South Africa

ORGANISED CRIME SPECIAL REPORT

US digs deeper to reveal South Africa’s links to global drug trafficking networks

US digs deeper to reveal South Africa’s links to global drug trafficking networks
From left: Nelson Pablo Yester-Garrido and Vijay Goswami (Photo: DEA.GOV)

An Indian drug lord and a Cuban dealer, who were both previously based in this country, have been the focus of separate court cases in the US. Details gleaned from these two matters hint at the depth of secrets the US likely has on South Africa and its organised crime terrain.

Two international drug dealing cases that have unfolded in the US have something specific in common aside from allegations of sprawling narcotics networks — both have links firmly anchored in South Africa.

In the one case, that culminated in Cuban drug dealer Nelson Pablo Yester-Garrido being sentenced to five years in jail earlier this month, it was alleged that he fled the US in 1997 and based himself in South Africa, from where he resumed his drug operations.

The second case centres on Indian drug kingpin Vijaygiri “Vicky” Goswami who, along with others including two brothers from Kenya, was accused of running a global drug dealing network.

Through this case it emerged that Goswami, who subsequently turned state witness, admitted he and his associates were intent on dominating South Africa’s drug trade and made massive inroads in the country, even carrying out murders.

Goswami admitted in the US that he had run South Africa’s mandrax trade while jailed in Dubai for drug dealing in the late 1990s, and after his release in 2012.

“The evidence will show that the defendants were notorious drug traffickers who engaged in kidnappings, assaults, and murder to maintain power over the South African drug market,” US court papers from July 2019, in this Goswami-centred matter, say.

AmaBhungane previously reported on Goswami’s extensive ties to South Africans and figures with links to this country.

It also reported that Goswami had sometimes based himself in South Africa in the early to mid-1990s and in 2014 was quoted in the Sunday Times saying, “I knew some of the ANC leaders and ministers when I was in South Africa from our days in Zambia. I gave money to the ANC and contributed to the struggle.”

There are several parallels between the Goswami matter and Yester-Garrido case.

Like Yester-Garrido, Goswami was previously based in South Africa. And like Yester-Garrido, he was never convicted of a crime in this country, despite being suspected of large-scale drug dealing while here.

Both Yester-Garrido and Goswami were extradited from other countries to the US – Yester-Garrido from Italy around July 2019, and Goswami from Kenya in January 2017.

In both the subsequent court cases that played out in the US, South Africa has featured strongly.

But because the Goswami and Yester-Garrido matters have focused on drug crimes affecting the US, the much finer details of their activities relating to South Africa and their possible links to figures here have not been the focal point of proceedings there.

Only fragments of fuller information on how this country fits into large-scale global drug dealing, have so far publicly surfaced via the US cases.

For example, in the Yester-Garrido case, it emerged that the US had started investigating fresh drug-related allegations against him in January 2015 – this was while he was apparently based in South Africa.

Yester-Garrido was jailed earlier this month for a marijuana-related debt collection in the US, which he was allegedly helping to orchestrate from South Africa.

Court papers in the case said that a source, who was actually a secret witness for the US, had travelled to Johannesburg to meet Yester-Garrido in February 2016 and conversations between the two had been recorded.

This implied the US was able to keep close tabs on Yester-Garrido while he was in South Africa.

It turned out that the US also had South Africa’s help in investigating Yester-Garrido.

A press statement on his sentencing, by the US Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida, said the Hawks had assisted them.

This implied that the Hawks may also have been keeping tabs on Yester-Garrido and passing on any information to the US.

Meanwhile, the Goswami case, elements of which are still playing out, is particularly intriguing because Goswami, in previous testimony, referenced South Africa several times.

Before turning state witness in the US, Goswami had faced drug-related charges alongside others including two brothers, Baktash Akasha Abdalla and Ibrahim Akasha Abdalla, better known as the Akashas, of Kenya.

This group was accused of running a global drug dealing empire.

The Akasha brothers previously pleaded guilty to drug-related charges.

While Baktash Akasha was sent to jail for 25 years last year, Ibrahim Akasha was sentenced to 23 years imprisonment in January this year.

Publicly accessible court papers in this case give a glimpse of just how deeply South Africa is embedded in global organised crime and suggest the US may have exceptionally detailed information about incidents that have played out here.

In a July 2019 court document outlining the US’s case — the government’s pre-hearing submission — it was alleged that Ibrahim Akasha was involved in getting mandrax from suppliers in Nairobi and Mombasa “and transporting that mandrax to South Africa, where it commanded a higher price”.

“Ibrahim told Goswami that when he was in South Africa delivering mandrax, Ibrahim would purchase stolen cars that he [then] sold in Kenya,” the submission stated.

It further alleged that in early 2016, Baktash Akasha was involved in getting 100kg of ephedrine (a substance that can be used to make methamphetamine) from India to Tanzania via a plane, which was later sold in South Africa.

The submission claimed that Goswami also had information that would prove the Akasha brothers were linked to extremist group al-Shabaab.

“Ibrahim and Baktash each described to Goswami how Ibrahim was travelling to the area of Kenya’s border with Somalia to purchase weapons from al-Shabaab. 

“Ibrahim and Baktash showed Goswami stashes of the al-Shabaab weapons at Baktash’s home — which included machineguns and hand grenades. Baktash told Goswami that he worked with an Italian man, who brokered the sale of the al-Shabaab-supplied weapons to cargo ship crews that docked in Mombasa.”

The Akashas, the US’s submission also alleged, had been involved in planning the murder of a rival drug trafficker’s right-hand man, which they had disputed.

This man, named in court papers only as Pinky, was apparently shot 32 times somewhere in South Africa in 2014.

“Rumours of the Akashas’ involvement in the murder quickly spread through South Africa as intended,” the submission alleged.

“The Akashas used Pinky’s death as leverage in their drug negotiations, with, for example, Ibrahim threatening a drug transporter that he could meet the same fate as Pinky if he did not comply with the Akashas’ demands.”

Last year amaBhungane tracked down a Johannesburg businessman, Ajay Goswami (who said he was not related to Vicky Goswami as Goswami had testified in the US), who confirmed Goswami had previously contacted him about Pinky’s murder.

In July last year in a court in the Southern District of New York, when Goswami was questioned while in the witness stand, he was asked about several murders.

Goswami said it was him and not the Akashas who had sent “somebody to South Africa” to murder an individual referred to as Taka.

According to Goswami, Taka was killed in South Africa in 2016.

Goswami had also been asked about the 2016 murder of someone named Muktar, who it was claimed wanted to get involved in Cape Town’s mandrax trade.

Goswami had responded: “He was one of my main guys. How could I kill him? And whatever the money I was getting from South Africa came from him only.”

He had also been asked whether he met top politicians, including ex-presidents Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela, to ingratiate himself to potentially prevent trouble if caught for drug dealing, presumably while in South Africa.

Goswami denied this.

The questions levelled at him while he was testifying further hint at the depth of information US authorities probably have on his operations in, and links to, this country.

But these details may never surface into the public domain.

A rundown of how the overall Goswami/Akasha-centred case has played out since 2014 shows several entries stating: “Sealed document placed in vault.”

It is this that makes the case especially intriguing because sealed documents are not necessarily available to the public.

According to a US government website on its courts, documents were sometimes sealed if these contained “sensitive material, such as classified information affecting national security or information involving trade secrets”.

“Criminal case documents and hearing transcripts are sometimes sealed to protect cooperating witnesses from retaliation,” it further stated.

In April last year Vrye Weekblad reported that in sealed grand jury testimony, Goswami had pointed to the Gupta family as being involved in alleged money laundering on behalf of his alleged associate, Muhammad Asif Hafeez of Pakistan, who was arrested in 2017 in the UK. 

This reported allegation has apparently not been publicly corroborated or countered.

In October 2019, in what appeared to be an unrelated matter, the US Department of Treasury announced it had imposed financial sanctions on members of the Gupta family and associate Salim Essa for using “their influence with prominent politicians and parties to line their pockets with ill-gotten gains”.

The US wants Hafeez, who has reportedly claimed to be a victim of mistaken identity, extradited there. 

If this happens, it means further details about Goswami and activities in South Africa could be revealed in the US.

An indictment against Hafeez, also known as “Sultan”, said that from around January 2013 to around January 2017, he, together with Goswami, the Akasha brothers and others, “intentionally and knowingly did … conspire … to violate the narcotics laws of the United States”.

Hafeez is fighting the US’s extradition request.

About three weeks ago it was reported that the European Court of Human Rights had halted his potential extradition. DM

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