Zimbabwe: Stop Smuggling Gangs in Their Tracks


Crime is bad enough, but when criminals organise it is easy to get a breakdown in law and order and for all practical purposes a replacement of the civil authorities by criminal gangs who start running swathes of society and frequently control the police and others who are supposed to be hunting them.

While generally Zimbabwe has low crime rates, there is a worrying growth of organised crime in some areas and for some types of crime, with little that is effective being done to control this or bring the criminals to book.

One major area is the smuggling business, where organised criminal syndicates control a lot of cross border traffic near Beitbridge, as we have reported on several times in the past, and now near Mutare as we reported on yesterday.

There are known and well used routes across the Limpopo River that allow smuggling in both directions to carry on with nothing except the occasional raid or the odd roadblock on either side of the border doing anything very much to stop this.

The smuggling is not just of goods but also of people prepared to pay the fees, fairly modest fees, charged by those who make arrangements for people to cross without the both of going through customs and immigration and, these days, the serious health checks set up to slow the spared of Covid-19.

The Beitbridge operation usually requires either two vehicles, one on each bank of the shallow river that by this time of the year is largely sand but still cannot be crossed by a vehicle except by bridge or complex rafts for light vehicles.

But there is a proportion of single vehicle smuggling.

The goods are off-loaded on the dispatch side, the vehicle passes over the bridge going through immigration and customs checks, and then is reloaded on the other side, the goods having been carried across.

The operations in Manicaland are simpler.

There is no physical barrier at the border, and the criminal gangs have cut their own roads and even bring in graders to smooth and repair them and keep them passable for heavy trucks that seem to now come across in convoys during the night.

Since a major object of this smuggling, or at least the object given to those who are corrupted or told to keep quiet, is to evade taxes there is more tolerance.

Most people cannot get that excited about others evading tax and are certainly not going to take risks to stop it.

We had quite different responses when a little while ago there was a growing and serious menace of organised machete gangs, and with that threat of violence, at times extreme violence, an effective counter operation was launched.

Some of the gangs were rounded up, many others simply gave up the violent crime and melted back into the population.

But there appear to be serving staff of the police and defence forces ready to look the other way when the crime is seen as tax avoidance, and the evidence our reporters picked up in the Burma Valley to the south of Mutare is that former police and army personnel are quite ready to ride shotgun on the smugglers' trucks, guarding them and using their contacts among serving personnel to smooth the way and get through roadblocks and the like.

While there is no proof, and people naturally do not talk much about this, it seems obvious that some serving personnel are on the take, ready to accept bribes or favours to look the other way.

The lack of detailed official investigation in both smuggling operations seems to suggest this.

In both operations, when there is police action it is against the small fry, the truck drivers or a single cigarette smuggler or someone with a bulky backpack.

And that is about it. No one seems interested in the owners of vehicles used or in making efforts to round up the kingpins in the gangs.

Of course the goods being smuggled through the border are not just all ordinary goods that could be imported legally.

We have written reports of the ready availability of certain banned cough medicines on Harare streets, and all those bottles must be smuggled in, and it is well-known that some of the better quality "brands" of marijuana are smuggled in.

It is unknown if the weapons some violent criminal gangs use are also brought in by smugglers, or if those who may be looking the other way do draw the line.

Efforts are being made to curb the smuggling, and catching the odd small fry does add to the statistics and gives the appearance of activity. We have had Zimra seeking drones to upgrade patrols along the border, although on dark moonless nights these might be less than useful.

What appears to be needed are some operations, with small trusted groups being sued to minimise the risk of tip-offs. When people are caught then there should be incentives to make them give more detail about who hired them.

At present they are not interested in being helpful since all they get is a fine, and that is paid by their employer.

But if there was a risk of jail terms, and in an intensified operation that is likely since multiple offenders with a criminal record are more likely to serve time, it might be possible using the existing legal procedures of accomplice witnesses or evidence in mitigation to give those facing a jail term an incentive to talk.

It has been fairly easy for reporters, who are not back by vast resources and who cannot call on anyone for back-up and support, to get a good idea of what is going on at borders near towns and cities. Simply asking around and at times hiding in the bushes and watching people inch across a Limpopo weir or drive trucks through an unguarded frontier has built up evidence.

Trained police with the resources of the State, even if these are modest, would obviously be able to do a lot better, and should be able to wrap up these gangs before they do broaden their scope and operations. We do not need to leave criminals running sections of our economy and part of our lives.

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