JOHANNESBURG – The carjackers were swift and methodical. They were also creatures of habit. On three occasions this month, armed criminals who apparently knew their victims were carrying cash or valuables pounced at the same intersection in Johannesburg while CCTV security cameras recorded the brazen heists.
The footage, which has circulated widely on the Internet, illustrates the sophistication of gangs that do their homework before striking, and points to South Africa's uneven record in fighting a high crime rate that spawned a massive private security industry amid doubts that police can properly do their job.
Carjackings are an old scourge in South Africa, but the fact that several occurred in the same spot in less than two weeks surprised even crime-hardened South Africans. In two of the robberies, armed assailants in separate vehicles try to box in a targeted car, then almost casually ransack the vehicles and pull out the occupants before melting away into city traffic.
"It's not their first time doing this kind of thing," said Matthew Brooks, head of operations at Fasda, the security company whose cameras recorded the attacks on Nov. 4, Nov. 8 and Nov. 16. Studying one of the videos on his laptop, Brooks noted how the carjackers, one with an assault rifle, seize bags of cash before ordering all the occupants out of the vehicle. The robbery takes less than a minute.
"They don't want them out of the car yet, they're more concerned about the bags," he said. "Even this guy, you can see when he pulls a person out, he has the time and mind frame to think, 'This lady is stuck to the seatbelt,' and take it off her foot."
In another video, at least half a dozen suspects steal thousands of dollars from shop owners in a vehicle. Two thieves leave on foot, one pausing to pick up his hat in the street. Another suspect sticks around, apparently to eavesdrop or gauge the police response. In the third video, an alert driver abruptly steers his car to the side and speeds off when a vehicle swerves in front of him in a blocking maneuver, though off-camera, the assailants chased and shot at the victim further up the road, eventually stealing a bag of cash in the back of the car. The driver managed to flee with a stash of diamonds.
According to Brooks, the criminals in all three carjackings followed their victims from businesses or commercial centers and were focused on what they were carrying rather than their cars, even though they took vehicles in two cases.
Police said they have arrested four suspects and recovered cars, though critics complained that authorities got on the case only after coming under scrutiny once the closed-circuit TV videos were on the Web. Officials at Fasda, or the Firearm and Self Defense Academy, say many crime victims don't open cases with police because they don't expect them to be solved.
The intersection where the carjackings happened is flanked by the Fasda offices, a "Sportsman's Pub," a century-old fire station tower once used to spot blazes and a school with a playground. A sign on the boarded entrance to one building topped by coils of wire reads: "No more toilet for you."
It's close to the downtown high-rises of Johannesburg, which lost business and development to safer, wealthy suburbs a couple of decades ago but is making a comeback with regeneration projects that have brought art galleries, clothing stores and chic restaurants to some urban blocks. The Maboneng precinct, an up-and-coming neighborhood, is only blocks from the carjack corner.
Police say crime has dropped significantly in the past decade in South Africa, though some analysts say the rate of murder and other violent crimes is starting to rise again.