Machete gangsters go underground

Hundreds of militias in the gold mining sector who were responsible for waves of terror nationwide have significantly retreated after a recent police clampdown.

By Brenna Matendere

Hundreds of militias in the gold mining sector who were responsible for waves of terror nationwide have significantly retreated after a recent police clampdown.

The militias were notorious for brutal attacks on illegal mining rivals and innocent civilians using machetes, guns and home-made spears.

From early 2019, The Standard, in conjunction with Information for Development Trust, a non-profit making media organisation, carried out a series of investigative and follow-up stories that tracked the machete gangsters’ origins and modus operandi.

The stories outed top politicians who were sponsoring the gangsters, raising security red flags that finally forced the government to mount sting operations that, according to the police spokesperson, Paul Nyathi, led to the arrest of more than 6 000 militias at the time of going to print.

The machete gangsters became pronounced around 2003, manifesting as illegal mining rival groups in Kwekwe that were competing for rich gold pits at the Gaika mine and other gold-rich spots in and around the Midlands city.

Some powerful Zanu PF politicians then took advantage of the fights and backed the rival group that was known as Al-Shabab.

The group was given access to all the rich gold pits it wished and protection from arrest of its members, who assaulted or murdered anyone in a gold-rush.

Other groups then started emerging in similar style around the Midlands province such as Anaconda based in Kwekwe’s Amaveni suburb and Mashurugwi group, which originated at Wonderer mine in the Shurugwi mining town.

At first the Zanu PF politicians held sway over the groups and could even unleash them to torture political opponents ahead of elections.

Over time, the machete gangsters became more independent and by the time the police blitz began a few months ago, the militias were advancing into urban areas, robbing and raping residents.

Last year marked the peak of the militia violence as the gangsters were slowly upgrading to heavy guns banned for private use, in addition to the machetes, spears, knobkerries, catapults and other home-made weapons.

They had spread from the Midlands, President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s home province, to other regions like Mashonaland West, Mashonaland Central, Manicaland and Matabeleland where gold deposits are common.

State security inaction was largely blamed for the fast spread of machete violence, and since the police in early January sent out its troops to arrest illegal gold panners and known militias through an operation called Chikorokoza Chapera (Stop Illegal Mining), citizens are reporting a marked decrease in gang activities, with some saying they have completely gone under.

Nyathi told The Standard that a total of 6 356 machete criminals had been nabbed in the on-going operation.

“At last, we have brought sanity to troubled areas like Mashonaland Central, Mashonaland West, Manicaland and Midlands.

“In those areas, we used to have serious crimes such as murder, rape, robbery and kidnapping,” he said.

“Besides the arrests, we have also managed to arrest criminals who were long on our police wanted list for serious crimes.

“For instance, in Shurugwi, we arrested a criminal wanted for a case of murdering a headman and he also had four other attempted murder cases.”

Journalists in Kwekwe were under siege from the machete gangs and could not exercise their duties freely due to intimidation and abuses by the gangsters for reporting the violence.

But Zimbabwe Union of Journalists secretary-general Foster Dongozi said cases of intimidation had paled into insignificance.

“We, however, hope that the situation will remain like that and we will continue to monitor the situation in Kwekwe just in case media practitioners there wake up to a resurgence of the harassment and abuses by artisanal miners,” Dongozi said.

Settlement Chikwinya, the lawmaker for Mbizo and a repeated victim of the militias, concurred that there was now normalcy in areas where the machete gangsters had turned into warlords.

“It is unfortunate that the police took long to react,” Chikwinya said.

“Worryingly, they knew the perpetrators (of machete violence),” he said.

But the recession in violence has had a downside for some.

Daniel Mabonga, a Shurugwi businessman who spoke to The Standard, said the raids on illegal gold panners had drastically reduced the base of his clients.

“The so-called machete gangs were big money spenders. They could buy all the goods or liquor in a shop at once,” he said.

Anti-Corruption Trust of Southern Africa (ACT-SA) programmes officer Munyaradzi Bhidi urged police to involve communities in order to conclusively end machete wars.

“There is remarkable police visibility and the gangs have gone underground,” Bhidi said.

“While police intervention is commendable, their operation has no ‘community face’ as it is not inclusive enough to incorporate communities and other requisite stakeholders necessary in peace and conflict resolution.

“The mere fact that these gangs have gone underground does not mean that the problem has been solved.”