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GUNS-TO-GANGS EXPLAINER

Bullet points – this is what drove victims of cop-smuggled firearms to launch a lawsuit against police

Bullet points – this is what drove victims of cop-smuggled firearms to launch a lawsuit against police
Major-General Jeremy Vearey at The Gathering on 24 November 2022. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla) | Former policeman Chris Prinsloo. (Image: Gallo Images / Die Burger) | National head of Crime Intelligence Peter Jacobs. (Photo: Tracey Adams / ANA)

DM168 previously reported that the Western Cape families of people murdered and wounded with cop-smuggled firearms are proceeding with a class action lawsuit because they want police accountability. We explain what led to the case that is now taking shape.

On Wednesday, 10 May more details are expected to be made public about a class action lawsuit involving a group of families based in South Africa’s gangsterism capital, the Western Cape. 

The families want compensation from the South African Police Service (SAPS) – Police Minister Bheki Cele in particular – because their relatives have either been maimed or murdered with firearms that cops smuggled to gangsters.

Some of the survivors of crimes carried out with such firearms want compensation.

This matter is broadly known as the guns-to-gangs scandal.

The figures: how many crimes were police-smuggled firearms, identified in this matter, used in?

Between 2010 and 2016, according to details that have already emerged, 2,000 firearms could be linked to 1,666 murders, 1,403 attempted murders and 315 other crimes

Horrifically, it was found that 261 children had been shot with such firearms.

When were these police-smuggled firearms first flagged?

Jeremy Vearey, a major-general who was fired from the SAPS in 2021 over Facebook posts, was central to investigating this. 

In an October 2016 affidavit relating to another previous change to his job, Vearey said that years earlier, in 2013, police investigators dealing with crimes on the Cape Flats started suspecting that some firearms were “circulating illegally… and… had probably been released by members of the SAPS”. 

Police ballistic experts, he said, then realised the identification numbers of firearms, moving between gangsters, had been filed off in exactly the same way – it was suspected the same person was altering the firearms. 

Peter Jacobs, who was Western Cape Crime Intelligence boss at the time, decided to proceed with an investigation. 

This started in December 2013 and was codenamed Project (or Operation) Impi.

Where did early Project Impi investigations lead to in the police service?

Vearey, in his affidavit, said that while at that stage firearms in the Western Cape were being destroyed, firearms from other provinces were being destroyed in Tshwane, so the focus shifted to police officers there.

A storeroom used by Gauteng’s Firearm, Liquor and Second-Hand Goods (Flash) unit was identified, as was a Flash office that was responsible for destroying old firearms. 

A police colonel, Chris Prinsloo, became the focus of further investigations, along with Irshaad Laher, who investigators said was a reservist at a police station in Vereeniging, where Prinsloo was the station commander.

Laher was suspected of being a middleman between Prinsloo and gangsters.

How did this jump from a provincial to a national issue?

According to his 2016 affidavit, Vearey said investigations into Prinsloo revealed he was operating nationally and aside from smuggling guns to gangsters was also involved in distributing military and heritage firearms.

There were therefore allegedly two main firearm smuggling channels: one that led to gangsters, and the other involving the supply of stolen military and heritage weapons.

It was also suspected that some of the firearms ended up being used in taxi violence.

When did it become apparent that police bosses could be held liable for crimes committed with firearms smuggled from cops to gangsters?

Vearey said that in the run-up to 2016, he and Jacobs warned police bosses about “the potential liability on the part of the SAPS”.

“They had been in possession of thousands of firearms which they were supposed to destroy,” Vearey’s affidavit said. “Instead they were released to gangs who were killing many members of the public with them.”

Did SAPS play open cards with the public?

No – finer details about the guns-to-gangs case became public about six years ago when journalists reported on Labour Court papers that Vearey and Jacobs had lodged in 2016.

What happened to Project Impi?

In June 2016, Vearey and Jacobs were suddenly transferred – some cops saw this as a demotion – within the police service in the Western Cape.

This led to them approaching the Cape Town Labour Court.

Vearey, in his affidavit, said Project Impi “has been decimated on the orders of the SAPS management”.

Are Project Impi firearms still in gangster hands?

Jacobs, in an affidavit relating to his sudden transfer in 2016, said 1,200 of the firearms were unaccounted for.

Some of them could still be on the streets.

What happened to those identified as suspects?

In June 2016, Chris Prinsloo was sentenced to 18 years in jail after pleading guilty to several charges.

Daily Maverick subsequently reported that he was released on parole after serving only four years of his sentence.

Prinsloo agreed to become a State witness in the trial against Laher, who faces legal proceedings in the Western Cape High Court.

Another accused in the matter is Alan Raves, a heritage weapons collector who was arrested in 2015. He faces criminal charges relating to allegations of stolen military and heritage weapons, along with Laher.

In related court papers, a police colonel identified as David Naidoo is alleged to have worked with Prinsloo. However, no information has surfaced publicly about what became of Naidoo.

When did the class action first become public knowledge?

Daily Maverick first made reference to a potential class action lawsuit in June 2021 – it had already been on the cards before then.

What do we know about the class action so far?

Gun Free South Africa (GFSA) is steering the class action proceedings on behalf of affected families and survivors who want to be part of it.

Damages will be sought from the police minister.

Family members and survivors need to become certified members of the class action for it to proceed properly, and a court needs to grant certification for the proposed class action.

If granted, the process will take time – a trial could take years.

More details about the matter are expected to be made public on Wednesday, 10 May at a media briefing in Cape Town.

Are there dangers associated with the guns-to-gangs scandal?

Yes. While the motives are unknown, these incidents have occurred in Cape Town:

In November 2016, Noorudien Hassan, a lawyer representing an accused in a case that is a spinoff from the Prinsloo matter, was murdered.

At the end of October 2018, his colleague, advocate Pete Mihalik, who wanted Prinsloo to be charged with more than 1,000 murders linked to the guns he had smuggled, was murdered.

In September 2020, Lieutenant-Colonel Charl Kinnear, who was investigating colleagues who allegedly created fraudulent firearm licences for suspects, was murdered.

Meanwhile, in 2017, this reporter received a death threat for reporting on the smuggling of firearms between cops and gangsters. DM

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