Inside the world of criminal gangs terrorising Nairobians

Police say different gangs have different tattoos with coded messages for identification of their members

In Summary

•Their main targets are Mpesa operators, hospitals, churches, mama mbogas and passengers while the daring ones go for the banks.


Youths during a confrontation with police in Kibra
CHARGED: Youths during a confrontation with police in Kibra
Image: FILE

Nairobi residents have raised concerns over the rising cases of insecurity, including the re-emergence of dreaded criminal gangs.

They prey on unsuspecting targets who are often terrorised and robbed.

The gangs are everywhere, from the central business district to slums in Kayole, Kibra, Dandora, Githurai, Mathare, Kamukunji and several other estates across the city.

Police sources say the gangs have specialised in bank robbery while others have taken over the matatu sector where they target commuters. Some only focus on general theft, including muggings and burglary.

Some have invaded business premises where they force traders to pay "protection fee", while those in the slums have taken over illegal water points where they charge a fee for residents to access the crucial commodity.

Others provide electricity to the slums from illegal connection points, commonly known as 'stima sambaza', while others take "construction levies" from those putting up new buildings within "their areas."

While police blame parents and guardians for not playing their role in bringing up the youth correctly, others say it is the greed for lavish lifestyles that lures youth into crime.

Muggings, breaking into people’s houses and peddling drugs among other criminal activities have become a way of life for many aged between 14 and 27.

Police say it is the situation of the ‘boy child’ going to any length to impress their girlfriends.

To access their targets' belongings faster, they use guns, knives, swords and other crude weapons.

Their main targets are Mpesa operators, hospitals, churches, mama mbogas and passengers while the daring ones go for the banks.

Their force and influence, especially in the slums, has left many residents traumatised.

Gambling, drug trafficking, labour racketeering and infiltration of legitimate business have all led to higher food prices, lower quality products, forced closure of businesses, establishment of monopolies, unemployment and ultimately - higher taxes.

Nairobi regional police commander Philip Ndolo says the gangs have their areas of operation and most times spy on the police before executing their operations.

Ndolo says the gangs mostly operate in dark routes while others waylay their targets in bus stations.

According to the police, the gangs have different tattoos with coded messages for identification. While some prefer dragon tattoos, others have teardrop markings and yet others make three cuts on their eyebrows.

Ndolo in an interview with the Star said there has not been a reduction in criminal gangs in the country. The gangs keep increasing every year, he says.

A report by the Crime Research Centre indicates that in 2012, there were 46 gangster groups across the country.

Out of these, 15 groups were based in Nairobi.

This included al Shabaab, Mungiki, Kamjeshi, Jeshi la Embakasi, Kenya Youth Alliance, Kamukunji boys, Munyipi, Taliban, Super power, Nubians, Siafu, Kamukunji Pressure Group, Yes We can and J-10.


Ndolo told the Star these groups at some point muted their operations following sting police operations before rebranding and multiplying.

“In 2016 the late Joseph Nkaissery, then Interior CS, released another report and by then, the groups had multiplied to 108 from 46. As we speak, we are aware the groups have further increased and intensified their activities,” Ndolo said.

"The numbers have not only increased in Nairobi but all over in the country. In Nairobi the number is almost the same but with different names.”

He said some gangs were focused on human and weapon trafficking while others were hired for violence, revenge and special executions.


These he said include Al Shabaab, Mungiki, Gaza, Githurai Mbunge, Vijana Finance, Chini ya Mnazi, Vision 2030, 42 brothers, Yakuza and Smarter.

Others are Santitit self help group, Twaweza self help group, Pirates self help group, Usalama youth group, Huruma pamoja, Tsunami, Apana tambua, Super power and Kabreeze.


The gangs' activities are often heightened towards the end of the month when people are believed to have cash.

The police say the gangs are behind many extrajudicial killings with the members said to be ruthless with no second thought about killing those who defy their orders.

A police source told the Star that criminal activities have evolved and the youth are always under pressure and in a hurry to execute their mission.

"In the olden days, it was very hard to hear someone has been killed as a result of a robbery. The perpetrators were experienced and knew they need the same target tomorrow,” the source said.

The source, who has a high rank within the police, said these days, the majority of those executing these missions are teenagers "whose masters are seated somewhere".

“These youth are under pressure to deliver, they don’t care how. They will use violence and kill if necessary.”

The source said police however only use the bullet as the last resort.


These boys and girls are our brothers and sisters, cousins and the likes. If we were to use the bullet as we are accused of, we would have no younger generation in this country
Police source

“Most of the time, we use alternative ways like reaching out to them and their parents. Where it has proved difficult we are left with no option but to restore order.”

According to the police, these youth are often caught up in the act and end up dying in an exchange of fire with officers.

In 2018, more than 30 suspected criminals, all youth, were killed by police, raising a public outcry from rights groups like the Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU).

This year, scores have been killed in Kayole, Dandora, Embakasi, Githurai and Mathare slum.

Nairobi County recorded the highest number of criminal cases reported to police in 2018 at 7,128. Police data indicates the largest number of these cases involved assault, general stealing and disturbance.

This, the police data said, can be attributed to the proliferation of illegal firearms and light weapons.

During the period under review, 192 firearms were recovered and 19 surrendered.

Most of the firearms recovered were in Nairobi, which recorded 121 recoveries followed by Narok (21) and Kiambu (12).


Police reports indicate these gangsters own some public service vehicles, control service routes, car washes and rental houses.

Others own motorcycles for business, retail exhibition shops, kiosks, video theatres, scrap metal and gambling machines.

According to the report, the majority of Nairobians are aware of the existence of an organised criminal gang in the area where they live or elsewhere.

While some know these gang groups by name, they are too afraid to mention their names for fear of reprisal.



The reports indicate that some residents feel the government is not doing enough to tame the criminal gangs.


Police reports show extortion from the public, theft and political funding remain their main sources of finance for activities of criminal gangs.


Illicit drug trafficking, counterfeiting, armed robbery, vehicle theft, kidnap for ransom, extortion, livestock theft, firearms smuggling were identified as the other sources of funds for organized criminal gangs. 


“Some businesspeople support and benefit from these organised criminal gangs in terms of protection. The gangs are more focused on crimes that do not require technological applications,” the report said.

We are no longer secure, we are becoming more restless by the day. Our brothers and sisters, our friends are being murdered every day by these youth, but police are just relaxing,” Mugambi a businessman in Dandora said.

He added, “Some of us have been forced to relocate several times for fear of losing our lives. Our businesses are not safe.”

Due to the violent nature of these gangs, some residents say they have been forced to carry their own weapons for self-defense. Due to trailing by the gangs, residents have been forced to change or review their travel patterns. Others no longer go to certain places they frequented before.




Police say idling occasioned by lack of employment after school remains a principal factor in the ease with which recruitment of new members is done.

This narrative is backed up by the Crime Research Centre which says poverty, unemployment, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the transition towards political democratisation, the speed of urbanisation and poor urban planning, design and management are to blame for the crime rate.


While those aged between 14 and 24 years are the main executors of the criminal plans, they have their 'masters', who are older.

The masters are aged between 25 and 28 years and their main work is to offer security and protection to members, facilitate oath-taking, extort, recruit and train, kidnap and hijack, drug traffic, collect illegal levies or taxes and punish traitors or those who offend them.

They also enforce rules of conduct, spy and negotiate deals with law enforcers.


Police also revealed that more women have been recruited into these gangs and their main role is to identify clients, spy on them, cook for the male members and provide sexual services.

Women also play a role in drug trafficking, raising a false alarm to create confusion when male members strike and victims raise the alarm.

They also act as agents, masquerade as prostitutes to identify potential targets, keep and transport stolen goods and carry chicken to dupe victims to open doors.

What is raising more concern within the security agencies is the rate at which children are being used by these gangs to execute their operations.

According to the police, children are used to open windows, doors, spy and are sneaked into closed houses through narrow entries to unlock or unbolt doors and windows.

The use of children in criminal activities is child abuse, hence it is an offence under the Children’s Act of 2001. Police say the elderly are not left behind either.



They perform the criminal task of providing tips to the younger members, conduct cleansing, spearhead negotiations, facilitate and administer oath to newly recruited members.

This cadre also facilitates training, provides "spiritual" support and guidance and counseling.  They play the key role of spying on police, selling drugs and are often the major stakeholders in dispute resolution.

In areas where Mungiki is dominant like Dandora, Kayole and Mathare police say they settle domestic disputes and even impose fines and corporal punishment.

“We are aware about this and don't just assume. The remedy is education to the public in all areas so that they can share what they know about the illegal gangs with the police,” Ndolo said.

Ndolo said the most dangerous areas or hot spots are bus stops in Eastlands, especially late at night. He however said sting operations and patrols have dealt with the cases.

“For now we cannot qualify the rise of these gangsters because we require to justify by showing the rise in numbers. But with the changing in names for them to continue operating is something of concern,” Ndolo said.


The report by the Crime Research Centre indicates corruption within the police force is majorly to blame for the escalation of criminal activities.

The report says many of these gangsters are good friends to the officers and bribe their way out. In some instances, the report accuses police of tipping off criminals of raids.

“There is lack of frequent police patrols in the hot spot areas and this has allowed these gangsters to easily move from one place to the other,” the report says.

Lack of cooperation from the police, delayed arrival on the scene of crime and fear of these gangsters by the police has played a major role in the inefficient arrests and prosecution,
National Crime Research Centre Report


The report also cited corruption in the Judiciary, alleging that some crooked employees help destroy evidence and give false information.

These gangs are said to get support from ethnic groups and that ethnic support is crucial for their survival in escaping police traps. 

This support by ethnic groups is either voluntary or involuntary depending on the circumstances.

Apart from concealing identity, these ethnic members conceal the identity of the gangsters, provide shelter and bail them out of court.

But sometimes these gangs find themselves in inter-group disagreements due to power struggles.

 Sources within the police say such internal conflict usually arises when the criminal activities become more lucrative and differences over sharing of the loot become an issue.

Such conflicts have been reported between Mungiki, Kamjeshi and Taliban over control of Matatu routes in Eastlands,” a senior officer within Eastlands said.

Most of the victims killed are business people, artisans, craftsmen, employees of private enterprises and government workers.

A gang member in Mathare told the Star that the high cost of living is what has forced them into crime.

Though he dismissed the killing claims, he said all they do is scare their targets before taking their valuables.


The only issue we have with the police is they kill us with no reason. We have lost our colleagues in a brutal way and this makes us even more aggressive.
Gang member


As a result the youth said each time one of them is killed, it increases the bitter rivalry with police.

Ndolo affirmed that Nairobians have no reason to worry because sting operations have been enhanced.

“There is no cause for Nairobians to worry. We have been dealing with the gangs on a daily basis and other than a few which are not in the matatu industry, they have been contained,” he said.

Ndolo said the police have dedicated teams in the known routes to deal with those extorting passengers, conductors and drivers.


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