Last week three suspected thugs, alleged to have stolen a Toyota Ipsum car, Reg. No: UAR 575L, were arrested and detained at CPS, Kampala.
By the time the police were done with the investigations and had the car recovered, they realized they were dealing with a huge problem and a narrative that sucks neighbouring countries like Rwanda, Tanzania, South Sudan, Burundi and DR Congo.
But usually, it all starts in Kampala or another major town and the bad guys may not be far from you. As regards car thefts especially in Kampala, emerging police evidence conjures up heart-stopping, mind-boggling scripts. The thefts, police say are not as hidden or rare as many people think.
Police officers say the pattern of thefts reveals a rampant and growing vice, masterminded by sophisticated gangs, and people who sometimes pass themselves off as executive directors of reputable companies or officials from State House.
According to one officer, cars in Kampala are stolen as easily as mobile phones, with new statistics showing that at least five vehicles are reported stolen from downtown Kampala alone daily.
And more surprisingly, banks are not spared either in the thieving. Car robbers, police say, have continued to con banks out of loans by giving them stolen vehicles as security. In revealing interviews with The Observer, the police this week tried to shine a light on how the thieves pull off the car thefts.
"They [car thieves] use stolen vehicles with duplicated log books as security to get micro-finance banks to give them loans. By the time the bank gets to know the rightful owner of the vehicle, the car robber has already vanished with the cash."
And sometimes mobile money dealers have been arrested for unsuspectingly accepting stolen cars as security for quick soft loans to the thieves. Senkumbi says car robbers also pay anywhere between Shs 50,000 to Shs 100,000 to security guards and car washers just to lay their hands on the original keys of cars parked at washing bays and designated parking yards.
They usually stamp the original keys on a wet piece of soap and later go to professional key cutters for duplicates. After the car thieves get the duplicate keys, they trail it for days in town. And the moment it's left anywhere without enough security, they steal it.
"At times they use master keys, and go to parking yards, washing bays or any street and tell security guards that the owners have sent them to pick them [vehicles] and then disappear with the cars," Senkumbi says.
These unscrupulous men - mostly men - also dress elegantly and pass themselves off as executive directors of reputable companies or as officials from State House. In that guise they easily convince special hire drivers to surrender their cars for self-drive. After getting the vehicle, they either sell it or mortgage it using forged cards.
"Sometimes the car robbers sell the vehicles when the owners are still driving them. They duplicate the log book, copy number plates and brands, then pose as owners and tout it. They sell them cheaply and even take an advance payment before stealing it," Senkumbi says.
After delivering the stolen vehicle to the buyer, the thieves take their last payment and police arrest the innocent buyer later for alleged theft of the vehicle. Sometimes the robbers hire the vehicles and kill the driver. The stolen car is normally dismantled and sold in spare parts.
The most targeted vehicles include; Toyota Premio, Noah, Harrier, Ipsum, Corona, Land cruiser, Nadia, Rav4 and Prado because they are marketable and have a high re-sale value. Most vehicles stolen from Kampala are sold in DR Congo through Mpondwe border post, Tanzania through Mutukula, South Sudan through Arua, and Rwanda.
"As the festive season draws nearer there is an unprecedented increase in car thefts in Kampala and cars are sold outside the country...," said Deputy Police Spokesperson Vincent Sekate. "For a [Toyota] Corolla 100, it is much targeted because any key can start it," he said.
Sekate urges special hire drivers to always identity their potential clients especially for self drive to avoid their vehicles being stolen.
"If they ask for self drive verify the identification documents and his physical appearance and also inform your fellow drivers about the person. Don't fear to lose the deal but care about your life and the vehicle," he said.
He advises the public to report any car thefts immediately. "There are high chances of recovering your vehicle when you report immediately. Call toll free lines 0800122291 or 0800199399 and police will start the search," Sekate said.
Owners of expensive vehicles are advised to install tracking devices that monitor the location of the vehicle anywhere through the mobile phone, television and the computer.
"The tracking machine and the alarm cost less than Shs 1m but it saves your vehicle," Senkumbi said.
All Kampala streets are unsafe but the suburbs are equally unsafe to leave a vehicle parked. The most targeted places are Wandegeya, Nakulabye, Ntinda, Katwe and night clubs.
The police are also advising intending buyers of second hand vehicles to scrutinise the log books and confirm its particulars with the Uganda Revenue Authority - which is charged with registering all vehicles. The police is, only now, preparing a database of stolen vehicles that vehicle buyers can also crosscheck against.
For the stolen Toyota Ipsum car, Reg. No: UAR 575L, police identified the suspects as Isma Musoga Tikigerwa, a mechanic at Kisekka market in Kampala, Hussein Wasswa Matovu, the Chairman of Buyinji village, Nkaye parish, Kasaali Sub-County, Rakai district and Hassan Mugerwa, alias Brown, a businessman at Kisekka market.
According to police, the suspects revealed they were part of a big racket which steals and sells vehicles in Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Congo, South Sudan and Burundi. The stolen Ipsum belonging to a businessman in Kampala, Zavia Samula was driven through Mutukula to Ghaita in Tanzania where it was recovered this week by Interpol.
According to a police statement, Samula had taken his vehicle to Kisekka market for repair where Musoga duplicated the vehicle's keys and stole it.
"When he returned to pick it, he found the vehicle missing. He then reported to police," Senkumbi said.
He told The Observer that Musoga drove the vehicle to Kyotera and kept it at Wasswa's home. Wasswa was link to the other thugs in Tanzania where they sell the stolen vehicles.
"After arresting the suspects, they led us to a place in Tanzania where they had sold it and we managed to recover it," he said.
Upon interrogation, the suspects confessed to being part of a bigger racket that targets cars from streets, markets, garages, hotels and special hire stages. "We are still interrogating the suspects to trace other stolen vehicles which are sold outside the country..." he said.
Senkumbi said, since June this year, they have arrested 30 suspected car thieves in Kampala. Last month the police crack unit charged with handling violent crime in the city and the surrounding areas arrested a city tycoon implicated in car theft. Godfrey Ssengendo, a businessman based in Kyengera, along Kampala-Masaka road, was arrested after seven cars were found at his residence during a security operation.