Kidnapping for ransom has been rife in Mozambique for almost two decades. Asian businessmen or their descendants and relatives are the most common targets. Victims tend to be taken in broad daylight and held captive for weeks or months, released only when ransom – sometimes millions of dollars – is paid. Victims are often tortured if payments are overdue, and sometimes killed, as happened recently to a Maputo businessman.
Mozambique’s police haven’t been able to curb the crime. In 2022, 12 cases were recorded and at least US$35-million was paid in ransom. These cases represent a slight decline from 15 in 2019 and 18 in 2020, but are still high by continental and Southern African standards.
In the absence of an effective policing response, kidnappers have grown bold, expanding their operations into neighbouring South Africa, where some ringleaders are believed to be based. A joint operation by the South African Police Service and INTERPOL led to the arrest of suspected kidnap kingpin and Mozambican businessman, Esmael Malude Ramos Nangy, in January in Gauteng province. Should similar joint actions be used in Mozambique?
Presenting the 2021 Annual Report on the State of Judiciary, Attorney General Beatriz Buchili listed the constraints investigators and prosecutors face in handling such cases. These include kidnappers ‘sophisticated methods’ such as using digital communication platforms to plan and execute abductions and ransom collections. She said ransom payments are made through transactions outside the country.
According to Buchili, Mozambique doesn’t have access to mechanisms facilitating international cooperation and information exchange on cybercrime. Maputo has not signed or ratified the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime, or joined the Egmont Group – an international organisation linking national financial intelligence units to facilitate the investigation and prevention of money laundering and terrorist financing.
But these omissions don’t account for the country’s failure to pursue cross-border cooperation on kidnapping. Mozambique has ratified the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, and mutual legal assistance with other countries is possible. Even without any of these formal agreements, ad hoc cross-border cooperation could take place.
The most worrying problem Buchili mentions is these criminals' infiltration and manipulation of criminal justice institutions, a key feature of organised crime in Mozambique and worldwide. This feeds a culture of impunity. Several reports show the involvement of Mozambican National Criminal Investigation Service agents in kidnapping, proving the involvement of organised crime groups who probably work with government contacts.
Police complicity in such crimes is not restricted to Mozambique. In February 2022 TimesLIVE reported that South Africa is ‘losing the war on kidnapping because of corruption and infighting in [police] Crime Intelligence.’ It says, ‘South African kidnapping-for-ransom syndicates emerged after gaining experience from their Mozambican counterparts.’ It seems that in both countries, police corruption is not only compounding kidnappings but limiting options for cross-border collaboration.
In Mozambique, the absence of an effective deterrent allows syndicates to thrive. State agencies have failed to effectively infiltrate organised crime groups, and are likely to have been corrupted by those same entities. Ill-equipped, poorly paid and unmotivated police officers are easy targets for recruitment into crime networks. The payment of bribes by candidates applying to police training schools feeds a culture of corruption.
Mozambique’s law enforcement agencies are notoriously corrupt. According to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, police provide kidnapping gangs with weapons, participate in abductions and give kidnappers high-level protection.
Although cross-border police cooperation between South Africa and Mozambique would help both countries tackle kidnappings, Nangy’s arrest doesn’t appear to be the result of a coordinated strategy against organised crime. Instead, it was an isolated incident in response to an arrest warrant issued by Mozambique’s Public Prosecutor. South Africa and INTERPOL functionaries executed the warrant.
To address kidnapping in Mozambique – and its ramifications in South Africa – the Southern African Development Community (SADC) 2022-26 integrated strategy action plan against organised crime must be implemented. The plan calls for better cooperation in collecting, analysing and disseminating information, and timely intelligence sharing and cooperation at the national and regional levels.
If this happened, SADC member state law enforcement agencies would have mechanisms to quickly contact and work with counterparts in affected countries as well as stakeholders in civil society, the private sector and international agencies.
Mozambique and South Africa are the two SADC countries most affected by abductions. If they are committed to stopping the kidnappings, they need to tackle police corruption on both sides of the border, and join forces to implement the regional action plan.
Written by Borges Nhamirre, Consultant, ISS Pretoria