Johannesburg - It begins with a spotter. At the airport in Nairobi, perhaps at OR Tambo International, or even at the guest house where the intended victim is staying, someone makes the details of the target’s journey known to the robbers.
The spotter may even be the driver of the metered taxi taking you to your hotel, or someone standing nearby when you’re changing money at the foreign exchange point.
The lead investigator into the airport-followings cases, Colonel Boats Botha said catching the spotters had always been difficult.
The spotters generally identified their wealthy targets - often foreigners - well before the person was on their way out of the airport.
The details of the vehicle the victim was travelling in were made known to the group of three to five robbers, who would calmly follow in their own car.
Botha said that from this point, the robbers’ modus operandi varied - either they would strike en route, or they would wait for the target to arrive at their destination before the robbery.
In many cases of the former, using a vehicle equipped with a blue light, groups of men would pull over the traveller in a “safe area”.
But even if the robbers let their victims reach their destinations, the robberies would be the same.
It sometimes started with a search of the vehicle and the target, but at other times, the robbers would immediately cut to the chase and pull out their guns.
Within seconds, they would have the luggage, personal items of the target and their cash and would flee the scene.
The robberies were generally non-violent, with the robbers even just throwing the car keys of the robbed vehicle into the nearby veld, giving them just enough time to escape.
The reason foreigners are targeted?
Botha believes it’s because the targets are not likely to stay in the country for long.
They might not even report the case, or they are less likely to return to stand as witnesses if the perpetrators are arrested.
He said that often the targets - local and international - had been unsubtle in their handling of money.
Some were unaware of the crime problems in South Africa.
When exchanging money or wearing that expensive Rolex watch, the targets could be spotted easily.
Patricia Mehlomakulu may not have been a spotter for the criminals, but police say her actions provided investigators with major insight into how the Airport Gang operated.
Mehlomakulu was arrested last month in Orange Farm.
She is alleged to have helped in cloning vehicles used by the gang in their robberies.
Botha said she was responsible for renting vehicles that would then be fitted with false licence plates by the airport followers.
These licence plates would be for a car of the same make and colour to confuse police, who would only be able to track down the owners of the vehicle with the original licence plates.
Mehlomakulu had apparently heard she was under suspicion for being linked to the gang and fled to Zimbabwe some time ago.
Last month, police picked up intelligence that she had returned to Joburg and then swooped.
Mehlomakulu has been linked to three vehicles used in three incidents of the gang’s robberies.
How they were caught
It wasn’t just police investigators who helped crack down on the criminals responsible for the airport followings.
Hotels, security companies, Gauteng Tourism and even the UN became involved in sharing information on the crimes.
In meetings held monthly, chaired by the UN’s national security assistant Frans Kloppers, CCTV footage, tip-offs and other vital information was provided to police investigators, helping secure each of the 18 arrests.
According to Colonel Boats Botha, certain robbers would participate in one crime and then one of them would be linked to a separate incident, while another would be linked to a third.
He said that while not all the cases were directly connected to each other, it was impossible for this to simply be coincidence.
Botha said he believed the separate groups of criminals responsible for each incident were connected, and may have traded information and possibly even used the same spotters.
“There can’t be 20 groups of robbers… They weren’t working in isolation,” he said.