DM168 Age of the Assassin

Hits and highs: South Africa in the crossfire of warring drug cartels

Hits and highs: South Africa in the crossfire of warring drug cartels

South Africa has been the scene of a string of startling assassinations over the past few decades, some with possible links to large-scale local and international drug dealing. Cocooned in a thick layer of suspected state collusion, these crime battles are exceptionally difficult and dangerous to properly unravel.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Developing cases and incidents surrounding the murder of South African security contract operative George Darmanovic, who was gunned down in May 2018 in New Belgrade, emphasise just how deeply South Africa is embedded in global organised crime.

Darmanovic’s murder is a pivotal assassination that rocked South Africa’s intelligence community, amplifying the overlaps between this country and Eastern Europe’s underworld. It is likely to remain unsolved after a court case recently fizzled out.

Several sources, with ties to policing, private investigations and who are familiar with the underworld, spoke to DM168 on condition of anonymity, citing safety reasons. They say certain assassinations that have been carried out in South Africa are flashpoints of international crime battles that may be tightly braided into deep-rooted State Capture-type projects, making them exceptionally difficult and dangerous to properly unravel.

Two suspects – Stretan Matejic and Sasa Durdanovic – were on trial in Serbia for the murder of Darmanovic, who had tapped into South Africa’s underworld, intelligence and government circles, and was widely viewed as an information-peddling double agent.

His murder was sandwiched between other assassinations of Serbian men in Johannesburg. It was allegedly carried out because he was investigating matters linked to South Africa’s underworld.

Serbian media have reported that the two accused in the case were acquitted last month. A third suspect, Dejan Stankovic, was himself assassinated in Serbia a month after Darmanovic. This leaves Darmanovic’s murder open-ended.

Also in November, Balkan drug kingpin Darko Saric, dubbed the “Cocaine King” of Serbia and who some believe was based in South Africa in 2012, lost an appeal in Serbia against a 15-year jail term for mass drug dealing.

Last week, Cuban drug kingpin Nelson Pablo Yester-Garrido, who was based in South Africa for around two decades, was sentenced to five years in jail in the US. Charges against him related to a drug debt collection in the US that he was allegedly helping to orchestrate from South Africa.

All these strands weave an intricate web of probes and murders, with nodes in South Africa linking to several other countries.

While South African authorities have never publicly provided overall comment on the sticky masses of killings and investigations, it is becoming clear that the connections between these incidents probably involves illicit goods and state corruption.

Claims of such a nature stretch back about 25 years.

In the 1990s, alleged Italian Cosa Nostra boss Vito Palazzolo, who was based in the Western Cape at the time, was suspected of working with crooked cops, corrupt politicians and nightclub security boss Cyril Beeka.

Beeka was also a rumoured apartheid-state operative.

“Information on hand suggests that the individuals associated with Cosa Nostra in South Africa launder large amounts of foreign drug money, run extortion rackets in Cape Town and have succeeded in corrupting senior members of the South African Police Service and government officials,” policeman Andre Lincoln said in a document in October 1997. Lincoln was tasked with investigating Palazzolo.

Police colleagues then accused Lincoln of working with Palazzolo; Lincoln, however, claimed the cops were framing him. This debacle marked the start of a series of interconnected cases involving state-versus-state sparring. (Palazzolo was eventually arrested in Thailand in 2012 and extradited to Italy to serve a prison sentence there.)

When certain cops were raising red flags about Palazzolo in South Africa in 1997, Yester-Garrido apparently fled the US and based himself in Johannesburg.

DM168 recently reported that, according to evidence the US had against him, Yester-Garrido had operated a drug-smuggling network from South Africa from around 1997 to at least February 2016.

While he was not convicted of any crimes in South Africa, he was taken into custody in April 2011 in connection with 166kg of cocaine found in a shipping container in Port Elizabeth.

As DM168 has previously reported, it was suspected a group of Serbian men living in Brazil were part of this drug-smuggling network and that Yester-Garrido was connected to other Serbian operatives in South Africa.

This is where the Palazzolo side of things bleeds into the Yester-Garrido side.

The charges against Yester-Garrido were later withdrawn. A self-styled informant has claimed that South African-based Czech crime boss Radovan Krejcir was involved in having the charges withdrawn.

Krejcir was acquainted with Beeka, who had ties to Palazzolo; and both Krejcir and Beeka knew a Serbian assassin living undercover in South Africa.

A month before Yester-Garrido was arrested in March 2011 for the Port Elizabeth cocaine bust, Beeka was assassinated in Cape Town. This blew the Serbian assassin’s cover.

Sasa Kovacevic was driving Beeka when a gunman on a motorbike opened fire on them. It turned out that Kovacevic’s real identity was Dobrosav Gavric and he was wanted in Serbia for the assassination of warlord Zeljko Raznatovic in a Belgrade hotel in 2000.

Gavric was arrested in South Africa later in 2011 for charges including fraud and the “unlawful possession of 9.524 grams of cocaine”, according to court papers.

Early in 2012, a few months after Gavric was detained, media reports surfaced that Saric was possibly hiding out in South Africa under the alias Jan van Husel.

The Hawks were reported at the time as saying he may be in South Africa, but police said there was no evidence he was in the country. Rumours implied that some within the state knew he was in South Africa and had tipped him off that he should leave the country.

Whatever the truth, Saric turned himself over to authorities in Latin America in 2014. The Independent Balkan News Agency reported that, according to his lawyer, Saric had spent time hiding in “part of South Africa”.

This is where matters again manifested, much like the Palazzolo-Lincoln situation, as internal state skulduggery.

In May 2012, former Scorpions investigator Ivor Powell, in his capacity as a journalist, wrote that startling claims had been made against Mark Hankel, a top member of the SAPS’ crime intelligence.

Hankel had drafted a report against former crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli, who is now in prison.

Even though Hankel dismissed the accusations levelled against him as nonsense, they hinted that something was deeply amiss in South Africa’s intelligence arena.

Powell wrote that a source claimed Hankel had protected Krejcir and Eastern European fugitives – including Saric – and that seven intelligence files on these fugitives had been destroyed.

“Another East European crime boss named as hiding out in South Africa is [Veselin Laganin], an associate of Cuban drug smuggler Nelson Yester-Garido,” Powell wrote.

Months after this article appeared, Serbian Laganin was murdered in Bedfordview, Johannesburg.

Laganin, apparently a top-tier drug dealer, was linked to Krejcir, possibly Saric, and, based on Powell’s report, Yester-Garrido too.

Up until this stage, though, there were no steady red flags about certain Serbian figures’ operations in South Africa.

Walter Kemp of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime explained in a July 2020 research paper that some members of South Africa’s Yugoslav community “are descendants of people who emigrated from Yugoslavia in the 1960s and 1970s”.

“Others are part of a second wave that left after the break-up of Yugoslavia and the transition to democracy in South Africa in the mid-2000s.

“Many of these were skilled professionals, such as doctors or accountants, but others were criminals or former militants on the run,” Kemp wrote.

While murders, investigations and court cases shaped South Africa’s underworld, a sinister trend started emerging. This involved Serbian men being assassinated in Johannesburg, branching out to local and foreign figures.

Beeka controlled private security operations focused on nightclubs in Cape Town, in what some cops insist was an elaborate extortion racket and front for apartheid operatives.

In the first of five assassinations in the space of a year, Milan Djuricic was gunned down in April 2018 in Randburg in a murder that looped back to Beeka and, more specifically, Gavric.

Djuricic had, together with Gavric, been convicted of assassinating Raznatovic in Belgrade in 2000.

A month after Djuricic was murdered, Darmanovic, who had also known Beeka, was killed in New Belgrade in May 2018. One of several theories was that he knew who was behind Djuricic’s murder so “had to be taken out”.

Between July 2018 and April 2019, four other Serbian men were assassinated in Johannesburg.

The fifth murder was that of Ivan Djordjevic, who was killed in the suburb of Bryanston in April 2019.

The police have not publicly divulged motives for these murders.

Gauteng police did not answer DM168’s question about whether the five assassinations were linked.

Instead, spokesperson Colonel Brenda Muridili said case numbers or identity numbers were needed for the police  to provide feedback on the cases.

Djordjevic’s murder may be linked to more recent shootings in Cape Town, sources say.

Djordjevic is said to have been involved in the drug trade and associated with, among others, Timothy Lotter, a private security company boss murdered on 5 January in Goodwood in Cape Town.

Lotter, also the head of the South African chapter of the Satudarah Motorcycle Club, was believed to be connected to top-tier drug dealers, with contacts in countries including Colombia.

In September, Lotter’s associate Stephan Venter was assassinated outside a restaurant about 50km from Cape Town’s city centre.

Venter, according to sources, may have been involved in ensuring the safe passage of drug shipments from other countries into South Africa.

No arrests have been made for the two killings.

“Detectives are following up on all leads,” said Western Cape police spokesperson Frederick van Wyk. “They are working around the clock in an effort to find the perpetrators in both cases.”

The Lotter and Venter murders again veer towards the murky Beeka and Krejcir-esque realm – and to apparent state-versus-state battles.

Lotter, as the head of a private security company, may have pitted himself against other dominant figures in the industry.

Since the 1990s, there have been battles – mostly in Cape Town and Johannesburg – to control the private security industry.

Beeka controlled private security operations focused on nightclubs in Cape Town, in what some cops insist was an elaborate extortion racket and front for apartheid operatives.

In 2017, Cape Town’s Nafiz Modack – who was close to Beeka, who knew Krejcir and who had been in contact with Darmanovic – allegedly became involved in trying to dominate private security in Cape Town. Later that year, Modack and four others were arrested on extortion charges.

During the bail application in this case, claims emerged that the whole matter was actually about corrupt police.

Modack was cleared of extortion in February this year, but was rearrested in July – along with several cops – on charges relating to firearms.

Modack has countered that certain Cape Town police officers are corrupt and that he is being unfairly targeted.

Lieutenant-Colonel Charl Kinnear was among the lead investigators in the Modack-focused cases and previously claimed, via a complaint to police bosses, that some officers linked to crime intelligence were aligned to Modack.

Kinnear, who had also been investigating the murders of Lotter and Venter, was assassinated on 18 September outside his Bishop Lavis home in Cape Town.

The motive behind his murder, like several others preceding it, is not yet clear. DM168

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Philip Mirkin says:

    What’s clear is that people who use drugs are funding a murderous underworld and destroying society by empowering the worst of us. Truly sad.

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