The moment vehicle owners notice that their vehicles have been stolen, the first place they run to are radio stations to make announcements giving details of the stolen vehicles.
In running announcements, victims hold on to the hope that a member of the public may sight the car hidden somewhere and will, therefore, be proactive and pass on the information to the police or owner. Reporting the case to police often comes second.
Either way, many stolen motor vehicles are never recovered. Successful thefts or robberies only encourage criminals to steal more vehicles.
In 2013, the number of motor vehicles either stolen or robbed were 670. In the first six months of 2014, the number of stolen cars increased to 792, according to police crime reports. Although there was a slight reduction of stolen cars in 2015, cases of vehicles stolen are still high.
Meanwhile, recovering stolen motor vehicles has become more difficult as the criminals have become craftier in their illicit trade.
Instability in DRC
International Police Director, Asan Kasingye, says instability in eastern DR Congo and South Sudan have also made Interpol systems detecting vehicles stolen from neighbouring countries impossible.
Countries that are members of Interpol use the International Police Stolen Motor vehicle (SMV) database to register stolen or robbed vehicles to ably track vehicles stolen from any member country. This means that a stolen car cannot be licensed in any country that is an Interpol member since it will be recorded as stolen.
Being neighbours to countries like DRC and South Sudan that are still struggling to connect to the Interpol tracking system directly widens the market from stolen vehicles.
Driving them out of the country
A Flying Squad operative, who preferred anonymity because of the nature of his work, participated in the recent operations to recover stolen vehicles. He says the criminals have not learnt new methods of stealing vehicles. However, they deal with their loot.
“Car thieves will track their victim. They will understand their schedule then they will wait for a day when the victim parks the car for a long time,” the operative says “Then they will steal it and drive as fast as possible to the neighbouring country.”
Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan are the target destination for stolen vehicles. The longest journey to any of these borders will take eight hours.
The operative says by the time the victim gets to know that the vehicle has been stolen, the criminals are either at the DRC border or South Sudan.
“Most victims of stolen motor vehicles will spend two hours running around looking for who can help them. By the time they inform the police, record the statement and other bureaucracies to send a general request to intercept the stolen car, the criminals have already driven out of the country,” the operative says.
Police efforts to recover the stolen vehicle are often futile if it is already in DRC.
“The larger part of eastern DRC is ungovernable and in some areas stolen vehicles are driven without number plates, which makes it had for them to be tracked,” the operative explains.
Altering engine and chassis numbers and no cooperation
However, not all stolen vehicles end up in neighbouring countries. Since the DRC and South Sudan roads are in a sorry states only powerful vehicles make it there.
The less powerful and old vehicles end up on the local market. But with the new tricks the vehicles thieves use, it has become harder for the police and the genuine vehicle owners to identify the vehicle. Kampala Metropolitan Police spokesman, Patrick Onyango, says criminals are well organised in that when they steal a car, they take it to the garage, paint it and also alter the engine and chassis number before giving it a different number plate. “It is very difficult to detect it as a stolen car because by the time they put it on the road, they have formalised everything. The car will appear to be in the rightful names of the owner,” Onyango says.
Kasingye says other than instabilities in the eastern DRC that makes it hard to recover stolen vehicles, failure to have cooperation with the DRC police or a regional bodies has increased the problems. “We are engaging DRC through regional police bodies so that the problem can be resolved. We have had representatives from DRC in our East African Police Chiefs Cooperation meetings, where deliberations on such issues have been made,” Kasingye says.
Use of wreckage documentation
Since the thieves are organised, they genuinely buy wreckages of vehicles that they target most. They also ensure that they have acquired number plates and documentation of the wreckage.
They change ownership of the car officially and even pay taxes.
Metropolitan Police spokesman, Patrick Onyango says they then track a vehicle of the same make with that of the wreckage and steal it.
They take it to the garage where they erase the original chassis and engine numbers, which they then replace with those of the wreckage they bought. They also spray it with a new colour and give it a number plate of the wreckage. It will look so different from the one the owner knows.
“After officialising the documents, they sell it to another person who will never know that it was stolen. The owner will also never identify it on the road. Police will also fail to detect it unless a major check is done,” he says.
According to police records, commuter taxis and sedans are mainly stolen in this manner since the number of wreckages of these vehicles are as high as those on the road.
Onyango says in one of the operations they carried out recently, 32 commuter taxis were found with altered chassis and engine numbers.
Police investigations found out that they had all been stolen and they were using documents of wreckages.
A similar operation code-named Usalama was carried out three years ago. The results were similar. Of the 103 motor vehicles recovered in the operation, 97 had altered chassis and engine numbers.
Used for spare parts
Given the fact that car thieves study their victims for a very long time, when the thieves get to know that their victims have put in all their efforts and resources to recover their vehicles, they will never put the car back on the road.
Onyango explains that the vehicle will be dismantled and parts sold to spare parts shops.
“Parts will be sent to places where it is unlikely that the owner of the vehicle will never travel or operate. For instance, if the vehicle is stolen in Kampala, the spare parts will be sold in Gulu Municipality,” he says.
With laws that allow second hand spare parts in the country, chances will be so slim that the vehicle will be recovered because motorists do not engrave every part of their vehicle since it is impractical.
Most of the dismantled vehicles are taken to neighbouring countries in form of spare parts. Most vehicles that targeted for spare parts are old models.
Their spare parts on the market are rare which makes them high on demand and expensive thus profitable for the thieves if they have stolen them.
Lack of detecting equipment and a data system
If detectives are to recover stolen vehicles, they have to rely on their eyes and hands after special operations. Police do not have equipment to detect stolen cars.
Often, the successful operations in which stolen vehicles can be detected depend on equipment brought in by International Police (Interpol).
This is usually done once in a year and most of the stolen vehicles that Interpol is interested in are those stolen from developed countries because they have unique gadgets that can be tracked.
In September 2014, criminals were able to steal Kenyan president’s official car in Nairobi, Kenya, and drive it to Kampala, Uganda, without being detected by both the security system and revenue officials.
There is no data system in place on which the police base on to know stolen vehicles. When a vehicle is stolen, the police officer will call police stations either at the last border points or at bridges to intercept the stolen cars. It is often difficult as many criminals use different number plates.
Lack of anti-automobile theft unit
Without a specific unit with dedicated personnel to deal with auto-mobile crimes, it has become difficult for police to have an internal policy or literature of how to deal with such offences.
“Most recoveries of stolen cars are an initiative of individual police officers who can go an extra mile to track suspects out of their jurisdiction,” an officer says.
“Theft of motor vehicles is a unique crime because you are dealing with an item that can be moved several miles in an hour in case it is discovered that you are on their case. So it requires special facilitation and transport means,” the officer says.
Most of this facilitation comes from victims other than the security agencies. A rich victim will likely make things moving faster than a poor one who will rely on the public to track their stolen vehicle after they have made announcements on the radio.
Install an alarm system in your car
Do not park your car in a secluded place
Do not park your car in one place for more than eight hours without checking on it.
If possible engrave all your car parts.
Always lock your car
Never leave your car keys with someone you do not know because they can make a copy.
Commonly stolen cars
Sedans, especially Toyota because they have a large market not only locally but across the East African Community
Commuter taxis because they can operate in most of the East African countries.
Cars whose manufacturer’s date is between 10 to 15 years but still in good working condition because these are mostly likely to be common on the local market and their spare parts on demand.
The other type of cars that are commonly stolen are the RAV4s and the Toyota Harrier. These two types of cars normally share keys as long as they are of the same model.