In an exclusive interview, a special agent from Mozambique's elite and deadly Special Forces Rapid Intervention Unit explains how extrajudicial murders work in Mozambique – and why he participates. By @VERDADE and SAVANA.
Extrajudicial, unexplained killings have been a feature of Mozambican political life in the post-civil war period. We know about the victims – the journalists, the opposition politicians, the activists – but we know very little about the men who actually pull the trigger. In an extraordinary interview, one member of the Mozambican police’s Special Forces Rapid Intervention Unit speaks to @Verdade and Savana, two of the country’s foremost independent publications. He explains how he became a state-sponsored hitman, and why he can’t stop. For his own safety, his identity has been kept anonymous.
What was your career path to reach the Special Forces?
Agent: I was a soldier in the Armed Defence Forces of Mozambique (FADM). I started my military training in Catembe, at the Marines Academy. Afterwards I looked for a job for two years before being incorporated into the police force. Those who were military cannot be police officers; they must belong to the Special Forces. I went to complete another anti-riot, crowd control training – in the case of demonstrations. This anti-riot training is a speciality, the Rapid Intervention Force is another area. Rapid Intervention is a fireman-type of force, they appear on site to resolve an issue and to end it. So why do they take those people who were in the military? It is because these people know how to fire various types of weapons. For example, I know how to shoot about 26 types of weapons. [Officers at normal] police stations only know how to shoot a pistol and AKM [a modernised AK47]. That is why those who were in the military cannot be at the police station; they must be stationed at the barracks. So we have a dual function, we operate as military and as police as well.
What branch do you work for?
I am a police agent of the Rapid Intervention Unit. I was working in the presidential escort. I completed a sniper course. You have no idea what exists here, there is a war just not in the cities.
Where and since when is there war?
I was in the presidential escort, but I was sent to Nampula [in northern Mozambique] because they needed snipers there to operate heavy weapons there; new Russian-made ZU 23 mortars. The old type was already there, but recently new ones arrived. I was in Gorongosa in 2012 and 2015 and there were at least eight of them there. We were a joint force that was there to shoot with Dragunov [a sniper rifle], this is a weapon that we used to search for specific people and kill them, because this was the job.
What work is this? Who do you do it with?
We are a squad of about 20 specialists. When the issues in Gorongosa started, in 2011, we did a retraining and the first mission was in 2012. We go there when the situation is really bad. There are [other] people who go there first and when the situation is not any better they call the heavy weapon shooters to arrive and destroy. We are the ones who went in and killed one commander who was said to be bulletproof; he died from a mortar in Muxungué.
What other missions have you been involved in?
We stay in the barracks, but they call us and say “go to province X”. We leave here by plane, and there we pick up cars from the provincial commands. What makes me angry is that my job is to fight crime, to maintain public order and tranquility. The police should not be for killing; it is to catch the person, isolate and hand them over to the authorities to be heard and from there to follow judicial course. That’s what we understand. But here in our country someone can arrive, give orders to get into the car, and we just have to follow orders. No one will step up and say no I do not want to, because there are consequences. They came with a picture and said: “Here, go eat breakfast and while you are eating someone will come, and it is that person that comes. First isolate his bodyguards because he will come protected.” They give information that “this person will be guarded. Their name we will not tell you but it is this person in the photo and he should be shot”.
So the missions are not only against armed Renamo men?
In Maputo we never used weapons against the military. As I said, they give us the photo and then you will hear a stranger was found dead in “area X”, as if it was an assault.
Do you mean that you also operate in cities?
In the city of Beira, but where I worked was more in Nampula. In Nampula we already trailed a white 4-seater Nissan Navara with a red licence plate. I followed him from the hotel, in the city centre, we went by way of Cipal, shortly after the Faina, he turned onto the Nampula-Cuamba road and that was right where we wanted him to go. We passed Waresta market, went up until Namina, Ribáuè district, when we left Rapale there was a large distance of bush to travel. Our first car, a black Prado, passed him and behind him was another Prado, he was practically in the middle. We shot his front tyre, he lost control and stopped near the railway line. We wanted the one that was in the back seat, on the phone. Another one got out to return fire but he was shot in the head. When the one in charge and the driver also got out, we shot them dead. They stayed there.”
What other missions do you remember?
A while ago we went to Manica, we had a job, only that there we were in plainclothes. We received a photo of the person who they told us should be killed. We do not know these people well [those to be killed]. They bring [the information] and say “go to area X, someone will pass by”, they give us all the information about the person [their clothing, their car], they say to chase them to an area where there are no police.
Have you had any mission against [Renamo leader] Afonso Dhlakama?
Yes, but he is also crazy. First we tried to get the Renamo leader in Moma district, but we failed. And then Manica, it’s just that that guy does not die.
Do you mean that your squad was in Manica going after Afonso Dhlakama?
That’s what the work there was for; they sent us there a few days before. We were greeted by an officer [name withheld]. First they [Dhlakama and his entourage] were at a rally. The leader of the escort who was there gave us information. The person responsible, who organized the hit, who was feeding us, in the same place where we slept in Manica, this person said, “today you cannot fail”.
But you did fail…
We did not fail. Many died, but that old man (Dhlakama) does not die, he disappeared. There are mountains there, we stayed at the high end, others from the squad could not go down lower because otherwise there could be crossfire. We did not have light weapons. We were using weapons meant to destroy cars. We set up within sight. We knew that Dhlakama would come because they were at the rally and they called to our commander warning that Dhlakama would be passing soon, he had just left… we positioned ourselves with machine guns, but I do not know how is it possible for a car to pass just a few metres away and not be hit. Several died there but Dhlakama got out. We pursued them, but they responded with gunfire.
Who gave the orders for these missions in which you participated?
You know, here in Mozambique there are people who are never mentioned, who we never speak of. When there are problems, the police always talk, the military talks, but there are always people standing behind it all: SISE [Information Services and State Security]. They are big, they have all of this information.
Your squad only had missions in Nampula, Manica and Sofala?
We carried out door-to-door missions in Sofala province, in the districts of Caia, Marromeu and Gorongosa. We arrived, we knocked at the door and those who came out were killed. We got information from community leaders; they are the ones who inform us about the presence of Renamo men in a region.
Where was your latest mission?
I was called to Murrupula in Nampula, in January 2016. Because as I said, the community leaders observe the movements in the villages, and verify the arrival of strange people or groups. So they called us there. We do not stay there ([n the village]. We stayed in a hotel, as civilians, waiting for directions to go to work.
What kind of job was this?
There is a Renamo base in a village. It is 42 kilometers off the national road. We left the cars behind to not make any noise. It is an area where cars do not often pass, the only cars that go there go looking for charcoal and firewood. We went on foot. Even now as I am talking there are forces belonging to the 6th Rapid Intervention Unit, trying to rescue a man who disappeared with his gun.
Are you talking about one of your colleagues who disappeared? How did he go missing?
We went there and identified a Renamo base. We made a defensive circle, where we all stopped and aimed our fire. But we did not give them a chance to respond because it was early in the morning. When they counterfired we all ran off and he remained… Later the commander called and said he wanted this guy dead or alive, and with his gun.
How do you communicate with the community leaders?
All community leaders in the provinces work with government forces. They give information. They have the task of guarding the village and reporting on the presence of Renamo; who is responsible, who are the delegates, etc. Then we arrive, we knock on their doors and take out the people identified.
So you’re saying that armed Renamo men live among the population?
They [the armed Renamo men] live very well integrated with the population, and the population does not denounce them.
Are these armed Renamo men young?
Of the men I have captured I have never seen young people. Those youngsters who appear to surrender themselves as members of Renamo are informants. Many of those who surrender are being blackmailed and are now having problems to regularise their documents. Many are not guerrillas.
How many armed Renamo men were in Murrupula?
We do not know how many they are, because many do not dress in uniform, they live with the people. They have never been to a village and never started shooting. The Rapid Intervention Force is the one burning schools, if you did not know. When we went to attack, when we entered a village, we started to shoot from one side to the other, and everyone fled. The commander would call and say that “Renamo men did this”, and then the orders came saying to “destroy it all”.
So when people flee because they say they are being attacked by Government forces they are not lying?
They are not lying. In Tete, it was more shameful because the commander who was in charge there said to burn the huts, kill the goats, cattle and other animals.
Who was that commander?
The commander is [name withheld, but he is better known as Adolfo]. He had drug trafficking problems. He was convicted but did not serve his sentence. They went and took him out of jail when this mess started and he was placed as commander in Nampula. When instability began in Nampula he was integrated into the Rapid Intervention Force… Dhlakama is afraid of Adolfo… It is better to work on missions with commander [name withheld, not Adolfo], because no one dies in the missions he leads. But, if you go with commander [Adolfo] you die next to him, because in the bush he does not take his hand out of his pocket and he is not hit by the bullets. The commander [Adolfo] went to be commander in Nampula, then those men [Dhlakama and his men] fled to Gorongosa, he went after them as commander of the independent battalion of Gorongosa, up until today.
So this commander ‘Adolfo’ (real name withheld) is in Sofala and Tete?
He is in Gorongosa, but he is called everywhere when there is confusion, so they sent him to Tete. We were there together between May and September.
In addition to your squad, are there are others who carry out these missions?
This is not the only one. Others are scattered throughout the provinces.
And there are weapons?
They have new armoured cars with mortars. New cars arrived, and they went to the port early in the morning to collect them. There are already men there being trained. There are ZU23 mortars, Dragunov precision weapons, and Pecheneg machine guns, all of Russian manufacture.
Why did you decide to tell us everything you have done?
I have children to raise, and this work is causing me mental distress. Since this Renamo mess started people are dying. I went to another anti-riot, crowd-control training, in the case of demonstrations. [This] is not what we signed up for. That’s why some have been expelled for refusing to fulfill certain missions. For example, we are called to a demonstration, and from here to there, they tell us, “Gentlemen, get into the car, take bazookas”. Bazookas are not for riot control. To quell a riot you must have air pressure and tear gas. Now, when they tell you to take rockets, this is war, for me it makes no sense.
Have you also participated in suppressing protests? Why do they take guns with real bullets?
When you go to a site to maintain order against a riot you just have to have tear gas and air pressure but we take Makarov, we take AKM, so that with the tear gas we scare the crowd and make a demonstration. In all protests you have to make a demonstration, people have to drop so that it will stop, that’s how we’ve done it. For people to know that the next bullet may be for me, it is what we call a demonstration.
Can you tell us about a riot situation where they used real bullets?
On the day we went to steal votes in Nampula in 2014. At the Belenenses School, 12 of October Secondary School, Secondary School of Nampula, we were flying with SISE men, men dressed in suits. Men who have braids, the [normal-looking] type, they are assigned specific tasks. [They say] you go there to create confusion because Renamo has influence. For us to be able to shake things up, first our colleagues in civilian clothes had to go there, those who had braids and torn clothes, they went to stand in line and instigate. “Frelimo must lose here,” they said, and while some will say that you purposely created confusion, it is very easy to agitate… Then they called us and said come here.
The Rapid Intervention went there as a legitimate defence and to maintain order. Tear gas and smoke, it was dark, we took the ballot boxes in armoured vehicles and we went to deliver them to SISE men who filled out [the ballots] with Frelimo, Frelimo… While at the school we continued to shoot. Then the cars left and went into the middle of the confusion while they were still there filling out [the ballots]…
What was your first operation?
My first operation was in Nampula, on Street Sem Medo, that attack on the residence of Afonso Dhlakama, on Street das Flores. We were going there on orders from Commander [name withheld]; he was the Provincial Commander. He has now been replaced by [name withheld].
How many of you are in your group?
I’m in a separate group because there is a normal group of Rapid Intervention, and there is the group of special ops, which is my group. In my group we are about 50.
And your targets are armed Renamo men?
That’s what we thought, but later we began to see that it was not only them because there are certain days that they came with photos to do certain jobs, but the people in those photos no longer appeared to be men of Renamo.
Are your colleagues also unhappy?
There’s a lot of discontent. But you cannot do anything… in the middle of many people whispering because there are a lot of people who want to move up in power. You can give information… some information from the inside is worth a lot. So there’s a lot of risk. The money is little, but the risk is great. We have all the evidence that implicates many commanders, because it is them who give the orders.
Do you mean that among you there is a general feeling of revolt?
One of the reasons for this is that we are doing a job that does not correspond with that [the law] because we are vowed and also because we are not paid overtime, because we are ordered to work late at night or early in the morning. We are doing things that are not what the law commands. Even up to our bosses… we think they get money but do not give any to us.
You do not fear reprisals?
I decided to talk about it is because I just completed a mission. I just did a job that we all left to whisper about; we left in a bad state, injured, we went to shoot at people and we ended up injured. We went to shoot at the population.
Throughout this period the government has said it does not want war and wants to talk to Renamo to achieve peace. Do you think both sides will be understood?
You know what the problem is, it is that in the north there is wealth. Votes were stolen from Dhlakama but he still won. I do not understand politics, I only fulfill missions, but they will not let Dhlakama rule. DM
Click here to read the original version in Portuguese. The text was translated from the Portuguese by Vita/Afronline, an initiative designed to develop cultural relations between Africa and Europe, as part of a media project that works with 25 African media organisations.
Photo: Afonso Dhlakama, leader of Renamo, talks to the journalists during a press conference about the Mozambican post-electoral situation, Maputo, Mozambique, 18 October 2014. Renamo said two days earlier it rejected the election results, sparking concern that it might resume its two-year, low-level insurgency that ended with a peace deal in August. EPA/ANTONIO SILVA.