Two suspects shot dead lie sprawled next to the cash-in-transit vehicle that they apparently attacked following a shootout with police in the incident in the Fountains area, just outside Pretoria. Two police officers were seriously wounded in the gun battle.Picture Antone de Ras

Johannesburg - Former prison inmates may be driving South Africa’s latest cash-in-transit robbery surge.

Dr Hennie Lochner, a senior lecturer in forensic and criminal investigation science at Unisa, has been told by his sources that former convicted cash-in-transit robbers are involved.

He has noticed this from the modus operandi used in recent incidents.

“My information is that the robbers have recently been released after serving sentences. There are no tabs on them,” said Lochner.

This year has been a bad one for cash-in-transit heists. The SA Banking Risk Information Centre (Sabric) has recorded 106 incidents. Last year, the figure stood at 96 for this period.

Last week, a security guard was killed when he was shot in a heist in Krugersdorp. In Burgersfort, Limpopo, on Wednesday, a suspect was shot dead by a security guard and his alleged accomplice was injured in a failed cash-in-transit heist.

Police recovered two AK-47s, a pistol and a R5 rifle. The weapons seized showed the firepower these criminals have.

While convicted robbers might be helping drive this epidemic, Lochner and other criminologists believed other factors were involved.

They point to the failure of the SAPS crime intelligence department, which over the past several years has been weakened by political interference, following the appointment of Lieutenant-General Richard Mdluli.

“It is the absence of crime intelligence to identify the syndicate and syndicate leaders,” said Rudolph Zinn, a professor of policing and forensic investigation at Unisa. “It is a small group and the only way to infiltrate them would be proper crime intelligence.”

Lochner agreed: “Appoint police officials that have the ability to gather information on all crimes and not the first two on the schedule one offence list. Restructure the crime intelligence units and their functions with emphasis on no political affiliation.”

Zinn said efforts were being made by the police to sort out the crime intelligence department, with the recent appointment of a new head, Major-General Anthony Jacobs.

But he warned it would take time before the department was running properly. “These syndicates are difficult to infiltrate, and it takes time to develop informers.”

Lochner has studied cash-in-transit robbers, and interviewed them in jail to gain insight into their personalities and modus operandi.

What he found were a group of men who were not only highly intelligent but also willing to commit extreme violence. They also had a far reach.

“What I am prepared to say is that 95% of all these robberies are committed with inside information and there will always be a police official involved.”

The recent spike in such heists was still not as bad as during the 2007/08 period. Then, according to SAPS police statistics, there were close to 400 incidents. Seven years later this figure had dropped to 119.

On the fall in heists between 2008 and 2015, Sabric chief executive Kalyani Pillay listed the following factors: “Improved security measures deployed by companies in relation to vehicles, technology, staff in conjunction with reviewed processes. And the multi-disciplinary approached taken by the industry and law enforcement.”

Pillay says the recent incidents followed a particular modus operandi. This involved large groups of heavily-armed criminals driving stolen luxury vehicles that they use to force the armoured car to stop. To access the cash vaults in the van, they blew them open with explosives.

“The violence used during these incidents and incidents where security guards are conveying cash between a service point and the armoured vehicle results in fatalities which is of huge concern,” she said.

Lochner said Mpumalanga appeared to be particularly hard hit.

While gangs were difficult to infiltrate, Lochner said inmates had told him they worried about “loose talk” from their girlfriends.

Zinn, who was Lochner’s co-ordinator in the study, said: “They told him that is the person they are most scared of, because most of them share a lot of information with their girlfriends. If they go into hiding they will take their girlfriends along. In some of these instances girlfriends will get to know the other robbers. This kind of person will be of very high value as an informer.”

Lochner suggested that police should consider recruiting the robbers as informants while they were in prison.

The industry said it was working hard to combat the surge in heists.

“All stakeholders, including private cash services companies, the authorities and the public are pulling together to help make the transport of money safer,” said Mark Barrett, SBV Services Group chief executive, in relation to the Burgersfort incident.

Anti-crime activist Yusuf Abramjee, who was raising awareness about cash-in-transit heists, believed it was the public’s duty to come forward with any information they might have about these crimes.

Lochner, however, believed with the right will, the robberies could be stopped.

“Look at the Boeremag case - within a year the SAPS managed to infiltrate the group with agents.

“An agent is a police official that is stripped of his identity, assumes another role and then infiltrates the criminal target. In Afrikaans there is a saying, waar ’* wil is, is ’* weg (where there’s a will, there’s a way). Appoint people according to their abilities.”