Johannesburg - Eighteen members of a gang who shadowed travellers leaving OR Tambo International Airport have been arrested – and the police are hunting for 11 more.
The breakthrough has been attributed to the use of retired detectives, a move that national police commissioner General Riah Phiyega said was crucial in cracking high-profile crimes.
Police made the 18 arrests after the formation of the National Investigating Unit (NIU) last year, specifically to deal with the gang and with police impersonators.
Law enforcement officials say the number of airport robberies has declined drastically since September last year – the same month the unit was asked to work on the case.
Police are hunting 11 outstanding suspects but believe some of the masterminds behind the crimes are already behind bars.
A total of 249 dockets were heaved onto the desk of Colonel Boats Botha last year.
It was believed a gang or a syndicate was targeting travellers leaving OR Tambo, using blue light-equipped vehicles to pull them over and rob them at gunpoint before vanishing.
Representatives of the Gauteng Tourism Authority, hotel chains across the province, and even the World Bank and UN had become concerned about the effect on tourism and the local economy.
Botha’s job was to put those responsible behind bars.
His pension had been activated in June last year but, just a few months later, he would be responsible for heading the NIU and busting many of the alleged perpetrators.
According to Botha, Lentswe Madube – who is linked to six cases – was one of the “major players”.
The team also apprehended the men responsible for the only two deaths in the incidents.
Botha said while a single case a month was one too many, the number of airport robberies reported over the past few months was a tiny fraction of what it had been.
The NIU is also responsible for investigating blue-light robberies – incidents involving police impersonators – and the number of registered cases has also dropped since the team began its work.
Phiyega has attributed the success to the fact that, like Botha, numerous retired detectives have been brought back into the SAPS to assist on the most high-profile and complex cases.
Phiyega told The Star on Tuesday that the reasons for bringing back the old-school minds were twofold – their experience could be applied to help solve crimes and they could also pass on their expertise to younger, up-and-coming detectives.
She said the NIU was put on both the airport robberies and police-impersonator crimes to help repair the SAPS’s relationship with the public.
“The issue of blue lights is a serious concern. We want citizens to differentiate between a real police officer with… the ability to help them and impostors,” she said.
Police impersonators had widened the relationship gap between police and the public, and this meant vital information was sometimes kept hidden from investigators.
Phiyega said that without trust between the public and police, some crimes would never be solved.
“We need to share (information) with the citizens, we need all hands on deck,” she said.
Police spokesman Lieutenant-General Solomon Makgale said it was paramount that the outstanding suspects be caught. He asked the public to contact 08600 10111 with any information on blue-light robberies or the airport gang.