Attacks on vans transporting cash in South Africa have increased, with thieves using automatic rifles and explosives. It is believed crime syndicates are behind the attacks, which result in chaotic scenes and civilians often left running for cover.
The attacks often take place in daylight, resulting in many eyewitnesses filming the incidents and posting the footage on social media. This has caused concern among a public already grappling with high rates of violent crime.
The authorities have boosted intelligence work and increased other efforts to tackle the heavily armed gangs whose members appear to have specific roles: shooter, lookout, driver.
"It's almost like everyone's got a skill of his own," said Yusuf Abramjee, a South African anti-crime activist. "These people strike with military precision."
They might be getting help from rogue police officers, and local media have reported the use of stolen military weapons in some heists.
There have been 75 attacks on vehicles carrying cash this year, compared to 31 in the same period in 2017, said Kalyani Pillay, CEO of the South African Banking Risk Information Centre (SABRIC). Just under 40% of the attacks were thwarted. Two civilians, one police officer, five guards and nine suspects were killed in this year's robberies. Another 93 people have been injured, said Pillay.
Pillay believes the thieves carrying out such heists have stolen 63% more money this year than in the same period in 2017. She declined to say how much, though the amount is estimated to be at least several million dollars.
Unions representing workers involved in the transport of cash held protests in major cities in June for more protection on the job. "Stop bombing our cash vans," read one sign at a march in Cape Town.
A parliamentary committee held a hearing on the attacks.
Meanwhile, the rate of attacks on security guards transporting cash on foot has dropped.
That suggests criminal syndicates are going after more vehicles on the road because they are likely to yield more loot — and that the thieves think they can get away with it, partly due to heavy firepower. Security experts say police, whose response was sometimes lacklustre in the past, are now more proactive.
Criminal methods have varied over the years. In 1997, thieves in Bronkhorstspruit dragged a spiked chain across a highway to block a security van and killed two guards. The hit was reminiscent of a scene in the 1995 movie "Heat" in which a gang used a spike strip to thwart the police pursuit after robbing an armoured car.
Today, heist teams in South Africa can consist of up to 10 to 15 people who blow open armour-plated security vehicles. They use commercial explosives, possibly siphoned off from the mining industry. The teams seem comfortable to make their move in crowded areas.
Video of an attack on security vans in May in Boksburg, near Johannesburg, shows a man with a rifle, possibly a lookout, kneeling at an intersection. An explosion is heard and gunfire breaks out.
Several motorists can be seen making hurried U-turns to escape the scene.
Separate video of the same attack, filmed from a car showroom at the same intersection, shows smoke rising after an explosion. Three blasts are heard.
"Oh my God! Look how many of them are coming out," a woman says as suspects emerge from a car.
A third video of the aftermath shows a badly damaged security van and banknotes strewn over the road.
In raids last week, police arrested a female police officer who had allegedly stored weapons used in the Boksburg heist, as well as her 32-year-old boyfriend. Nearly two dozen people were arrested.
According to AP, gangs involved in such heists include people from neighbouring countries, including Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
Police Minister Bheki Cele has said more must be done to stop related "feeder crimes", including carjacking, illegal gun sales and police corruption. Cash heists were down sharply in June when compared to May, a sign of improved policing, he said.
Security companies, meanwhile, can do more with technology including dye that stains money if there is a robbery. Another option is to use a foam that automatically covers the cash in a vehicle's vault and makes it impossible to remove, according to Abramjee, the anti-crime activist.
About 200 people are believed to be spearheading the attacks in South Africa, one security company said in response to questions from AP. There have been 27 attacks on Fidelity Security Group vans this year and just under half were "successfully defended," it said. Four employees were killed and 55 were injured.
The company said it has spent millions of dollars to upgrade vehicles, increase training and other measures against the threat.
"Unfortunately, as we introduce more measures on land and in the air, the modus operandi of criminals also evolves," Fidelity said.