Zimbabwe: Organised Crime On the Rise

FOUR phenomena in Zimbabwe point to the rise of organised crime — threats of violence against Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Governor Dr Gideon Gono, organised criminal gangs, money laundering rings and the involvement of senior police officers in corruption. The question is: Are we seeing the evolution of Mafiosos in Zimbabwe?

A Mafia, as described by Annelise Anderson in “The Red Mafia: A legacy of Communism”, is “a group that is characterised by profit-oriented criminal activity, that uses violence or threats of violence, that uses its resources to discourage cooperation of its members with the police and that corrupts legitimate government authority”. The word Mafia, as Anderson notes, characterised some powerful Sicilian families engaged in violent criminal activities and who also achieved considerable control of economic activity.

The term was later adopted in the United States to describe organised criminal groups in the wake of the Great Depression.
Mafia groups thrive on illegal businesses and illegal markets. It is in the interests of Mafia groups to control the illegal market. Inevitably they are averse to economic reforms or any other policies that threaten the existence of illegal markets and their enterprises.

Such gangs have targets and the means to hit them (weapons). The Russian Mafia (also known as Red Mafia) for instance has, according to the Wilkipedia, 100 000 members owing allegiance to 8 000 crime groups. The Red Mafia controls about 80 percent of all private businesses and about 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. When Russia was undergoing economic reforms, which threatened illegal businesses, the Mafia targeted bank executives, reform-minded business leaders and investigative journalists. These were systematically murdered or kidnapped. Between 1992 and 1994, 10 bankers were killed.

Thus the threats of violence against Dr Gono’s life and the subsequent arson at his farm — coming in the wake of his announcement of progressive measures to curb illegal financial activities — are typically Mafia behaviour. Since Mafia groups are involved in many illegal activities, they have large structures to cope with the scope and sizes of their activities. While enforcement of their jungle laws in businesses is enhanced through violence, they also use bribes to control the legal system, from police officers to court officials.

It is not surprising that many cases involving corruption and other criminal cases are not successfully prosecuted. Organised criminals devote resources to corrupt judicial officials and investigative journalists, especially in an environment where these are poorly remunerated. These criminal groups, who are described by the Wilkipedia as criminals whose motivation is profit, have legitimate businesses to front their illegal ones. In order for their illicit activities to thrive, they need society’s “support” and they get it through violence, bribery, symbiotic relationships between their illegal businesses and the illegal ones and blackmail. Consequently, they target the judicial and police officers including legislators in order to control them through bribery, threats or both.

Legitimate businesses are used either as a cover or as a means to operate underground enterprises. For example in Zimbabwe, one might own a legitimate fuel business and through its legitimate licence, import the fuel. But very little of the liquid would be seen on the open market, as most of it ends up on the illegal parallel market. Some police and government officials would be corrupted because the Mafia thrives where there is little trust in government or the police. When those in authority know about, and are involved in the underground economy, bribery and extortion, there would be selection and enforcement of the laws. Only the small fish are netted and the recourse of going to the law becomes a futile and frustrating experience.

Konstantin Simis, a Soviet defence attorney who had numerous clients in the underground economy was quoted by Anderson commenting on the laundering of illegally earned cash saying it was a “criminal activity protected by the authorities against which ordinary recourse of going to the police proves unprofitable”. The recent arrest of two senior police officers (an Assistant Inspector and an Assistant Commissioner) who were allegedly caught with $5 million ($5 billion old value) in cash typifies the involvement of police officers in underhand economic activities.

Money laundering is one of the prime activities of the underground economy. The Wilkipedia aptly describes what it is and its specific purpose as, “engaging in specific financial transactions in order to conceal the identity, source and/or the destination of money and is a main operation of underground economy”. This is done to avoid detection and prosecution for illegal activities. Significantly, those people who have been caught with billions in cash, including prominent businesspeople with legitimate enterprises have “failed” to account for the source of their money and its destination (which was obviously not the banks”).

John McDowell, writing in “The Consequences of Money Laundering and Financial Crime,” notes that money laundering has devastating effects on the economy and national security. He adds: “It provides fuel for drug dealers, terrorists, illegal arms dealers, corrupt officials and others to operate and expand their criminal enterprises”. McDowell also notes that it increases cross border cash shipments to those, “with loose arrangements for detecting and recording the placement of cash in the financial system”.

Hence it is not surprising that many of Zimbabwe’s bearer cheques (used as legal tender) are smuggled to foreign countries. Barely a week after the new bearer cheques were introduced, they had found their way illegally out of the country and some people were arrested at border posts attempting to smuggle them.

Organised crime masterminded by Mafiosos leads to economic stagnation or depression. Pino Arlacchi, a historical sociologist, noted that during the 1970s and 1980s areas of southern Italy with high rates of organised crime had concomitantly poor economic growth rates. Analysts have also noted that one of the causes of the growth of organised crime is bureaucracy, especially when decisions are unclear and difficult to monitor. Bureaucrats, they argue, fuel corruption by demanding payment, tips, kickbacks and bribes for the awarding of tenders.

Bureaucratic corruption then takes the complexion of the Mafia when violence or threats of violence come into play. In fact some of the power struggles manifest in quasi-government institutions such as councils and parastatals are symptomatic of the struggle for underworld activities such as influencing awarding of tenders. Mafiosos also influence political decisions and legislation by ensuring that those who win political seats are either their kith and kin in crime or that they are corruptible.

Inevitably they manipulate the political system and its players either from within or behind the scenes. Gang leaders who have been arrested or those on the run in the country are a testimony of the prevalence of organised crime. These gangs range from burglars to armed robbers. The Irish Mafia (or Irish mob) is regarded as one of the oldest crime syndicates in the US (since its inception in 1800) and it is reputed for having run the most successful burglary rings in that country.

Slowly, in Zimbabwe, burglary syndicates are emerging and they are terrorising residents. Some of them are known and residents complain that they do not stay in custody for long. Armed robbery gang leaders such as Norman Karimanzira, who is now late, Musa Taj Abdul, Lucky Matambanadzo and Gift Mwale among others, are symbolic of the growth of organised syndicates in Zimbabwe. These gangs have become so disciplined and well connected to be considered part of the organised crime syndicate — Mafia.

While the Mafia usually operates underground, they may become so powerful that they can come out of their shells and become known through symbolic dressing and other means. For example the Japanese Mafia or the Yakuza (or Yokudo), the masters that control the underground market, make themselves distinct as they wear dark glasses and suits and are known to walk with “an arrogant gait”. At the rate organised crime is emerging in Zimbabwe, are we not likely to see such criminal arrogance one day?

The Herald (Harare) August 10, 2006

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