An SUV drives through the streets of Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Urban four-wheel drive vehicles are often preferred in Africa due to the condition of the roads. Image Credit: AFP

Abidjan: If luxury cars have become a more common sight on African roads, that is in part due to it becoming a prime destination for cars lifted off European streets.

Africa, along with Russia, is believed by Interpol to be the top destination for the quarter of a million unrecovered stolen vehicles in Europe in the past five years.

According to Sebastian Schmucker, in charge of combatting the trafficking of stolen vehicles at the international police agency, cars stolen in northern Europe usually end up in Russia, while those in southern Europe are shipped to Africa.

Right-hand drive cars stolen from Britain often end up in South Africa, where driving is also on the left.

“Isolated thefts just because a car is beautiful don’t exist anymore,” Schmucker said. “The trafficking of stolen cars is part of organised crime, of drugs, weapons and even terrorism, which it finances. It is relatively simple and the risk is low,” he added.

If the number of cars stolen has recently dipped, their value has increased.

High-end vehicles

Thieves are targeting high-end vehicles. SUVs — urban four-wheel drive vehicles — are “prefered in Africa due to the condition of the roads”, Schmucker said.

In Abidjan, a source familiar with the market for stolen cars said buyers place an order with an importer for a car, even requesting the colour of the seats.

The importer “calls his team, who pore over classified ads in France”.

Once they have found the proper vehicle, they turn up to the seller and buy the vehicle.

“In fact they pay... but with false bank cheques. When the next day, owners see their accounts credited with several tens of thousands of euros, the next day they sign over their cars,” the source said.

By the time the banks realise cheques have been falsified, the vehicles are already out of the country.

Upon their arrival in Abidjan, the cars are registered and the new owner thinks he has got a good deal on a used car.

“They don’t know where they’ve come from,” the source said.

The source said French authorities have been investigating the head of the gang, which is believed to be behind around 400 thefts, but the protection he receives in Abidjan as a result of his believed links to the regime means they have been unable to arrest him.

According to Interpol, 160 stolen cars have been recovered in Africa since 2009.

In 2012 in Germany alone, some 18,500 vehicles worth €250 million (Dh1.3 billion) were stolen, according to Interpol data.