THROUGH SOUTH AFRICA

Traf­fick­ers ditch usual Balkan route for more sta­ble ‘south­ern route’, writes Su­san Com­rie

CityPress - - News -

The tele­phone line dis­torts. “We need to hurry up man, se­ri­ously dog,” says Mark*, the Amer­i­can voice on the one end of the line. “If th­ese peo­ple leave, some­body owes me money, dude, be­cause I am not car­ry­ing that shit.” “Okay, there is no prob­lem brother, just give us to­mor­row,” Iddy replies.

The line dis­torts again, but nei­ther man is guarded about what they’re say­ing, and why should they be? This isn’t the US, where govern­ment sur­veil­lance pro­grammes can spy on pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions, red flag­ging words like “dope” and “buyer”.

But some­one is lis­ten­ing. As soon as Mark puts down the phone, he switches off the record­ing de­vice and notes down the time of the call.

It’s two years later and Mark, a 42-year-old un­der­cover agent, is sit­ting in the wit­ness box at the Kemp­ton Park Re­gional Court.

“I’m an un­der­cover nar­cotics de­tec­tive for the Hous­ton Po­lice Depart­ment in Texas … I’ve been an un­der­cover agent for ap­prox­i­mately 15 years,” says Mark.

Two years ago, he flew into South Africa to buy 10kg of high-grade heroin from a syn­di­cate that uses South Africa as a tran­sit point for drugs des­tined for the US.

The sting, au­tho­rised as part of Op­er­a­tion Stretch, is part of a joint in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the US depart­ment of home­land se­cu­rity and the Hawks.

In a room at the Peer­mont Ho­tel at Em­per­ors Palace in Kemp­ton Park, Mark was briefed by his han­dler, Spe­cial Agent Matthew Malmquist, and Cap­tain Mark de Bruin from the Hawks.

They handed him a covert record­ing de­vice and Mark made con­tact first with “Ba­sit”, a Pak­istani dealer based in Dubai, and then with “Iddy”, an­other syn­di­cate mem­ber in Tan­za­nia. Fi­nally, he called the syn­di­cate’s lo­cal con­nec­tion, Tiko Em­manuel Adam.

Fast for­ward two years and He­len Peter is sit­ting out­side court, ner­vously twist­ing her red and yel­low head­scarf in her fin­gers.

“My daugh­ter doesn’t know what heroin looks like,” He­len hisses, try­ing hard not to cry. “She’s poor, she’s just try­ing to sur­vive. When she’s at home in Tan­za­nia, she just stays at home.”

Her daugh­ter, Re­hema Sele­mani (32), has been charged as an ac­com­plice in the 10kg heroin deal that un­der­cover agent Mark or­ches­trated. But be­cause Op­er­a­tion Stretch in­volved a num­ber of deals, she was only ar­rested in March last year as the plane she boarded to Tan­za­nia was about to take off.

As part of Op­er­a­tion Stretch, the Hawks have ar­rested 14 peo­ple in seven dif­fer­ent cases, and have seized drugs, cash and prop­er­ties worth R250 mil­lion. But Re­hema is by no means a big fish. In 2006, she grad­u­ated with a two-year diploma in jour­nal­ism, but was un­able to find a job in Tan­za­nia, so she started mak­ing reg­u­lar trips to South Africa.

“I was com­ing to South Africa to see if my friend can as­sist me to set­tle in Cape Town and as­sist me to get a job,” she said through her court-ap­pointed trans­la­tor.

Un­able to find one, she had to keep leav­ing. Then, in 2010, she met Tiko and stayed. Tiko, de­scribed only as tall with long braids, ran a clear­ing and for­ward­ing com­pany in Rhodes­field in Kemp­ton Park, mov­ing lug­gage be­tween Tan­za­nia and South Africa. They have a three-year-old daugh­ter, Ruthie. It has now been al­most a year since Re­hema has seen Ruthie, and He­len says the child now calls her out to her – “mamma, mamma!”

Two weeks ago, Re­hema tes­ti­fied that on the day the deal with the un­der­cover agent was done, she merely tagged along to Em­per­ors Palace, com­pletely un­aware a ma­jor heroin deal was un­der way.

By the time the Hawks ar­rested her, Tiko had left South Africa. A war­rant of ar­rest has been is­sued for him, but for now, Re­hema sits in the dock alone.

The south­ern route

Last year, the United Na­tions Of­fice on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warned that Africa was in­creas­ingly be­com­ing the traf­fick­ing route of choice for heroin from Afghanistan.

Faced with an in­creas­ingly un­sta­ble se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion along the tra­di­tional Balkan route through coun­tries like Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, traf­fick­ers are opt­ing for a “south­ern route”, leav­ing small ports along the Makran coast of Iran and Pak­istan on dhows headed for Kenya and Tan­za­nia.

“Ev­ery­thing is com­ing from Tan­za­nia,” Tiko told Mark. “From Tan­za­nia and then to Zam­bia, and then Zam­bia to Zim­babwe.”

Iron­i­cally, what at­tracts in­ter­na­tional in­vestors to South Africa also at­tracts heroin traf­fick­ers.

“South Africa is a sta­ble coun­try with good in­ter­na­tional ship­ping and fi­nan­cial links,” the UNODC says. “Traf­fick­ers are able to use South Africa’s trans­port in­fra­struc­ture to move drugs to south­east Asia, Aus­tralia, Europe and North Amer­ica. South Africa’s ro­bust fi­nan­cial base also makes it an ef­fec­tive means to move drug money, rel­a­tive to other parts of Africa.”

A tri­umph for traf­fick­ers

It’s still rare for heroin from Afghanistan to end up in the US.

“Most of the heroin avail­able in the US … is sourced from Mex­ico and South Amer­ica,” a spokesper­son for the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion (DEA) at the US em­bassy in Pre­to­ria says.

Last year, the UNODC said it would be a “tri­umph for traf­fick­ers” if heroin smug­gled through Africa found its way to the US.

Af­ter ship­ments of heroin started turn­ing up in the US and Canada, and a num­ber of ar­rests were made, the Hawks launched Op­er­a­tion Stretch.

Court records show that one month be­fore the Em­per­ors Palace deal, a se­nior mem­ber of the po­lice’s covert in­tel­li­gence col­lec­tion unit on nar­cotics tried to re­cruit Tiko and Re­hema as in­for­mants against the syn­di­cate.

“I in­formed the two of them that we are not re­ally in­ter­ested in them, but that we are in­ves­ti­gat­ing a per­son by the name of Haji, with the nick­name Scuba, and we know that they are work­ing for him in the smug­gling of heroin from Tan­za­nia to South Africa,” Lieu­tenant Colonel Daniel Co­ertzen tes­ti­fied.

At the time – Oc­to­ber 2013 – po­lice had just raided sev­eral stor­age fa­cil­i­ties that Tiko rented. It was al­most mid­night when Co­ertzen ap­proached Tiko and Re­hema at the Kemp­ton Park stor­age unit.

“I ex­plained that we knew they were in charge of stor­age fa­cil­i­ties … I in­formed that them if they can as­sist us to give in­for­ma­tion on Haji, we can reg­is­ter them as in­for­mants.”

* Fig­ures are rounded; prices are not pu­rity-ad­justed

IM­POUNDED

BUSTED The joint navy op­er­a­tion known

as Com­bined Mar­itime Forces

has seized ship­ments of heroin along the

south­ern route. Here, a board­ing

party ap­proaches a ves­sel sus­pected

of smug­gling il­le­gal nar­cotics

off the east African coast. A sub­se­quent search of the ves­sel re­vealed 151kg of heroin

More than 216kg of heroin with a street

value of mil­lions was con­fis­cated by HMAS Mel­bourne dur­ing op­er­a­tions in the Middle East re­gion. Th­ese drugs

were dis­cov­ered on­board a fish­ing ves­sel in­ter­cepted

by them. Af­ter be­ing seized, the il­le­gal nar­cotics were trans­ferred to the ship for anal­y­sis and dis­posal at sea

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