File picture: Suhaib Salem/Reuters

Pretoria – A new trend of criminal syndicates hiring high-powered assault rifles is believed to be behind a spate of violent armed robberies in the city.

Police insiders told the Pretoria News there had been an increase in attacks in and around the city since last year, with criminals outgunning officers by using military-grade AK-47, R5 and R1 assault rifles.

On Saturday, a man was hijacked on the R21 off ramp by four men with AK-47s. Earlier this month criminals also exchanged rapid fire at Soshanguve Plaza with police, using AK-47s and R5 rifles.

Days before the new year, a Pretoria West Tyre and Wheel company was ransacked by five thugs using AK-47s and other assault rifles.

Police believe the majority of them were hiring the weapons. An investigation has revealed a growing trend where smaller criminal gangs hired assault rifles from larger syndicates for a day, week or month.

“This makes it extremely difficult to trace suspects because once we find them, we cannot trace the weapon back to them as they have returned it,” said a police insider.

Purchasing an AK-47 on the black market could cost anything between R1 000 and R1 800, according to police.

However, smaller criminal gangs that could not afford large sums of money, hired the rifles for between R100 and R250 each.

Dr Johan Burger, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), said smuggling routes used during apartheid to arm resistance groups were still of concern today.

Underworld figures were now packing machine guns in a “culture” shift toward heavier arming among criminals, he said.

"One of the main reasons criminals preferred the AK-47 was that it was intimidating to its victims and the most feared, especially during cash-in transit heists," said Burger.

It’s believed that a problem area for the smuggling of illegal firearms into the country was the border between South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique.

Burger said that prior to 1994, this border area was used extensively by different liberation movements to supply arms to internal freedom fighters.

The scale of smuggling weapons had diminished since 2004, but these crossings still contributed to illegal firearms being brought into the country.

Between 2000 and 2004, AK-47s were readily available at the Mozambican border.

This, along with the exceedingly high amount of smuggling before democracy came about, caused a massive influx of illegal weapons into the country, making them easily available now.

Gunfree SA’s Adele Kirsten said sources of illegal weapons were loss and theft from police and gun owners, licensing fraud and corruption and weapon smuggling across borders.

Most assault rifles were used during intense violent crimes like hijacking, she said.

“This is because new, sophisticated cars are getting harder to steal, so criminals rely on superior fire power."

Pretoria News