auto businesses,’ says Thomas.
He is interrupted by the Asian man whose acne-scarred face appears at the window. He demands to know who we are. Thomas produces his warrant card. The man melts away.
That night we head north of Durban to meet one of Thomas’s informants. He specialises in changing car identities. I’m not to report his name but he’ll talk freely about his work. We arrive at a heavily fortified compound, ringed with razor wire and halogen lights. A slightly built man with bloodshot eyes and a drooping, thready moustache ushers us into his home where his wife and daughters make us dinner. Pictures of Mecca line the walls of his living room.
‘Cars is a very easy game,’ laughs the informant. ‘There is always a way.’
He produces an importation document for a Mini Cooper. The document says the car is a 2002 model and worth only £1,500, which would arouse much less suspicion from port police. In reality the car is a 2010 model worth £22,000.
‘Recently stolen cars are hot. We’ll leave the cars in containers, perhaps for several months, until they cool off.’
The next stage is to transform an illegal, stolen car into a legitimate one. There are myriad ways.
Thieves will buy a wrecked car from a salvage yard, which they say they’ll fix. Instead, they simply steal a similar car and etch all the chassis and vehicle identity numbers (VIN) from the crashed car on to the stolen one. Or, chop shops will take a blowtorch to the quarters of the car with the VIN and chassis number and weld these parts into the stolen car.
Imported stolen British cars are dealt with coolly and efficiently.
‘Corruption is the main cause of the problem here,’ says the informant with a sly wink.
‘I pay contacts inside the vehicle registration department around 7,000 to 8,000 rand (about £600) a month. A car comes in. I get new registration papers for it and it looks like it’s been here all along.’
All trace of the country of origin has been removed. Often he’ll use the personal details of someone who has recently died. And if trouble comes, he buys his way out of that, too.
‘If you can’t bribe the police, then you bribe the prosecutor. If you can’t bribe him, you bribe the magistrate.’
I ask if he feels bad that people in England are having their houses broken into for the sake of someone getting their hands on the keys of a BMW.
‘So what?’ he asks. ‘In South Africa that’s nothing. We live with that all the time. That’s life. Someone steals my car I shoot them.’
Just beyond slums built on old mine waste, housing immigrants from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Somalia in ramshackle lean-tos, is a gritty industrial wasteland.
From underworld informants we know that a premises is operating as a chop shop, or at least a receiver for stolen cars, where the identities are changed before they are moved out of the country.
‘We never tell the local police we are going out on an operation,’ says Colonel Lieberman from the front seat of the lead car on the raid.
He is head of the Vehicle Task Force part of the Hawks, an elite South African police unit tackling organised crime. It is said to be incorruptible. Lieberman leads a six-man team that works out of a warehouse facility near to Johannesburg Airport. A car theft syndicate firebombed their last base.
‘We took that to mean we were successful at disrupting their operations,’ he chuckles.
‘We are after the lieutenants, the men who buy the cars from hijackers. We do everything we can within the confines of the law to get them.’
The lieutenants control bands of war-scarred veterans. The people the team are up against are often immigrants from neighbouring countries who have military experience from Africa’s endless wars.
‘They come here with little skill but the knowledge to use an AK-47,’ he says.
‘They know violence. They come from places where they chop off arms and legs in war. So they hijack cars. They can make 6,000 rand (£500) for a vehicle, which is an awful lot of money in the township. You’ll have a guy sitting in Zambia, say. He’s creating the market, buying hijacked cars or imported stolen cars, but he has political influence and is protected. Everything feeds into this furnace of stolen cars.’
The police work is underpaid and dangerous. The depot at their base is full of cars riddled with bullet holes after hijackers refused to be caught. All members of the team have had death threats against them.
‘These people are serious,’ says Lieberman. ‘We’re not popular at all.’
In the last few days the team arrested several corrupt police officers working in league with car thieves.
‘At the place we are going now we suspect that they are taking in stolen cars and respraying them and changing their identities at night. It’s a serious concern.’
The owners are Pakistani.
‘The money from the stolen cars arrives here but the money goes straight out of the country to Pakistan afterwards,’ says Lieberman.
We arrive at a dilapidated three-storey building which declares itself a panel-beating business. A sullen, Pakistani youth in a traditional Muslim cap scowls from behind a steel shutter as police officers fill the doorway.
Reluctantly he allows us in as other Pakistani men filter down from a dank stairway. Cars are driven in at the ground floor and an interior elevator takes them to subsequent floors above where they are worked on. The police start examining vehicle engine and chassis numbers. They apply a special chemical that brings up engine numbers that have been ground out and restamped. Meanwhile, the workmen are questioned.
‘Abdul has left,’ says one man, glowering. ‘He went back to Pakistan.’
The man police are looking for was arrested previously for drug and firearm offences.
On each floor there are squalid rooms with yellowing newspaper on the windows blocking the light from reaching filthy beds strewn with greasy blankets. It’s not so much a panel-beaters as a 24-hour production line with a team of Pakistanis working round the clock.
Today, however, they can find no evidence of stolen vehicles. They suspect the work goes on at night. They’ll be back.
I’d wanted to meet a hijacker who’s been involved in the trade in stolen cars, notably through violence and with a speciality in crossing international borders.
‘How do I know you are not police?’ said the man, giving a harsh and quizzical gaze. We sit in an unnamed restaurant. Sifiso, as I’ll call him, is a softly spoken man with a caramel-coloured complexion dressed in a mauve open-necked shirt. After I convince him that I am not police, making clear my contact with his lawyer through an intermediary, he begins to spill his story.
Sifiso had one dream: to escape the poverty of Maputo in Mozambique, where he lived in a shack with his family. He crawled under the fence between Swaziland and South Africa aged just 14. He wandered Johannesburg, amazed at the ubiquitous BMWs and Mercedes driven by affluent, white South Africans. He got a succession of jobs including welding and printing but was frustrated at the £50-a-week salary.
‘I wanted to be the man driving those nice cars,’ he says.
He stole his first car, a Nissan Sentra, by breaking in and hot-wiring it. Shortly after he cloned it: he spotted an identical car, stole the number plate, which he affixed to the stolen one, and then changed the VIN number. He drove it over the border to Mozambique and made a quick £1,800, selling it to an Indian businessman.
But with modern anti-theft devices it became harder to steal cars. And he needed the keys because then the car was worth more. Range Rovers without a key were worth only about £1,000. With the key, really only possible by breaking into a house or hijacking, they were worth about £1,250. Sifiso quickly moved into hijacking.
He and a buddy armed with pistols targeted those coming home after work. They moved with aggressive alacrity, wearing balaclavas and masks and brandishing 9mm handguns. Soon they were taking four cars a week.
‘Toyota Hiluxes and Land Cruisers we could sell very fast,’ he says.
As the money flowed in, the risks increased. Their routine was to force the driver out at gunpoint, search their victims for weapons and then blaze away. On one robbery Sifiso’s partner made a mistake. He didn’t thoroughly search all of the four occupants.
As they drove off, a man pulled a gun from an ankle holster and started to fire. Sifiso sped off in the car, his accomplice chasing after him on foot, desperately trying to get in. He was shot in the back of the head. He died instantly.
Weeks later, Sifiso reclaimed the body from the morgue. He drove his friend back to Mozambique where he was given a traditional car thief’s funeral, with shots fired in the air, spinning cars doing burnouts and rivers of booze. In the townships car thieves are seen as glamorous Robin Hoods.
Once they were in Mozambique other contacts would re-register them, often with fake engine and chassis numbers, and the cars could be made to disappear. In recent times though, the cars have been travelling much further north: to Tanzania, Congo, Zimbabwe and even Somalia.
Because he is taking the cars further and the risks are greater, the payments are substantially better.
‘Once you go further you can ask for anything you want,’ he says. ‘You can exchange cars for cocaine, gold, diamonds. You can get a lot of money for diamonds in South Africa. Or you can exchange cars for guns. Whatever you want.’
But sometimes the good guys win, often against overwhelming odds. On a cold autumn morning, DC Vince Wise, along with a unit of South African cops from Hawks, drives along the coastal road to a police depot. Beyond high walls topped with razor wire and a gate manned by armed police is a fortified warehouse. Inside are rows of stolen cars, many peppered with bullet holes.
Along one wall is a stash worth £1 million, a line of black Range Rovers, BMWs and other high-end vehicles covered in a patina of dust. There is a black Audi Q7. It belongs to Shellie Rhodes.
‘These are serious criminal syndicates doing this,’ says DC Wise, rubbing some dirt off the windscreen of Rhodes’ Audi to check the VIN.
It is indeed her car. Wise has forged a partnership with the South Africa Hawks and it is they who intercepted the shipment of 18 stolen cars bound for Uganda. Another 20 or so had been stopped by the British police in February.
The only damage to the Range Rovers is some torn panels in the boot where the thieves have ripped out the upholstery looking for tracking devices. The police depot is heavily guarded because sometimes armed thieves will attempt to re-steal them. They will be repatriated to the UK, but under heavy security.
One of the black Range Rovers DC Wise has recovered belonged to 73-year-old Ken Blackburn. He bought the car as a gift to himself on retirement. In two years, he had only clocked up 4,000 miles.
He and his daughter Tina were on a remote private road visiting a property they were renovating in Newnham, Northamptonshire. As they were leaving, Blackburn got out of the car to close a gate. He struggled with it, so Tina got out to help. They left the engine in the Range Rover running, thinking that because they were on private property, in a remote location, it would be no problem.
A thief who had been stalking them jumped out of a hedgerow and got behind the wheel just as Tina returned to the car, ahead of her father.
‘Thanks very much,’ said the thief, smiling, before he locked the doors and drove off…
DC Wise points to the struggle he faces taking on international criminal syndicates while vehicle crime squads are being reorganised, and in April this year the Home Office withdrew funding for the Vehicle Crime Intelligence Service.
‘For criminals it’s seen as a low-risk crime,’ says DC Wise. ‘If they get caught they only do light, two-year sentences, but the money that can be made is immense.’
The car syndicates can act with almost total impunity. To ship through containers no passport is required or even proof of identity. Freight companies are reluctant to question too closely their customers given the millions of containers that leave British ports each day. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack. With cars coming under numerous jurisdictions, from the police to the customs, Border Agency and registration authorities in different countries, the problem is likely never to end.
As the thieves use increasing violence, terrorists’ coffers swell and British motorists find themselves in crippling debt.
With Government cutbacks in funding to AVCIS it is predicted that car-crime rates – having dropped in recent years – will start to creep up again.
‘How fast it starts to climb remains to be seen, but rise it surely will,’ says Detective Chief Inspector Mark Hooper, head of the vehicle fraud unit at AVCIS.
Consequently more money will be funnelled into organised crime and financing terrorism, and the more vehicle crime in developing countries will thrive.
‘We’ll try to take out the major players,’ says DC Wise. ‘But new ones keep coming into the business. It’s about income disparity; to get a Range Rover in Mombasa is like a local there winning the lottery seven weekends in a row. It’s a fortune. That’s why this will never, ever stop.
‘Well, unless you solve the problem of world poverty.’