Living The Reality of Cargo Transportation in South Africa

Recently, I decided to leave my MD desk and get on the road and engage with normal operations as I often do. One of my trucks was underway to a delivery and I followed on the freeway. This is the story of that chance encounter.
Barely leaving the collection point we identify a ‘scout vehicle’ of the ‘enemy’ following one kilometer behind our truck on the freeway. At first the vehicle seemed to be just another vehicle on the freeway, but having tinted windows and two occupants sitting down low and following our vehicle constantly from the same distance, and other manoeuvres we observed made it suspicious, but only to the trained and experienced eye.

A few kilometers later the vehicle again makes manoeuvres suspect to the trained eye and we realise our truck was about to be hijacked.

I realised that staying calm is now my best companion and the contingency plan for such an event is now going to be tested to the extreme, but we still hope that it is not going to happen. Five kilometers later the truck is surrounded by seven to nine vehicles and the scout vehicle stays some 200 meters behind the attack point and does not form part of the attacking teams. The attacking vehicles each has at least two armed attackers inside and two vehicles look and sound very close to Metro Police vehicles – also having two-way radios on board.

Swift and dangerous

Both our drivers are swiftly removed at gunpoint from the truck into a luxury 4×4 and two new drivers take charge speeding away with our now hijacked truck. My mind is racing almost out of control, but I force myself to stay as calm as possible.

While this is happening, armed reaction teams and air support are activated and around 20 km later with all reaction teams closing in the hijackers activate signal jamming and the truck comes to a standstill.

All the while I was following the truck and also the hijackers in their vehicles. Unfortunately, as we were hoping to actually arrest some of these criminals, after struggling for a few minutes to tow the truck away, they leave the truck behind and we have a full recovery with a damaged cabin and no lives lost.

The gang held our drivers prisoner for some time, asking them some questions, boast about their capabilities and other hijackings they successfully conducted in the past. They also make it very clear they will come back for our truck at a later opportunity and then eventually let them go.

Wash, rinse, repeat

The same type scenario plays out three weeks later as our truck is hijacked with a much larger show of force and with many shots fired from semi-automatic guns and some innocent motorists who were perceived to be armed escorts shot at. I am very close to the action again this time and shots go past my vehicle at very close range.

The truck is taken again and our hijacking contingency plan kicks in and after about 30 minutes the truck is recovered and some suspects arrested with AK47s and a vehicle used to participate in the hijacking. Most of the gang, however, get away to plan their next attack.

After the shock

After the shock, chaos, unbelief, anger and re-planning, I was confronted with the questions:

What have we learned from these first-hand hijacking experiences?

Is my thinking now different on risk management procedures?

What would we do differently now and why?

The following was clear:

The attack will happen, accept this fact. If your cargo is on order it will be attacked. It’s how you deal with it after the attack that counts.

The first to be attacked will always be the armed escort teams because this will minimize the threat to the hijackers.

The attackers outnumber the security measures easily and it is mostly a non-contest.

Technology and devices are a definite aid and contribute greatly to managing the attack.

The contingency plan is never a precise plan as the situation is different from one attack to the next.

Preparing for an attack is important, but you will never have an attack taking place exactly as you anticipated it. The best way to describe it is, you do not have the advantage during an attack and it is a war situation. The hijackers do not ask for the cargo they often shoot first and then only are you aware of their presence (unless you have trained staff and experienced observers identifying the enemy during operations).

Staff do notice suspect vehicles, but mostly they would feel they are over-exaggerating by reporting this.

Staff do see suspect behavior of people around the loading situation, but also feel that reporting this is over-exaggerating.

No training can ever replace first-hand hijacking situations and, should you be alive after the attack, then you know to look out for suspicious people and vehicles. Our brains are just tuned that way. We rather ignore a situation if our life has never been in danger.

After the attacks, my teams averted two hijacking attempts by early identification of scout vehicles, which they previously would have ignored.

The syndicates use scouts on foot close to the loading zones – such as OR Tambo International Airport Cargo Sectors – but also scout vehicles to identify the security details around the cargo move.

Clients’ staff are not immune to getting involved with syndicates stealing or hijacking cargo.

Debriefing of staff after attacks helped immeasurably to change risk planning around cargo movement.

Armed escort vehicles are not to follow trucks in an open fashion as this is an advertisement to syndicates and means nothing if the poor guys are shot and killed. Armed escorts are now trained to blend into the environment and communicate effectively in a way that ensures safety and effective security management should an attack take place. This gives us a psychological advantage over the hijackers as they would not know where to find the security detail, nor what to expect.

This way of using armed escorts is the future and must be combined with experience, on the job training and ongoing management as each cargo movement situation can differ based on traffic congestion, insider collusion, type of vehicle used to transport the load, route and many other factors. There is no handbook to escort properly, but there are experienced individuals and we all must use common sense. An escort can no longer be a trailer behind the truck.

Once the truck is hijacked, the hijackers get extremely nervous and can fight among each other. They are now the target.

Not all SAPS members are corrupt as the general feeling might often be. There are very good police officers out there wanting to catch and investigate the syndicates.

No amount of training prepares you for the specifics of a hijacking attack. Training can teach you how to react, stay focused and deal with matters inside of your control. Matters outside of your control means you are powerless to those, but focusing on those you can control is the key to an effective risk management protocol for cargo hijackings. We are not helpless in these attacks.

I trust this article may in some way help the companies and individuals out there putting their lives on the line so that you and I can use a cellphone, type emails on our laptops and eat that nice steak.

For more information, contact us today.

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