Liquor and lockdown: The Great Booze Heist
With booze ban fears driving up prices of alcohol, armed syndicates target liquor depots and delivery trucks.
Robbers are increasingly targeting liquor depots and delivery trucks in precisely planned attacks, getting their hands on large amounts of alcohol that they push on to the illicit market, which is already worth more than R20-billion.
This adds to the problem of liquor stores being robbed and looted – crimes that increased when heavy alcohol restrictions were in place in South Africa. Ranging from a full alcohol ban to limited sales times, restrictions have been sporadically implemented in the country since March 2020 as part of the government’s Covid-19 lockdown measures.
When access to booze was restricted in an attempt to ease pressure on hospitals’ admissions and trauma wards, alcohol became an even more lucrative commodity for criminals.
There are concerns in the liquor industry that tighter alcohol restrictions will be reimplemented over the 2021/22 holiday period as Covid-19 cases surge. They say restrictions not only negatively affect their businesses at a usually booming time of year, but also increase the likelihood of criminals targeting liquor businesses.
Earlier this week, President Cyril Ramaphosa said the National Coronavirus Command Council would meet soon. After this, revised lockdown regulations will probably be announced.
Criminals have targeted South African Breweries (SAB). This week, the world’s second-largest brewer implored government not to impose another liquor ban.
Industry bodies including the Beer Association of South Africa (Basa) and wine producers’ representative body Vinpro have turned to the courts to challenge issues relating to the Covid-linked liquor bans. Vinpro was this week unsuccessful in its quest, with the Western Cape High Court finding that the restrictions were reasonable.
Basa chief executive Patricia Pillay, in her affidavit in a matter that is before the Pretoria High Court, said that, aside from many job losses, another “egregious and fundamental side effect of the alcohol bans has been the trade in illicit alcohol products which spawned and thrived … [and] also robbed the South African Revenue Service of much-needed tax revenue”.
To prevent becoming the target of crooks, DM168 understands that some major liquor companies have been transporting smaller quantities of stock in vehicles instead of trucks and are making use of armed escorts. Security has also been boosted at liquor outlets as well as at warehouses and other storage facilities.
At the same time, there are fears that, given the precision of attacks, corrupt police and private security officers could be working with the criminals. Some police officers have previously been arrested on suspicion of being involved in liquor theft.
Because of the sensitivity of investigations into incidents and to avoid drawing unwanted attention to their companies, liquor retailers approached by DM168 did not want to speak on the record. Although it was not clear exactly how many storage facilities or alcohol consignments in transit have been targeted recently, several industry insiders said they had noted that “finely planned attacks” were picking up.
SAB spokesperson Kanyisa Ndyondya confirmed to DM168 that robbers had been targeting the company.
“While we have had a couple of attempts on our business, these were not successful due to our stringent security protocols and measures,” she said. “SAB is aware of the recent increases in attempted robberies targeting liquor storage facilities and the reported increases in in-transit-load hijackings.”
She said it was suspected that the four sets of alcohol restrictions imposed in South Africa had fuelled the illicit trade.
“We appeal to the government to not impose more bans due to the adverse impact that these have on our industry and the economy, since the illicit trade is both unregulated and untaxed,” Ndyondya said.
Pamela Nkuna, the chair of the South African Liquor Brandowners’ Association (Salba), acknowledged that attacks seemed to be increasing.
She said: “In the past two months, we are aware of two warehouses that were part of well-orchestrated armed robberies, which indicates an upsurge in these incidents.”
Nkuna added there were a range of reasons behind depots being targeted.
“The growth of illicit trade and possible further lockdown restrictions, as well as the … festive season are all contributing factors,” Nkuna said. “There is a clear correlation between the sales ban and the increase in the demand for illicit alcohol.”
We are aware of a surge in the robberies at distribution centres and warehouses. It can only be assumed that the majority of these [are] due to the local sales bans as they tend to generally fall within these periods. Where the alcohol ends up is anyone’s guess, but, given the bans, the likelihood is that it just gets sold locally on the black market.
She referred to a commissioned Euromonitor International report, Illicit Trade: Alcoholic Drinks in South Africa in 2020, which shows alcohol smuggling was one of the fastest-growing categories of the illicit alcohol trade last year. There are high profit margins on spirits.
“The illicit alcohol trade has grown at a compound annual growth rate of 17% since 2017 and now stands at 12% of the R177.2-billion total industry market value. By 2026, the illicit market will be worth R44.5-billion,” Nkuna said.
“The loss to the fiscus is staggering. According to the report, the illicit alcohol market in 2020 was worth R20.5-billion, of which 42% is attributed to smuggling. The loss to the fiscus was R11.3-billion, of which 39% is attributed to smuggling.”
It is likely that most stolen alcohol is being pumped back into the local market, with only a small amount being smuggled to neighbouring countries.
Dennis Matsane, spokesperson for alcohol producer and marketer Distell, said his company’s views were aligned with those of Salba. Before Covid-19, he said, there had been fewer robberies, and recent crimes appeared more opportunistic.
“Restrictions on alcohol imposed by lockdown made alcoholic products a target for organised crime, resulting in an increasing incidence of existing alcohol-related theft – like the hijacking of our trucks – and [it has] spawned new incidences of theft, like attacks on depots,” Matsane added.
When speculation about stricter lockdowns do the rounds, it seems robbery and hijacking attempts increase.
Matsane said an increase in armed robberies equated to a rise in the “potential for fatalities”.
Maryna Calow, communications manager for Wines of South Africa, an organisation that promotes exports, also acknowledged an increase in incidents.
“We are aware of a surge in the robberies at distribution centres and warehouses. It can only be assumed that the majority of these [are] due to the local sales bans as they tend to generally fall within these periods,” she said. “Where the alcohol ends up is anyone’s guess, but, given the bans, the likelihood is that it just gets sold locally on the black market.”
An incident in January 2021 hints at the planning and coordination that goes into bulk liquor looting.
A Kempton Park depot was targeted, with robbers reportedly using a convoy of six trucks in the heist.
That same month, police officers in Cape Town cracked down on the illegal sale of liquor being stored in the Airport Industria area.
“Inside the premises … police discovered a storage facility equipped with security uniforms, safes, forklifts and more boxes of alcohol,” the police said in a statement at the time.
A suspect was arrested in Mpumalanga this week on suspicion of being behind several business robberies, including a liquor store.
During these robberies, the police said, explosives had been detonated and “an undisclosed amount of cash and large volume of alcohol beverages were stolen”.
This week, national police spokesperson Vish Naidoo said liquor heists were recorded as robberies.
Because the analysis of crime threats and patterns were done at a provincial level, he said he was “unable to comment on this at this level”.
A source with ties to policing, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of such cases, explained that syndicates were often linked to the robberies or were part of gangs behind the theft of liquor consignments.
When trucks transporting liquor consignments are hijacked, the police usually have a short window to intercept criminals.
This is because, according to the source, crooks quickly remove the container part in which alcohol is stored from the rest of the vehicle.
They then attach the container to a new vehicle to try to throw authorities “off the scent”.
DM168 also ascertained that, in the Western Cape, which is widely known as South Africa’s gangsterism capital, there were suspicions that gangs, such as the 28s, were involved in liquor store robberies.
Members store stolen alcohol in premises in their stronghold areas and pump it into the black market.
In April 2020, shortly after a full alcohol ban was imposed, Police Minister Bheki Cele said there appeared to be a syndicate in the Western Cape that was targeting liquor stores.
He also hinted at collusion among store owners, cops and criminals.
Cele was quoted by SABC News as saying: “We are finding some organisation with the owners of these bottle stores who come together with the criminals to push their stock. That’s what happened.
“We have arrested our own police that were working with the manager coming with the underhand sale in that particular area. We are dealing with it.
“We need to be harsh as SAPS because some of this alcohol still finds its way on the underground and illegal shebeens.”
Back in May 2020, the police minister also flagged organised crime issues relating to liquor.
Cele reported that there had been an increase in smuggling contraband, including alcohol, “between South Africa’s land borders with Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, as well as the sale of these products in the black market”. DM168
BOOZE BANS PUMP UP ALCOHOL CRIME
Two police officers were wounded when a liquor truck heist was foiled in the Eastern Cape in February. Three suspects were arrested.
A truckload of liquor in Cape Town was intercepted at the start of 2021 as part of an operation to crack down on black market trading.
The South African Revenue Service and police discovered a warehouse in Mpumalanga where duty-free liquor worth R15-million was kept. The alcohol was headed for the foreign market. – South African Police Service and South African Revenue Service
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