By Staff Reporter

South Africa’s law enforcement agencies have made a successful series of sizeable amount of cocaine busts of late.

“Most of these drugs would have been destined for other countries while at least 20% would have remained behind as payment to the traffickers and consumption in the domestic market,” said the South African Police Service in a press statement.

Could these busts be an indication that South Africa, and the rest of the continent, is now becoming pivotal as transit points for Latin American cocaine cartels?

According to a report by InSight Crime, South Africa is now a key nexus in the global cocaine trade, with a rapidly expanding domestic market, routes to destinations in Europe and emerging connections to nascent cocaine markets like Australia and Hong Kong.

Richard Chelin, Senior Researcher at the Africa-focused Institute for Security Studies, told InSight Crime that, “It is a prominent settlement destination for foreign criminal actors, particularly from Nigeria, China, Pakistan, Israel and Southern and Eastern European nations.”

Jason Eligh, senior expert at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), expressed an almost similar sentiment when he told InSight Crime: “The country has a vibrant and extensive domestic cocaine market with numerous international, regional and domestic groups involved in its operation and distribution.”

According to a 2020 report by the GI-TOC, of particular importance, are Serbian traffickers, who have used their strong presence in both South Africa and Brazil’s port of Santos to import cocaine for domestic distribution and re-export to Australia.

The InSight Crime report further states that this is almost exclusively supplied – mostly in shipping containers – from Brazil and from its strongest criminal group, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC). The PCC has made efforts to arrange drug trafficking deals in the region, including in South Africa’s neighbour of Mozambique.

A 2019 country profile by the ENACT Africa project said most of the cocaine is then shipped onwards, but facilitated by the country’s good transport infrastructure, high-level police corruption and resource shortages in the area of drug control. InSight Crime also reports: “The majority goes to Europe, mostly by shipping container and, to a lesser extent, by air with individual smugglers. This represents the so-called Southern Route that has long exported Afghan heroin to western European seaports.

Some of the shipments head for Hong Kong, a cocaine hotspot where Latin American traffickers are aggressively attempting to grow demand. South Africa is also a primary departure point for cocaine heading to Australia, where a single kilo fetches anywhere between R1 345 941.00 and R4 486 470.00 according to the government’s latest Illicit Drugs Data Report.”

Cocaine busts

A sting operation in March, enabled police to confiscate a huge cocaine consignment, estimated to be worth R583 million, from a fishing vessel off the Saldanha coast in the Western Cape.

Police found 973 blocks of compressed cocaine in three compartments of the vessel. Ten suspects, four of Bulgarian descent and six from Myanmar, were arrested on charges of drug dealing.

In June, a 39-year-old man was arrested in Gauteng by a team involving the South African Narcotic Enforcement, Pretoria Serious Organised Crime, Tactical Operations Management Section of the Hawks with the assistance of Crime Intelligence Head Office.

The man was towing a 12-foot ski boat with his bakkie when he was stopped and the team discovered 800kg of compressed pure cocaine with an estimated street value of R400 million.

On 22 June, in Isipingo, Durban, police seized a container with cocaine weighing 541 kilograms, with an estimated street value of more than R243 million.

The container was supposedly carrying animal food, but when police searched it, they found cocaine in twenty-six canvas bags, marked with the branding of Tik Tok and Jaguar.

At the end of July, the Hawks seized a batch of cocaine estimated to be worth R500 million, from a shipping container carrying truck parts destined for a truck sales company container at the Durban harbour.

The Hawks found 999 bricks of cocaine weighing 1, 000 kg in the container. According to the Hawks, this cocaine consignment was considered to be connected to earlier busts where drugs worth millions of rands were found.

“This case is believed to be linked to a similar drug seizure on 9 July 2021, of 715 kg in Aeroton, Joburg, coming from the Durban Port, also disguised as truck parts. During the seizure of the said consignment, four suspects were arrested, including three police officials. Investigations have revealed that the origin of all of these consignments is the Port of Santos in Brazil,” Hawks’ spokesperson Colonel Katlego Mogale said at the time.

Interpol’s Lionfish

Two Interpol-co-ordinated operations aimed at disrupting drug trafficking in Africa and the Middle East, mobilised law enforcement agencies in 41 countries, leading to the arrest of 287 people and the seizure of drugs estimated to be worth nearly R 1 748 303 725.

Dubbed Lionfish, the operations, which were carried out in March and April, saw police and customs officials coordinate enforcement actions at borders and other hotspots during a specific two-week period, first on the African continent and then in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

“The striking results of these two operations demonstrate the sheer scale of the trade in illicit drugs and its international nature,” said Jürgen Stock, Secretary General of Interpol.

“Drug trafficking is a threat that we collectively face and the massive seizures achieved in Operation Lionfish show what is possible when law enforcement fights back together,” added Secretary General Stock.

Jan Drapal, the co-ordinator of Interpol’s drugs unit, said the seizures underscored how drug kingpins were sending larger shipments in response to Covid-19 travel restrictions and border closures, which have restricted their ability to more frequently move smaller quantities of drugs via individual couriers.

“Increasing consumption in places such as Central and Eastern Europe and rising cocaine production in South America – both of which predate the pandemic – have also driven the move toward larger shipments,” he told Reuters.

“They decided to bring as many drugs as possible at once. Recently, we saw not only in Africa but also in other countries many record-breaking seizures,” Drapal said.

“What was confirmed by this operation is that Covid-19 did not stop anything,” he said.

Africa, which is deemed to be for the most part, a transit route for illegal drugs such as cocaine on the way from South America to Europe, has recorded a series of top score busts in recent years.

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