South Africa’s lucrative drugs highway to the land Down Under
Australian drugs syndicates have tapped into those in South Africa and are using local drug networks to sell illicit substances.
Successive arrests of suspected drug smugglers in Australia with ties to South Africa have exposed how syndicates, who are operating between the two countries, are going all out when trying to conceal illicit substances.
In an arrest in August, a 28-year-old Perth man was detained after heroin was discovered in mascara tubes sent from South Africa. Another case involved 81kg of methamphetamine smuggled in meat smokers to Melbourne from Cape Town.
DM168 has established, via two sources linked to policing, that Australian syndicates have tapped into South African ones, using local drug networks to sell illicit substances. Pointsmen in this country are also used to ensure consignments are delivered to Australia.
It also appears that some of the cocaine moving through South Africa is from Colombia and that coastal hubs here have been earmarked as “hotspot destinations” for selling the drug.
National police spokesperson Brigadier Vish Naidoo said this week that in dealing with drug trafficking, officers were working with counterparts in other countries that were also part of Interpol.
“We, too, are making significant breakthroughs in this regard,” he said.
Neither the Hawks nor Australia’s federal police responded to queries from DM168 about drugs being pumped from South Africa to that country.
According to the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission’s illicit drug data report for 2018 and 2019, 49 countries were flagged as drug embarkation points for substances seized at its border. South Africa stood out: “By weight, South Africa remained the primary embarkation point for cocaine detected in 2018–19.”
“Colombia produces the majority of the world’s cocaine and drug profiling of both border and domestic seizures indicate that the majority of cocaine seized in Australia originates in Colombia,” it said.
This implies what sources pointed to — that South Africa is a transit point for cocaine coming from Colombia.
DM168 previously reported that Timothy Lotter, the private security company boss murdered in Goodwood in Cape Town on 5 January last year, was thought to be connected to drug dealers in countries including Colombia.
Lotter was also the head of the South African chapter of the Satudarah Motorcycle Club. Satudarah, which was founded in the Netherlands in the 1990s, was banned by the Dutch in 2018 after its members were linked to violent organised crime, including drug trafficking.
Sources have flagged Durban as a major entry point for drugs.
The Hawks said 600kg of cocaine, worth about R240-million, was discovered on a ship in Durban’s harbour on 25 November.
Brigadier Nomthandazo Mbambo said the vessel “was sailing from South America to South Africa, transporting containers with wooden flooring boards which had cocaine concealed within the consignment”.
This, again, points to Colombia as the potential origin of smuggled cocaine.
Mbambo told DM168 that it was not immediately clear where the consignment had been destined for.
Meanwhile, the Hawks also announced last month that 514kg of cocaine, worth about R200-million, had been stolen from its Serious Organised Crime offices in Port Shepstone in KwaZulu-Natal.
“The suspects gained entry into the building by forcing open the windows. One of the safes in the office, which was used to store exhibits, was tampered with,” Mbambo said.
This incident fuelled suspicions in cop circles that corrupt officers may be involved in international drug smuggling.
National Hawks head Lieutenant-General Godfrey Lebeya appointed a team to investigate the cocaine burglary.
Australia’s latest drug data report for 2019 and 2020 showed South Africa had slipped off the top of the cocaine embarkation list and had been replaced by Mexico as “primary embarkation point”. South Africa was, however, flagged as a key embarkation point of heroin to Australia.
A recent drug arrest in Australia has links to South Africa.
On 16 November, the Australian Federal Police issued an alert. It said that a man from the Gold Coast had appeared in court in connection with a 115kg cocaine importation, worth $115-million, from South Africa that happened in 2018.
The arrest had formed part of a project known as Operation Razorclaw. Started in the same year that the cocaine was intercepted, it was set up to investigate how drugs were ending up in Australia.
“Police will allege in court that a business allegedly linked to the 35-year-old Gold Coast man was used to import the 115kg of cocaine, which was hidden inside a large generator,” the Australian Federal Police’s alert said. “The generator was delivered to a Gold Coast business premises in late 2018.
“Investigators executed search warrants at the man’s home and business premises in October 2018, where they seized several mobile phones and laptops.”
New evidence, police alleged, had surfaced on one of the phones and had linked the suspect to the cocaine import.
Two other men, who were not identified, were sentenced to a total of 17-and-a-half years in jail over the interception.
During the arrest of one of those men in southwest Sydney in October 2018, an encrypted mobile phone was discovered in a vehicle. This is where the matter may expand into a global investigation involving encrypted communication devices.
DM168 previously reported that the US’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) ran its own encrypted device company called Anom. Hundreds of criminals around the world, who had been under the impression they were communicating clandestinely, were arrested.
Anom devices were disseminated from October 2018 (coinciding with the Australian bust involving cocaine smuggled in the generator).
Fast-forward to June 2021 when R400-million worth of cocaine in a pure compressed form was discovered in a ski boat being towed by a bakkie on the N1 in Pretoria. Six suspects were arrested and three went on the run.
The arrests in South Africa were partly as a result of the FBI’s Operation Trojan Shield, the project that involved the FBI secretly operating Anom, and the Australian Federal Police’s offshoot, Operation Ironside.
One of 17 defendants in the US case that involves the charging of suspects for distributing encrypted devices to criminals is Joseph Hakan Ayik, reportedly one of Australia’s most-wanted drug-dealing suspects.
He is listed on Australia’s New South Wales police’s website under “most wanted persons” for the “supply of large commercial quantities of drugs”.
Ayik allegedly encouraged others to use Anom devices, not knowing the communication platform was operated by the FBI.
‘Trafficking at an industrial scale’
In June this year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that, back in 2009, Ayik was allegedly working with a corrupt customs official in Tonga.
“[P]olice intelligence and phone taps suggested Ayik had used his ‘doors’ to transport the drugs from South Africa via air freight to Tonga, where they were to be shipped to Australia,” the newspaper said.
This all loops back to SA because, like Ayik, suspects arrested in connection with the R400-million cocaine bust in Pretoria in June 2021 were linked to the FBI’s Operation Trojan Shield, which, in turn, is linked to Australia’s Operation Ironside.
During a press briefing in June, Australian Federal Police commissioner Reece Kershaw said Operation Ironside had resulted in the arrests of suspects causing immense danger to Australia.
“We allege they are members of outlaw motorcycle gangs, Australian mafia, Asian crime syndicates and serious and organised crime groups,” he said.
“We allege they’ve been trafficking illicit drugs into Australia at an industrial scale. Sadly, criminal gangs are targeting Australia because it is one of the most profitable countries in the world to sell drugs.”
Referring to Ayik specifically, Kershaw said that as a distributor of Anom devices, Ayik had basically set up his own colleagues.
He believed Ayik was a “marked” man.
Meanwhile, in another parallel between Australia and South Africa, News24 reported in June that it had emerged in court that a hit had been taken out on a suspect in the Pretoria cocaine bust case.
SA link focused on R1.4bn cocaine bust in Australia
It was one of the most talked-about drug busts at the time. In June 2019, Australian Border Force officers intercepted a 20-tonne excavator that had arrived from South Africa. It was X-rayed and, in it, a consignment of 384kg of cocaine, worth about R1.4-billion, was discovered.
This interception was one of at least nine, over roughly two-and-a-half years, that involved drugs being channelled from SA to Australia. Figures with ties to policing and the underworld suspected that the cocaine consignment was linked to a syndicate operating between Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban as well as internationally.
Although no one in South Africa has apparently been charged for the bust, two men were arrested in Australia. In September, suspect Adam Hunter was jailed for 12 years and 9 months.
In the sentencing against Hunter, which DM168 has seen, there are hints at what influence those managing the South African side of the deal had. From November 2018 to May 2021, Hunter was previously the director of Bungendore Landscape Supplies.
In November 2018, Hunter’s “good friend” and a former employee, identified only as Mr King, also became a director. Mr King’s real name was withheld as he was yet to stand trial for related charges.
By early 2019, Hunter was facing financial problems: “Your utilities bills were overdue; you had no funds left on your personal credit cards; and you were unable to meet even basic living expenses,” the sentencing said.
In around April 2019, a client who Hunter often had coffee with, heard of his financial woes. “It was because of this method of socialising that the ‘regular client’ became known in these proceedings as ‘Coffee Man’. His identity has not otherwise been revealed by you,” the sentencing said.
“Coffee Man was either a part of, or associated with, a criminal syndicate … that wished to import a significant amount of cocaine from South Africa into Australia; and, through Coffee Man, you were recruited into that criminal scheme.”
It was arranged with Coffee Man that the business would transfer about $50,000 to “a corporate entity in SA” so that a refurbished excavator could be bought and packages concealed in it before it was sent to Australia.
“Two payments were made by the business to the South African corporation on 16 and 24 May 2019 of respectively $25,700 and $23,647,” the sentencing said. “The SA corporation did keep its end of the bargain and the excavator was shipped to Australia. You arranged for that shipment by engaging a freight forwarding company.”
Coffee Man apparently gave Hunter a mobile phone with an encrypted application “through which text messages could pass between you and the syndicate”.
The excavator arrived in Australia in June 2019 and was delivered to Hunter’s business in Bungendore the following month.
Hunter, in contact with the syndicate via encrypted messages, agreed that, for $50,000, he would cut into the machine and get the drugs. On 14 July 2019, packages were removed from the excavator.
“However, the unloading process did not get very far because, a few minutes later, the police arrived at the business’s premises,” the sentencing said. “There was, in fact, no cocaine to be unpacked from the excavator because, when it arrived in Australia, the Australian Border Force, Customs and the Australian Federal Police were waiting for it.” Police had replaced the cocaine with an inert substance.
The sentencing said that although Hunter was not the mastermind of the operation, he had “played a significant and key role”. It is not clear whether the mastermind is based in South Africa.
Drugs on the move from South Africa to Australia
May 2019: Three suspects in Australia arrested for bringing drugs into that country on commercial flights from South Africa. One of the suspects, racehorse owner Damion Flower, pleads guilty in March 2021.
June 2019: Nearly 70kg of cocaine found in a consignment of wood furniture that arrived in Sydney from South Africa. A suspect from South Africa is charged.
June and July 2019: 384kg of cocaine worth more than R1-billion discovered via X-ray inside a second-hand excavator that arrived in Australia from South Africa. Two suspects arrested in Australia. One of them, Adam Hunter, pleads guilty and in September 2021 is sentenced to nearly 13 years in jail.
October 2020: 144kg of cocaine discovered in hydraulic cylinders shipped from South Africa to Brisbane. A suspect is arrested there.
January 2021: 81kg of methamphetamine discovered inside a consignment of meat smokers delivered to Melbourne from Cape Town. Five suspects charged there.
March 2021: Police in Gauteng intercept a lion statue destined for Australia with crystal methamphetamine hidden in it.
June 2021: Cocaine worth R400-million discovered in a ski boat being towed by a bakkie in Pretoria. Six suspects subsequently arrested, three on the run. This crackdown involved South African, US and Australian authorities.
August 2021: 440g heroin discovered in mascara tubes results in the arrest of a man in Perth. The mascara tubes were sent there from South Africa.
November 2021: Suspect arrested in Australia in connection with a 2018 cocaine importation from South Africa. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.