Rhino horns stolen from police warehouse

Several of the 65 rhinoceros horns seized by the Mozambican police on 12 May during a raid on a house in the southern city of Matola have mysteriously disappeared from a police warehouse.

According to a report on publicly owned Mozambique Television (TVM), the horns were stolen on Friday morning. The initial report suggested that all 65 horns had gone, and this was neither confirmed nor denied by the police.

It was supposed to be impossible to break into the Matola warehouse, since it was locked with three padlocks and the keys were with three different police officers. Nonetheless the break-in occurred, and thieves made off with some of the rhino horns.

The initial seizure looked like a major coup for the police. In the raid on the house the police seized 340 elephant tusks, weighing 1,160 kilos, and 65 rhino horns, weighing 124 kilos. The criminal gang involved in this trafficking had thus killed 170 elephants and 65 rhinos.

The police arrested a Chinese citizen who seemed to be living alone in the house. Later in the day, a second Chinese national tried to secure the release of his compatriot by offering the police a bribe of 1.2 million meticais (about 34,700 US dollars). The bribe was rejected and the second Chinese was arrested on charges of attempting to bribe a police officer.

The street value of the ivory and the rhino horn is about 6.3 million US dollars. It is the rhino horns that account for the greater part of this, since the horn currently fetches around 60,000 dollars a kilo, making it much more valuable than gold or cocaine.

At the time, conservationists, fearing that the horns might be stolen, called for them to be incinerated. Prominent environmental activist Carlos Serra urged the authorities to burn the entire haul of ivory and rhino horns. “It should be destroyed”, he declared, “sending a message to the world that this country is really committed to this matter, and that we are shifting to another level of intervention in the fight against poaching and the illegal slaughter of these animals”.

Incineration would also avoid the risk that the ivory and the horns would fall into the wrong hands. If they were just left in warehouses, “the risk that they will be stolen is very high”, warned Serra.

Serra’s grim prophecy came true in less than a fortnight. The policemen supposedly guarding the warehouse thus undid all the good work of their colleagues who had seized the horns and the ivory.

Embarassed by this spectacular theft, the police and the Interior Ministry became tight-lipped, refusing to comment.

On Tuesday, Joaquim Bule, an advisor to Interior Minister Jaime Monteiro, found himself faced with reporters demanding answers about the disappearing rhino horns. This was not something Bule wished to talk about – he was briefing reporters on the government’s efforts to issue identity documents to Mozambican citizens living in Tanzania,

Cited in Wednesday’s issue of the independent newssheet “Mediafax”, Bule refused to answer. “We’re not dealing with this matter here”, he said. “If you want to know, go to the province (Maputo province, of which Matola is the capital)”.

When reporters insisted, Bule said it was inappropriate to raise the question in the offices of the Ministry of the Interior, since it was a matter for the General Command of the Police (even though the police take orders from the Ministry).

The question was rephrased, but the result was the same: “I have already said I am not dealing with this matter. Ask the people in the province. I am advisor to the Minister”.

“Mediafax” took Bule’s advice and contacted the spokesperson for the Maputo provincial police command, Emidio Mabunda. But he told the paper that the matter was no longer in the hands of the provincial command.

He said the case had been turned over to the Maputo provincial attorney’s office. It was now in the hands of public prosecutors.

But there is some light at the end of this tunnel. Shortly before it was closing Wednesday’s issue of the paper, the “Mediafax” staff received a mobile phone text message from Mabunda, announcing that a group of suspects in the theft of the rhino horns would be presented publicly on Wednesday morning.

“Mediafax” says it believes the suspects are a group of six policemen.

This scandal has coincided with a strong denunciation by President Filipe Nyusi of criminal behavior among the police. On Saturday, at a parade marking the 40th anniversary of the Mozambican police force, Nyusi declared “the news of policemen who join the ranks of the criminals, particularly when I am told that they have the necessary training so as not to commit the crimes they have embraced, deprives me of sleep”.

“When policemen are caught in the gangs trafficking in rhinoceros horns, elephant tusks, and various drugs, or facilitate these same crimes, I am unable to sleep”, he said.

Post published in: Africa News

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