The con games: How ‘pata potea’ cartels swindle Kenyans

NATIONAL |

Pata Potea gamblers operating opposite St Peter Claver's Catholic Church in Nairobi.

Outside Muthurwa Market, shrieks from a young woman draw the attention of passers-by. Some laugh. Others murmur. No one asks what has happened.

“Mumeniibia pesa zangu kwa nini? Nimeibiwa! Nimeibiwa! (Why have you stolen my money? I’ve been robbed! I’ve been robbed!),” she screams.

The young woman is Elizabeth Mwikali, 23. She had just lost Sh5,500 to gamblers operating near Muthurwa Market in downtown Nairobi when The Standard met her.

“They dropped a pen in front of me and asked me to pick it,” she said. “They then gave me Sh200, saying it was back-to-school season and they were giving out money to people on the street. I thanked them but as I turned to leave, they grabbed my bag and took my money from it.”

No one dared to help Mwikali for fear that they would be assaulted by the same fraudsters who preyed on her.

We have been on the trail of this syndicate for nine months, looking to unmask those behind the con games – commonly known as ‘pata potea’ – that dupes people either into gambling or outrightly defrauding them.

The fraudsters prey on people’s desperation, their greed and their love for easy money. In many cases, reporting them to law enforcers is a waste of time. Impunity reigns.

We waited for Mwikali, a single mother, to leave the scene and escorted her to the Kamukunji Police Station, which is less than 300 metres from the fraudsters’ booth, so she could file a complaint.

We were sent to Office Number 6, where we met three officers. Mwikali narrated her ordeal: “I’m a maid working in Mwiki, Kasarani, but the men (fraudsters) took my entire salary meant for my child’s school fees. I was supposed to travel to Kitui today and take my son to school.” 

One officer interrupted: “Aliibiwa wapi? (where was she mugged)?”

“Outside Muthurwa market,” Mwikali answered. 

The officer took out his phone and made a call. He described what Mwikali was wearing, nodded and hang up. We were told to wait outside. Fifteen minutes later, two middle-aged men dressed in jeans and jackets entered the office. They were there for 15 minutes. We were called back in to meet with the officers, who said they had good news: the loot had been returned.

One of them reached into his pocket, removed some money and counted Sh3,400, which he gave Mwikali. He then asked her to give him something for the good job he had accomplished, but one of his colleagues dissuaded him.

Mwikali is one of the lucky ones.

To investigate how the ‘pata potea’ con game is played, we went undercover to a Racecourse Road-based gambling booth. We quickly realised that apart from a colleague and I, the rest of the crowd had actors intended to make us believe the game is real.

We were each given Sh1,000 to lure us in. We were to pick out a marked disk from a pile of three. No one told us what the consequences would be if we failed to locate the marked disk. And we did not find out as I picked the right disk. I was then told to place any amount of money I had in my pocket to win Sh30,000.

The fraudsters began roughly feeling my pocket for a wallet. Playing was no longer voluntary. They took out Sh500 and told me to play again.

Once more, I picked the right one. But it was no longer by luck, but by design.

Eventually, I ‘won’ Sh60,000, but was required to show Sh30,000 in cash or send via M-Pesa to walk away with the winnings.

Helping people

I was asked to speak to a woman who would advise me on financial matters; I was also introduced to another man (an actor) who had allegedly won a similar amount.

“You see, we are licensed and kanjo (county askaris) are just passing us. We are just helping people,” the woman told me as she tried to convince me to call my friends and family to raise the Sh30,000.

After a lot of convincing, she allowed me to make a call some distance away from the booth, which was how I made my escape. I lost Sh500.

Elizabeth Koki, a 20-year-old student at Mwangaza University College, was another victim. She had just come from Kitui when she was swindled out of Sh1,500.

Koki was carrying a sack full of food rations to take her through the semester at campus when the ‘pata potea’ team asked her to pick a pen that had been dropped on the pavement. She obliged. They then told her she had won Sh1,000, but to get the money, she would need to show them at least Sh5,000.

“I only had Sh1,500 in M-Pesa. They told me to send them the money and play a round of ‘pata potea’ so I could walk away with an extra Sh1,000,” she said.

But there are no set rules, except that the house always wins. These fraudsters will steal from unsuspecting players. Any winners announced are one of their own.

When Koki was identified as the mark, she was paired with a woman who acted like she was winning. Her role was to make the victim comfortable and confident that any prizes would be paid out. Koki was convinced. But when she asked for her winnings, she was chased away; they called her unprintable names and made a scene.

“After stealing the only money I had, they gave me Sh150 to take me to the hostels,” Koki said.

We took the victim once again to the Kamukunji Police Station. This time, we found two plainclothes police officers who listened to our complaint and called a person they referred to as ‘Blacky’, but it was apparently the wrong man.

The officer asked Koki where she lost the money and when she said Muthurwa, the officer shouted, telling her: “You should have told me that before. Now, you’ve made me call the boss. Let’s go to the scene of the incident.”

Threat to shoot

We followed the police to the same booth where Mwikali had been conned. The officers called the same people we met at the police station before and told one of them to refund the money they had stolen from Koki, saying they had gone overboard.

The cash was returned in full, but the man making the refund remembered my face and threatened: “Next time I see you, I will shoot you in the head.”

When I asked him why, he told me, “You know what you are doing.”

The police officers did not seem bothered by the threat.

Roderick Ngonyuku is another victim. He is a student and online shoe seller. He was going about deliveries when he met the gamblers.

“They politely asked me to pick a dropped gambling stick and I lost Sh950. The shoe business doesn’t bring much profit, yet the little I earned was stolen. It is annoying and I can’t forgive them. This pain is why people lynch thieves,” he said.

On December 4, 2019, a mob lynched two gamblers suspected to have conned a woman of Sh40,000 in downtown Nairobi. Margaret Kimunto, a businesswoman, raised the alarm after the con artists told her that she had lost her bet.

An irate mob saved the woman from assault after she demanded her money back and they killed the two suspected gamblers.

A woman cries after she was conned Sh1,500.

“People say these gamblers use witchcraft. Which witchcraft? Those people are using the government to steal from innocent people,” one of the people was captured on camera saying.

The Standard has since learnt that this web of racketeers who blatantly fleece Kenyans involve senior officials in the Ministry of Interior and Coordination and the Nairobi City County Government. 

“The money is distributed to so many places, and to people from the top to the bottom. Even if they (victims) complain, they take us nowhere. Sometimes, when someone tries to bring chaos, he or she will be beaten up. The police may be there, but will watch and do nothing. Sometimes, victims run to traffic police officers, but they will say their work is to deal with traffic,” an insider told The Standard.

In the course of our investigations, we took pictures of police officers in plainclothes and uniform moving from one ‘pata potea’ gambling booth to another collecting kickbacks.

It raised the question: If the business is legitimate, why do police officers flock to the gambling booths so much? Why do the operators need protection, and from whom?

We identified some people who appear to be team leaders. The ‘pata potea’ booth outside St Clavers Primary School along Racecourse Road, for instance, is under the command of a man identified as ‘Blacky’.

We captured footage of the man dishing out money to police officers and county askaris between 9am and 1pm every day. We also witnessed ‘Blacky’ chasing away officers, saying he had already given out enough money.

“In this case, we need your help as media. What is quite hard in the cases of corruption and bribery is when you want to present somebody in court. The complainants don’t come out and testify in court, but where we have enough evidence, we have a good number of our officers in court,” said Nairobi Regional Police Commander Augustine Nthumbi when we contacted him about what we had witnessed during our investigation.

St Claver’s Catholic Parish’s Nairobi management has written several time to the Kamukunji and Central police stations, complaining about the violence and chaos surrounding the gambling business outside the school compound.

The reply from Kamukunji, in a letter seen by The Saturday Standard, indicates that the business has the backing of the law, and there is nothing that can be done about it.

“Upon summoning the leader of the gambling team, we established that they have been licensed by the Nairobi City County ….”, the letter dated May 25, 2021, reads.

Pays out bribes

Another man at the helm of the business is ‘Vaite’. Clad in jeans, T-shirts and bling, he commands the Ronald Ngala Street-based pata potea booth.

He monitors the business and deals with threats. ‘Vaite’ pays out bribes openly to police officers who pass by every 30 minutes.

‘City Dweller’ or CD, is the head of the con game. He has been in the business for more than 30 years, sources told us. He operates from an in downtown and is equally respected and feared by the police. He monitors business through various proxies.

‘Murage’ is another big fish with experience in the business. Like ‘CD’ he doesn’t appear at gambling booths, but has representatives all over downtown. No one gets into the ‘pata potea’ trade without his consent.

‘Njoroge’ and ‘Blingbling’ are other individuals mentioned as team leaders.

The police and their colleagues know them by these pseudonyms.

“We are aware of how they operate and their vices, but our hands are tied. Even if the police officers arrest them on the streets, a call from above will exonerate them in minutes. The leaders of the ‘pata potea’ business can bail anyone out through any means. They can make you get transferred from Nairobi,” a source within National Police Service told us.

This has led to the public lacking confidence in the police’s ability to serve them. Most wait for justice from God.

The gamblers work on a daily target of Sh100,000 from the five booths in the city centre, fetching a cool Sh500,000.

Find out more on this story tonight on KTN News at 7pm and 9pm.

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