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New criminal networks target fast-growing African economies

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Reuters

Mafias were once seen as armies of obedient henchmen who answered to all powerful godfathers. But police and researchers in South Africa warn that crime syndicates are turning into loosely connected networks of criminal “service providers” that include international traffickers and small-time mobile phone thieves.


Criminal gangs keen to tap into fast-growing economies are turning to Africa and crime prevention should focus on the new informal crime networks, a seminar organised by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria was told this week.

“The darker side of globalisation is really organised crime,” said Brigadier Ebrahim Kadwa, head of the organised crime unit of “the Hawks”, the South African police force’s Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation. “Globalisation has provided organised crime bosses unlimited opportunities.”

Counterfeit medicine sold on the “deep Web” or addictive crystal meth, for example, are manufactured, marketed and financed in multinational operations that can span more than one continent, posing new and complex challenges for law enforcement agencies.

National borders mean little to modern-day criminal rings, experts say.

Crime syndicates are identifying gaps in border security and exploiting corrupt officials to smuggle more goods and people, according to Gregory Hughes, assistant legal attaché with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“They don’t view borders as obstacles,” he told the ISS seminar. “Borders are opportunities to make more money.”

The US's FBI refers to the network of criminals, business leaders and corrupt officials as an “iron triangle” because it is difficult to infiltrate. The US police force fears the scope of these illicit activities can have an impact on any country’s national security.

“If I can smuggle a person across a border, why can’t I smuggle a terrorist?” Hughes asked rhetorically. “If I can smuggle a fake Gucci handbag across a border, why can’t I smuggle in a weapon of mass destruction?”

Experts are still debating the contribution of small-time crooks, but there seems to be agreement on their capacity to move swiftly from cash and jewellery theft to the greater threat of identity theft.

“Many crimes that are committed by these 'unsophisticated' networks also feed into broader networks of organised criminal activity,” according to Khalil Goga, an ISS researcher in Pretoria.

Criminality, increasingly diversified, is no longer focussing on a single line of business but jumping from one illicit activity to the next, mixing illegal and legal business ventures, the seminar heard.

Law enforcement agencies are calling for specialised units and improve intelligence, especially at the grassroots level.

The South African Police Service (SAPS) could tap into the country’s ubiquitous private security companies, according to criminology professor Doraval Govender, a former SAPS assistant commissioner.

“If you go in any area you will find more security company vehicles than SAPS vehicles,” he remarked. “But we need to be careful about how we interact with these people who should be able to give us intelligence.”

But surveillance is easier said than done because, as the Hawks’ Kadwa explained, the more sophisticated organised crimes groups are “the best in the business” when it comes to countersurveillance.

With 2,700 km of coastline, South Africa has been attracting attention as a way-station on international drug routes nicknamed “drug superhighways”.

Since 2014, cocaine bricks - some manufactured as far away as Bolivia – have fallen out of boats and washed up on the southern Cape coast in “cocaine washouts”, suggesting the number of criminal drop-offs is high.

Follow Michel Arseneault on Twitter @miko75011