3 September 2017

Zimbabwe: Harare's Intricate Web of Burglars, Drug-Dealers and Sex Workers

Photo: Jerry Chifamba/AllAfrica
Street of Harare.

After Temba Phiri* woke up to the terrible news that burglars had ransacked his Harare apartment and got away with goods worth thousands of dollars, his first instinct was to make a police report, after which investigations began.

Unknown to him, the investigation into his case would reveal a complex syndicate involving sex workers, robbers and drug dealers.

One of the items stolen from Phiri's house was an iPhone, which police tracked down to Chitungwiza with the help of a mobile network provider.

Police recovered the gadget, which was now in the hands of a sex worker at Chikwanha Shopping Centre in the town.

But more was to come as the sex worker alleged that she got the iPhone from a client who had hired her for the night.

After being pressed further, the sex worker revealed that she was given the phone to sell to other clients and the client would return to collect the proceeds.

Although the sex worker could not lead the police to the suspect's location, she revealed that she knew the suspect's wife as she also bizarrely operated as a sex worker in Chitungwiza.

Police tracked down the suspected burglar's wife and discovered that the chief suspect operated as a car cleaner in Eastlea during the day, while he resides in Mbare and was also involved in the drug trade that has taken the city by storm.

This paper made a follow up visit to the location in Mbare, near the dilapidated Matapi flats, where hordes of youths gather around trading and taking different kinds of drugs, playing loud music and engaging in all sorts of vices.

According to sources, this is one of the many places that have become popular in the city, where the networks of robbers, sex workers and drug dealers congregate.

"It is a meeting place for those who are trading drugs and those who want to either pass on stolen goods or receive their money from those they give stolen goods to sell," said one of the people who spoke to The Standard.

Further investigations revealed that Phiri's experience is not just as simple as it appears as it involved a web of sex workers, drug dealers and robbers.

Although this paper could not independently verify the claims, some sources alleged some police officers acted as shields for the network.

A police officer who spoke to this paper on condition of anonymity said robbers pounce on cars and houses and because they are often easily identified as suspects, they quickly hand over the goods to sex workers such that by the time police establish the identity of the suspects, they would not be in possession of the goods.

This makes it difficult for the police to pin the gangs down for the criminal activities that are on the rise.

Police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Charity Charamba is on record refuting allegations that some members of the police force are involved with criminal networks.

But the police officer who spoke to us said the gangs had the protection of some rogue officers.

"The trick [for the gangs] is to dissociate themselves from the crime because the biggest evidence that can link one to a robbery or theft is possession of the stolen goods," said the cop.

"The sex workers then advertise the goods to clients who can buy without much suspicion.

"For example, if it is a phone, a sex worker can lie to a client that she was given by another client so she needs to sell it, say to pay rent," said the cop, who at the time said he was investigating a similar case of robbery in the Avenues in Harare where a sex worker was suspected of receiving a laptop stolen from a car.

As this paper later established, this modus operandi is not just happening in the Avenues and Chitungwiza, but many other suburbs.

The Standard took the investigation to Chitungwiza, at Chikwanha Shopping Centre, Glen View's Makomva, Highfield's Machipisa, and Kuwadzana and established that in addition to being retailers of stolen goods, some sex workers have also extended their work to sell various drugs that range from marijuana and in some cases cocaine.

The sex workers either operate from the shops or what are called "bases", known in street lingo as "kumagoshto".

"Kumagoshto is either a home that operates as a shebeen, but has sex workers and drug dealers, or it can be just a cabin that operates as say a barbershop or salon but for those in the know, one can get both sex and drugs at the same time," said a source.

"It is like a convergence of masters of vice as those that are looking for sex and/or drugs can get both in one place.

"These places are also hubs for the trade of stolen goods," said the source.

At one of the "bases" in Kuwadzana Extension, the news crew -- in the company of a local -- pretended to be imbibers who were there for the beer and drugs.

A cabin situated at the edges of the road which leads to Bulawayo Road, and appears like any other innocent business area where one can find burgers and other foodstuffs, LP gas, and mobile money services is one such "gotsho".

It is, however, a place where young, unemployed men mill around in the afternoon.

But when night comes, activity starts to pick up, with more people -- including sex workers and drug dealers -- milling around.

For the uninitiated, everything looks normal and for regulars, the messages and conversations are coded.

One of the youths said if one needs marijuana, they simply asked for a "star" or "plastic".

"No one ever asks for marijuana directly and if ever one says that, they know he is not one of them," said the youth.

"If you want a sex worker, you go through some of the young men who control the place and you simply say 'ndoda kumborova ngoma dzemasister' [I want to beat the sisters' drums] because ngoma [drum] is the code word for Broncleer, which is taken by sex workers and they know that you just do not want the Broncleer, but you also want the sex workers' services," he said.

"The youth will ask you to buy them something, like 50 cents worth of marijuana, then let you talk to the girls," he said.

"This is where they will offer you stolen things that are up for sale."

Observations by the news crew showed that several drugs, mostly marijuana and Broncleer cough syrup, exchanged hands freely and beer flowed.

Once in a while, youths in conversations ask each other about "masinhi", a word that we later learnt is in reference to goods that are on sale.

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