Cash-in-transit heists are a mutating, spreading virus

In this edited extract from her new book, Heist, Anneliese Burgess says the plague of cash-in-transit robberies, usually violent, is only getting worse


To say that South Africa is in the grip of a vicious new incarnation of its cash-in-transit plague is an understatement. The statistics tell the story. In 2014 there were 180 cash-in-transit incidents; in 2017, there were 370 — a staggering 105% increase in just three years.

Cash-in-transit robberies have long been a feature of the South African crime landscape. According to police crime statistics, cash-in-transit crime hit a peak in 2006, with 467 reported cases. It dropped off dramatically for some years, but fast-forward 12 years, and we are back in crisis mode.

Cash-in-transit robbery is an out-of-control crime epidemic for which there seems to be no cure. If the current trend continues in 2018, we will reach the peaks of 2006 again. It is, without doubt, a national crime emergency.

Though the crime itself hasn’t changed, there are two mutations driving the present scourge.

A virulent new strain of vehicle-on-road attacks has emerged. Gangs attacking cash vans have added commercial explosives to the already lethal arsenal of ramming vehicles and high-powered automatic firearms. More and more cash vehicles are being blown up to access the money in the onboard vaults. The epicentre for attacks employing this new methodology is in the North West, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Gauteng provinces.

“It’s no coincidence,” says policeman-turned-lecturer Hennie Lochner. “These are mining areas, and not only do mines use explosives, but they also train people to use them. The explosives are coming from the mines, and so is the expertise.”

Although big-value cash-centre heists and daring highway robberies still make headlines, either because they are shockingly violent or because they involve large amounts of money, the really worrying mutation in cash-in-transit is altogether more pedestrian: the massive surge in cross-pavement robberies, which now account for 50% of all cash-in-transit crimes. There has been an alarming increase in robberies at pension payout points and ATMs. Most cash-in-transit cases now involve hitting guards as they deliver or fetch cash.

Cross-pavement robberies increased by 48% from 2016 to 2017. Once concentrated in the cities, they have now spread to every corner of South Africa: small towns, roadside garages and suburban malls. A situation in which armed guards are pitted against armed robbers in close combat is a recipe for bloodshed. Once again, the statistics paint a grim picture. Fatalities in cash-in-transit robberies increased by 70% in 2017, with the majority of these related to cross-pavement incidents.

In the course of writing this book, I viewed many hours of security camera footage of cross-pavement and ATM robberies, and the defining feature is their callous, brutal violence. Two cases illustrate this.

Exhibit one is at an ATM at a roadside garage somewhere in KwaZulu-Natal. The flickering, silent black-and-white images show a guard in a bulletproof vest walking into frame, pulling a cash bag on wheels. A man, making no attempt to hide his identity, walks up behind the guard, lifts a pistol to the back of his head and shoots him execution-
style. The guard crumples to the ground. The shooter bends down for the cash bag, and shoots the guard in the head again. Then he saunters out of frame, cash bag in hand.

Exhibit two is from the closed-circuit camera of a supermarket in Ncgobo, in rural Eastern Cape. We see a guard walking towards the camera, cradling a semiautomatic weapon. It’s a busy scene, with many people milling about. A man in a red hat walks up behind the guard and shoots him in the back of the head at point-blank range.

This modus operandi now repeats itself, somewhere in South Africa, at least once a day. There are cross-pavement cases that don’t end in people being killed or injured, but every single one is an armed hold-up, often with multiple armed robbers. Cross-pavement robberies are the dark heart of South Africa’s present cash-in-transit problem.

Trying to get an accurate picture of South Africa’s crime statistics is a slippery exercise at the best of times. The annual figures issued by the South African Police Service are widely considered to be massaged to achieve best-case scenarios for the various crime categories, rather than a granular dissection of crime trends. Police stats are also not particularly useful for understanding the scope of cash-in-transit crimes, as many cases find their way into other categories — business robbery, armed robbery or even murder — depending on how the crime is defined and captured.

The only other source for cash-in-transit statistics comes from Sabric (the South African Banking Risk Information Centre), an organisation established by South Africa’s big banks to monitor and analyse fraud and crime in the banking sector. Sabric refused to provide me with an overview of cash-in-transit statistics but, in 2017, the minister of police reported that there had been 152 cash-in-transit heists between April 2016 and March 2017. A media report based on information from a leaked Sabric document, however, puts the industry figure at 409.3.

Sabric issues a monthly analysis of all cash-in-transit robberies in South Africa. This “strategic and tactical analysis report” is restricted information that is provided to all stakeholders in the sector. Every cash-in-transit incident, from ATM bombings to vehicle-on-road attacks, is logged according to date, time and location. The monthly reports run into many pages. For a snapshot of the “new normal” in cash-in-transit crime, I extracted a random day from a 2017 report that was leaked to me.

May 2 2017, 6:10am, Hammanskraal, Gauteng

A cash crew in an armoured vehicle (AV) is on its way to deliver cash when they notice a suspicious white car tailing them. As they approach a speed hump, the vehicle tries to overtake. A Mercedes-Benz and a silver Audi A4 join it. All the cars are filled with men wearing balaclavas. They open fire on the AV and it is forced to stop. The crew is ordered out of the AV and made to kneel in the road, while the perpetrators use explosives to blow up the AV and gain access to the onboard safes. The perpetrators flee the scene with 
the cash and the three firearms that were taken from the crew — a .38 Special, a BXP 9mm and an Arcus 9mm.

8:25am, Orkney, North West

A crewman is returning to the AV with a cross pavement carrier (CPC) after conducting a stop loss service. He is confronted 
and assaulted by three armed men, who take his firearm and the 
CPC containing cash bags. The perpetrators flee the scene in a dark BMW with the money and stolen gun. The driver in the AV fires several shots at the perpetrators. The CPC is activated but is not recovered.

9:20am, Kempton Park, Gauteng

A crewman is returning to the AV with a CPC after conducting a stop loss service to replenish an ATM. He is attacked by two armed perpetrators. They take his firearm and force him to relinquish the CPC at gunpoint. The perpetrators douse the CPC with water before fleeing with the stolen firearm and the CPC. They fire shots as they flee the scene in a silver BMW. The CPC is activated but is not recovered.

9:30am, Bulwer, KwaZulu-Natal

A crewman is en route to his AV after conducting a stop loss service with a CPC. Two perpetrators armed with two 9mm pistols and an AK-47 accost him. They take the CPC, containing cash bags, at 
gunpoint. The perpetrators flee in a black VW Polo in the direction of Pietermaritzburg.

9:50am, Sebokeng, Gauteng

A crew arrives at a liquor store to collect cash. As the guard leaves the cash office, he is held up by four armed men who take the cash bag and his 9mm Norinco. They flee the scene in a white Mercedes-Benz and a hijacked BMW.

11:50am, Alice, Eastern Cape

A crewman returns to the AV after conducting a collection. Four armed men accost him as he leaves the cash office. They take his firearm and the Shock trolley containing the cash bags. A fifth perpetrator is waiting in the getaway vehicle, a silver Hyundai. The gang opens fire as they make their getaway. The crew in the AV returns fire through the gun port of their vehicle.

3:30pm, Inanda, KwaZulu-Natal

Two crewmen are en route to replenish an ATM when they are confronted by four armed perpetrators who relieve them of their guns and the CPC containing cash. The perpetrators flee on foot with both firearms and the CPC. They fire several shots as they flee the scene. The CPC is activated but not recovered.

Nine hours. Seven successful armed hold-ups with criminals making a getaway with cash and stolen guns. It’s a sobering picture of how insidious cash-in-transit crime has become in South Africa and, more importantly, how easy. At the end of every entry in Sabric’s rolling log, four key observations are made regarding shots fired, injuries and/or fatalities, cash loss and arrests. Though there is a band of variation to do with shots fired and injuries, the vast majority of entries end with the same four words: “Cash loss. No arrests.”

This, according to every specialist in the field, is what drives cash-in-transit crime in South Africa: it’s easy, lucrative and low risk.

Arrest rates are low. At the end of November 2017, when I was trying to gain an overview of arrest and prosecution rates, Sabric provided me with the following information: they had recorded 330 cash-in-transit cases that year; at that point, arrests had been made in only 26 of those cases. Investigations are, of course, ongoing — and arrests often happen long after a crime has been committed — but, even if you take this into account, it is unlikely that the arrest rate would rise significantly above 10%. The odds of a successful prosecution are, we know, even lower.

This is an edited extract from Heist: South Africa’s Cash-in-Transit Epidemic Uncovered, published by Penguin

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