Drugs, murder, muggings, women, booze…and lots of cash is what continues to draw young men into Lesotho’s most feared gang that has even forced the authorities to deploy the army in Maputsoe to protect petrified residents
At first sight, the industrial town of Maputsoe in Leribe district looks rather attractive and very peaceful.
Situated on the banks of the Caledon River, Maputsoe has an unusual serenity and affluence that attracts many young people from all over Lesotho who end up working in the textile factories that dot the landscape of the town.
Yet despite its peaceful outlook, Maputsoe can be a deadly place for both local residents and visitors; it is a land where the rule of law is almost non-existent. Locals will tell you that walking on the streets of Maputsoe can be as dangerous as choosing to stay indoors —such is the fear that has become a way of life for the residents.
And leading this terror is a marauding and ruthless gang which goes by the collective name of Tycoons. In fact, this town has earned itself an infamous nickname, Maputsoe Ha bo MaTycoon, which means Maputsoe, land of the Tycoons.
In real English, a Tycoon refers to a very wealthy and powerful businessperson, but in Maputsoe, the word has a completely different and ominous meaning.
To get into the actual world of this terror group, the Sunday Express managed to arrange an interview with a retired member of the group, who gave a chilling account of what transpires inside the gang.
This ex-Tycoon from Ha Moholisa in Maputsoe explained how and why one becomes a Tycoon.
“A Tycoon here is that boy who was born and bred in Maputsoe. It is the sort of guy you meet on the streets every day but has to hustle in order to survive. The Tycoons are usually from very poor families, and some of them are orphans with nobody to take care of them.
“These guys don’t really believe they are criminals but simply ordinary people trying to make ends meet.”
The word Tycoon, he added, came about because gang-members make a lot of money and end up living a fast and flamboyant life.
“In our time, we made money by robbing people at night in the bars, and sometimes in the streets. The Tycoons almost always work during the night; under the cover of darkness.”
Gang-members, he added, are “very smart people. During the day, you will see them as well-dressed and decent young men having fun, just like everyone else in the village, but when night falls, they turn into monsters who will do anything to make money.”
He indicated that many young boys in the townships around Maputsoe are drawn into this way of life by poverty. “Most of them, like I said, come from very poor families. They are driven to do these things as a way of escaping poverty.”
Making an example of himself, he says he had to go into the Tycoon world because he wanted to find money to pay his school-fees and buy textbooks.
“My parents were unemployed and were struggling to send me to school. The only option left for me was to join the Tycoons and rob people. However, the disappointing thing is that although I would make a lot of money robbing people, I still failed to pay my fees because we would spend all the money on beer and fashionable clothing.”
He however, noted some young people do not join the Tycoons because they are poor.
“These days, most of them are joining due to peer-pressure because their friends are already in. They do it so that they can fit in with their friends, and also feel safe.”
Asked how the gang operates, he said: “They operate throughout the town, and usually work in groups of five to 15. The members are always armed, be it with guns or knives or anything that can frighten the victims.
“In our time, we would, for instance, plant ourselves inside a bar and observe the innocent patrons as they came in. We looked out for individuals who had money and once we identified such a person, we used every trick to get him out of the bar, rob him and simply walk into the darkness.
“On a good night, we would collect as much as M4 000 or even more. What I can tell you is the next morning, that money would all be gone! We would divide the cash among the 10 or 15 of us and just spend it all on beer and women. It was a vicious cycle that repeated itself time and again.”
The Tycoons, he added, are divided into two distinct groups — those who operate in the townships and villages around Maputsoe, and those who work by the Mohokare River.
“The guys who work the river target people who cross illegally into and from South Africa. The illegal migrants get robbed and sometimes killed when they attempt to cross the river.
“The river bank is a territory that belongs exclusively to the Tycoons; no-one can cross the river unless they are allowed passage by those boys. You have got to pay as much as M150 in order to be allowed to cross the river, and those who refuse are robbed of their clothes and money or any valuable goods they may have with them.”
But the life of a Tycoon, he said, is not all about money, clothes, beer and women.
“It also involves a lot of drugs such as dagga and cocaine. Many people in this town are not even aware that there is a lot of drug-selling on the streets and in the townships here, but I can tell you that a lot of drugs are being sold in this town by the Tycoons.
“The drugs are normally sourced from Ficksburg which is just across the river in South Africa. Although I have now left the Tycoons, I am very much aware that the younger boys that have joined the movement are now using the popular drug Nyaope.”
Nyaope is a popular drug used by young people in South Africa, and it is a cocktail of heroine and antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). The powdery drug is normally mixed with dagga and then smoked.
According to the ex-Tycoon, this is one form of drug that is becoming very popular among the upcoming Tycoons in Maputsoe today.
He however, warned the life of a Tycoon is not as easy and enjoyable as it might appear.
“It’s a dangerous and very lonely life. When you are a Tycoon, you’re always on the run. You live in constant fear of being caught by the police. You are not entirely free as a person, and death is a common threat to all of you. Many who were my friends in the Tycoon world are now dead, while many more are paralysed and on wheelchairs after being shot in the line of duty. I feel lucky to be alive. When you are a Tycoon, you are just too close to death,” he said, momentarily covering his eyes with his hands in anguish.
He continued: “Tycoons can die during the frequent gunfights that break out with the police, while others are killed in the fights that sometimes occur within the groups themselves.”
He, however, said among the two groups of Tycoons, the one that operates by the river is the most dangerous.
“They live in the forest on the banks of the Mohakare River; they are the loneliest people you can ever come across. When you are down by the river, you don’t come out. Day and night, you are on the lookout for your next victim. You never have time to relax or mingle with other people. I was once by the river, so I know how lonely it can be down there.”
It was this loneliness that forced him to leave the Tycoons.
“I couldn’t handle it anymore. I felt stuck; there was no progress in my life. All I did was rob people and waste the money on beer and women. There was nothing to show for what I was doing.”
The Officer Commanding Leribe Police, Senior Superintendent Molahlehi Letsoepa, said the Tycoons have been a major headache for the police for years.
“Between 2002 and 2005, the Tycoons were a major problem in this town, but we have since been able to contain them. Working closely with communities around the town, we have been able to reduce criminal activities committed by the Tycoons.”
According to Letsoepa, the formation of community policing associations in Maputsoe had proved to be the most useful remedy. He added the police go out on regular patrols around the streets of the town, especially during the night.
He also said the recent deployment of members of the Lesotho Defence Force and Police Special Operations Unit, were some of the initiatives aimed at ridding Maputsoe of the Tycoons.
“Once the police are visible on the streets, the Tycoons disappear into thin air. Our visibility on the streets has also been useful in containing them. We are proud to say we have actually managed to stamp them out,” Letsoepa said.
Letsoepa said while the Tycoons were known for robbing people of their money, cell-phones and expensive jewellery, they also break into people’s homes just to steal food.
“They were also known for stealing from unsuspecting migrants crossing into Lesotho from South Africa. These criminals would plant themselves along the Maputsoe Bridge and snatch wallets and bags from unsuspecting people. But we now have regular patrols along the bridge, and things are back to normal. ”
Letsoepa said the challenge that is still faced by the police in Maputsoe is the constant cross-border that occurs between Maputsoe and Ficksburg.
“Some people commit crime in Lesotho and cross over into South Africa where they hide.”
But although the police claim they have stamped out the Tycoons, there are still reports of their activities emerging out of Maputsoe.
One recent victim of the Tycoons, Mr Tsotetsi Lebaka of Ha Motlalehi, said the gang is still terrorising the town and its environs.
“Those boys are very young but dangerous. They walk in the night with knives and guns. Two weeks ago, I was forced to hand over my very expensive phone. I had stopped to have a drink at a local bar, and at about 8pm, I decided to walk home. I cannot even say where they came from because suddenly, they were all over me, almost six of them. I was talking on my mobile phone and they simply ordered me to hand it over and all the money I had.
“Because I know how dangerous they are, I obeyed. They took all they wanted and told me to walk away. I am glad I survived that incident.”
The ex-Tycoon interviewed by the Sunday Express insisted anybody who believes the Tycoons can be destroyed is fooling himself.
“This thing is a way of life, nobody will stop it. I am out of it now but there are young boys who are coming up. Their methods are even more dangerous than the ones we used. The bottom line is you cannot stop a way of life.”
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