In towns scattered along Zimbabwe’s gold belts, the fear of violence has loomed large recently. Over the past three years – and particularly in the last few months – there have been media reports of children being killed, women raped and men maimed in attacks by gangs.
This violence has largely been attributed to criminal groups that occupy abandoned gold mining sites such as Mukaradzi and Msasa in Mashonaland Central Province or once lucrative mines like Shamva, Ren and Jumbo.
These gangs have been particularly active recently, having first moved in to these areas after foreign multinationals departed. They use picks and chisels to extract the precious metal, while also engaging in other often violent criminal activity.
These groups have a long history. One of the earliest incarnations of these gangs arose in the town of Shurugwi where groups of criminals on the run from the police sought refuge in the late 1980s.
An empty mine provided a safe haven for these men due to its inaccessibility and difficult terrain. The gangs mined gold illegally and engaged in violence locally often using machetes.
The members became known as the Mashurugwi, which became the umbrella term to refer to all the gold mining gangs that emerged elsewhere in Zimbabwe.
These groups of Mashurugwi soon became part of the country’s political and economic landscape too. Powerful businesspeople and politicians employed these gangs in a bid to control mining areas and the illegal gold trade, while protecting the groups’ members from arrest. Ruling politicians also sometimes deployed Mashurugwi around elections to intimidate and attack opposition supporters.
Gold mining gangs have been a feature in Zimbabwe for decades. It is only recently, however, that they have caught national attention. In the last three years, the Mashurugwi have become bolder and more active.
To begin with, the gangs have expanded in size and number. Typically the preserve of men, the gangs have grown to include women and are thousands strong. New recruits appear attracted by glamour and power as well as impunity and the relatively scarce opportunity for employment.
At the same time, the gangs have been engaging in more violent activities. Where once violence was restricted to rival gangs, it is now targeted at civilians. There have been several recent reports of rape and assault by suspected Mashurugwi, while some machete-wielding groups have even imposed curfews in towns such as Mazowe and Shamva and the suburbs of Chitungwiza and Gweru.
Some gangs have started attacking security personnel. In July 2019, Mashurugwi killed three soldiers and injured several more in Bindura. They have raided police stations to free arrested members and recently murdered a police officer.
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