To some they are the “Mr Fix it” who have solutions to all problems including land disputes, hit-men for hire, relationship squabbles, restoring order in the transport sector and the hawking business, among others.
Politicians consider them a vital resource who play a crucial role in helping them to seamlessly implement their underhand dealings, especially during political seasons.
Others, however, view them as the face of terror and impunity in Kisumu that continues to be a major nuisance in their daily operations since the 1990’s when the infamous Baghdad Boys wreaked havoc.
Over the years, the criminal gangs have evolved, become more organised, crafted new alliances with the who-is-who in the region’s political sphere and gained notoriety as a group that is above the law.
Residents complain that security agencies are doing little to flush them out of the city as organized crime soars in the lakeside city and new, vicious gangs emerge.
The gangs extort, threaten, maim and kill whenever it suits them. A number of victims and families that have fallen into their hands are yet to recover from the trauma they underwent at the hands of the gangs.
They extort cash from businesses, control markets and are hired to do dirty jobs for certain influential individuals in the city.
City of gangs
The infamous gangs in the city include American Marines, China squad and Otek group which thrive and appear to have blessings from influential leaders.
Another gang dubbed 42 brothers that was more brutal and walked around slashing their victims was tackled by security agencies, but there are fears it is reemerging in the form of teenage gangs in Kisumu’s slums.
Members of the gangs are well-built men, most of whom spend their time in the gym to strengthen their protruding biceps. They love the bottle and are needlessly confrontational.
On a number of occasions, fights between the gangs have erupted over control of territory, leading to loss of lives and injuries. In some cases, they have been engaged by MCAs whenever there is political tension at the County Assembly.
Investigations by the Nairobian have established how the gangs thrive despite complaints from wananchi.
Some businesspeople, however, claim the gangs have been helpful in helping them find spaces where they can sell their wares with minimal interference from county officials.
American Marines for instance controls a number of businesses at the bus park and dictates pickup points for commuters at the Kisumu Bus Park. They also have a say on who can introduce a matatu at the Kisumu Bus Park.
Here, even if your matatu has all the requirements to operate in the roads, you must part with at least Sh5,000 to gain entry and also pay an additional Sh100 daily for “security”.
Police watch helplessly
So powerful is the gang that an attempt by the county government to move the stage from the CBD to Nyamasaria last year was met by chaos and violence. Members of the gang marched to the new bus park as police officers watched and forced all vehicles to leave.
Francis Ouko, a driver on one of the routes to South Nyanza, claimed the group has restored order at the bus park but admits their presence points at a gap in within government.
He claimed the group advocates for their rights and works closely with the matatu saccos to ensure there is order.
“The matatu sector is always chaotic but the Marines have been helping to restore order. People fear them and that is why vehicles maintain lane discipline and do not park as they wish,” said Ouko.
When the Nairobian visited the bus park, members of the gang were busy directing Tuk Tuks and Matatus along the Kisumu-Nairobi road.
Dressed in an informal jungle trousers and brown boots, the group are armed with long sticks. Very few vehicles dare to flout traffic rules in their presence.
Maurice Ouko (not his real name), a tuk tuk operator along the Kisumu-Nyalenda route said that he was sustained deep cuts in his head after he was attacked by the gang.
“I had stopped to drop a passenger and next thing I knew, someone was hitting my head with a stick and blood was oozing down my face,” said Ouko.
A member of the gang who asked not to be named, however, defended their actions and claimed they have brought order.
“We do not attack the public. We have only come in where the government failed. We have reduced thefts that used to occur at the bus park and brought order in the sector,” he said.
According to him, they have only had a few problems when other gangs attempt to infiltrate their areas of operation.
Last year, a fight broke out between the gang and some members of the China Squad following an attempt by the gang to expand its influence to the bus park. One person was stabbed to death in the fracas that followed.
The fracas came at a time when China Squad’s fortunes had drastically dwindled following a decision by Kenya Railways to reclaim a parcel of land where they had set up stalls.
The group that is infamous for its brutality made another attempt to grab another parcel of land belonging to Kenya Posta but was quickly repulsed by law enforcers. The new stalls they had constructed were demolished a day after they had set them up.
At the city’s CBD, the stalls they exercised control over have also been demolished.
Interviews with some of the traders that operated along Akamba stalls where the group exercised their influence told Nairobian that they would part with Sh500 for each stall.
The amount was, however, exclusive of the Sh10,000 rent they paid to the county government.
“We always paid Sh500 every month to the group. It was mandatory and failure to pay meant you will be evicted and threatened,” said the trader.
The gang that gained fame in the build-up to the 2013 General Elections continues to operate with sources claiming that it was formed by a senior former Jubilee politician to challenge ODM goons.
What started as a political grouping quickly turned into a dangerous criminal gang involved in extortion, violence and quest to control the city.