Blood ties: South Africa caught in a web of murderous, drug-smuggling Brazilian gangs
A tale of cop collusion, a ‘most wanted’ fugitive hiding in South Africa, a double murder in Brazil, and cocaine concealed in sugar shipments to Durban.
A suspected cocaine-smuggling heavyweight from Brazil, who authorities there believe is linked to one of the world’s most powerful criminal gangs, was hiding out in South Africa while on the run as a fugitive wanted for a string of crimes and who broke out of jail more than two decades earlier.
The presence of Gilberto Aparecido dos Santos, also known as Fuminho, in South Africa ahead of his arrest in Mozambique in 2020 hints at just how deeply embedded this country is in cutthroat global drug smuggling linked to Brazilian cartels.
Police officers are involved in this organised crime and the Hawks have confirmed to DM168 that a special task team is investigating this.
The South African and Brazilian cocaine trade is directly linked by sea.
A two-decades-old cocaine-smuggling channel is in operation between the Port of Durban and the Port of Santos in Brazil, recently referred to in a publication as “Cocaine’s World Trade Center”.
Dos Santos’s name, in Brazilian government documents, is linked to an array of criminal claims relating to mass cocaine smuggling, guerrilla groupings, an attempted prison break and weapons.
He is also allegedly linked to Brazil’s – and one of the world’s – most powerful criminal gangs, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), or First Capital Command.
DM168 can reveal that court papers from Brazil referencing Dos Santos say the Brazilian Federal Police previously tracked him to South Africa.
It appears he was using another name and was based in Johannesburg.
This week, without naming Dos Santos, Hawks spokesperson Katlego Mogale told DM168 that they were aware of “this criminal network”. She referred to Dos Santos as “the subject”.
“The subject fled South Africa to Mozambique when he realised he was under investigation and wanted. He fled to Maputo, where he was arrested.”
Mogale also confirmed suspicions that corrupt cops and intelligence agents are involved with international drug smugglers.
She said: “Police officers have previously been arrested in cocaine interceptions, particularly related to Durban. [A] special task team has been assigned to conduct investigations which are ongoing and still sensitive.”
Mogale also said officers from Johannesburg’s Metropolitan Police Department and the South African Police Service were identified in a major drug confiscation in that city and were under investigation.
“It’s unfortunate that in major drug cases like these there is sometime[s] criminal justice influence.”
The smuggling channel between Durban and the Port of Santos had been on authorities’ radar since the early 2000s.
“The Port of Santos in Brazil is a major maritime route impacting many countries, but more recently we have seen a drastic increase in South Africa,” Mogale said.
“Over five tons of cocaine coming in through maritime routings, vessels, containers, etc. [have] been seized with a conservative street value of over R2-billion in South Africa in 2021 [which led to the arrests of] several high-level traffickers.”
The PCC gang has previously been linked, via reports, to the Port of Santos.
Organised crime branches out
And this is where organised crime branches out. Towards the end of December 2021 the US Treasury sanctioned the PCC under a new executive order meant to bolster its actions against global drug dealing. It described the PCC as “the most powerful organised crime group in Brazil and among the most powerful in the world”.
“PCC arose in São Paulo in the 1990s and has forged a bloody path to dominance through drug trafficking, as well as money laundering, extortion, murder-for-hire and drug-debt collection.
“PCC operates throughout South America, Paraguay and Bolivia, and its operations reach the United States, Europe, Africa and Asia.”
South Africa seems to have become ensnared in the PCC’s web.
Over several months, as massive drug interceptions have been carried out in this country, there have been suspicions in policing circles that Brazilian druglords are among the overall kingpins who effectively own the illicit consignments or are heavily involved in the trade.
This seems to tie into the arena of claims surrounding Dos Santos.
Recent allegations linked to him stem from February 2018 when two men, Rogério Jeremias de Simone and Fabiano Alves de Souza, were murdered in Aquiraz, Brazil.
They were believed to be PCC members.
Dos Santos, it later emerged, already a wanted fugitive after escaping from jail in Brazil in 1999 (why he was jailed was not clear), was suspected of ordering the killings.
This timeline subsequently leads all the way to South Africa.
Dos Santos was reported to have once been based, or have links to, Bolivia, another cocaine-smuggling hotspot. (That country’s former Anti-Narcotics Agency head was recently charged by the US with cocaine importation and weapon-related matters.)
One Brazilian publication said Dos Santos arrived in this country in March 2018 – the month after the Brazil murders – and had a residence in Johannesburg.
Court records from Brazil, translated from Portuguese to English and relating to a search-and-seizure action linked to his partner, state that Brazil’s Federal Police “realised that ‘Fuminho’ was on the run abroad, more precisely in South Africa, using false documents in the name of ‘Luiz Gomes de Jesus’”.
Dos Santos was arrested in Mozambique in April 2020 – it was reported he travelled there with his partner but owing to Covid-19 lockdown regulations could not return to South Africa.
At the time of his arrest, the Brazilian government thanked authorities from the US and Mozambique for assisting in his capture.
A government statement alleged Dos Santos was behind the shipment of tons of cocaine around the world. Another statement the Brazilian government issued said he was believed to be a high-ranking PCC member. DM168 has the name of a businessman suspected of being associated with Dos Santos in South Africa and who has reported ties to Brazil.
The name is that of a director, based in Johannesburg, of a company with an address registered to the Western Cape.
As of 2021, this company, linked to the wellness industry, was in the process of deregistration.
In the same year, an online platform in Mozambique reported that Dos Santos’s defence team claimed that while he was in South Africa he volunteered for an NGO.
DM168 contacted an NGO with a similar name to the one reported but had not received a reply by the time of publication.
Meanwhile, following his April 2020 arrest in Mozambique, Dos Santos was sent back to Brazil. He was suspected of being an associate of jailed PCC leader Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho.
A Brazilian government document on Dos Santos suggests he was suspected of being involved in a plan to try to free Camacho from jail about three years ago (possibly coinciding with when he was in South Africa).
If Dos Santos is convicted of drug trafficking or was involved in the double murder in Brazil in February 2018, it could link this country to Brazil’s notorious PCC.
This country is already connected, via cocaine shipments, to the Port of Santos, which in turn is linked to the PCC.
Several cocaine interceptions linked to the harbour in Durban in 2021 were traced back to the port.
Deadly global drug web
Smuggling via the Port of Santos branches into a more deadly global drug web.
According to the investigative organisation InSight Crime, the Port of Santos has become a key global node for cocaine smuggling, largely owing to the PCC’s growth in São Paulo, Brazil.
“Despite some rivalries in Paraguay, the PCC’s control is not contested by any major threat. As a result, this can now be considered one of the world’s foremost cocaine routes,” it reported last month.
“The Brazilian gang’s main international partnership is with the ’Ndrangheta, the Italian mafia from the southern region of Calabria.”
Europol’s EU Drug Markets Report 2019 also said Serbian organised crime groups were “particularly prominent at the Port of Santos”. This is where the Brazilian, Serbian and South African aspects seem to converge.
DM168 previously reported that Cuban drug kingpin Nelson Pablo Yester-Garrido, who was sentenced to about five years in jail in the US in late 2020, was suspected of operating a drug-smuggling network from South Africa from about 1997 to at least February 2016.
He was once arrested in this country back in April 2011 in connection with 166kg of cocaine found in a shipping container in Gqeberha. (The consignment was believed to have been destined for Mozambique.)
It was suspected that 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.
There have been several murders of Serbians in South Africa and some, or all, may be linked to the international drug trade.
Between April 2018 (which was, coincidentally, the month after Dos Santos reportedly arrived in South Africa) and 2019, five Serbian men were killed in Gauteng.
These murders hint at the international reach of organised crime in this country.
In 2021 several drug interceptions in this country were linked to both South Africa and Brazil.
According to Brazil’s Federal Police, on 29 December, cocaine weighing 715kg was intercepted at a terminal at the Port of Santos.
“The drug was hidden [in] a load of sugar on a ship bound for the Port of Durban in South Africa,” a statement said.
Cocaine from the Port of Santos was also intercepted in South Africa earlier in 2021.
These are some of the busts:
6 February: In a statement the Hawks said that following a tip-off about “drug trafficking between Santos, Brazil and China” they found cocaine worth R14.1-million in a container, meant to have stored frozen deboned beef, in transit through the Eastern Cape’s Port of Ngqura and meant to head to China.
9 July: Cocaine worth R200-million was discovered in a bakkie following the hijacking of a cargo truck after it left Durban harbour. A police statement said the driver of the bakkie, which turned out to belong to the state, was a police warrant officer at the Zonkizizwe Police Station in Gauteng and was arrested along with “his three accomplices, another police warrant officer attached to the National Investigative Unit, a Gauteng chief traffic officer and a civilian”.
On 30 July, cocaine worth half a billion rands, in brick form and in a container meant to be holding truck parts, was discovered at the harbour in Durban. It was suspected this interception was linked to the one on 9 July.
A Hawks statement about this said: “Since March  over four tons of cocaine have been seized in South Africa and 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…
“Investigations have revealed that the origin of all of these consignments is the Port of Santos in Brazil.”
Last month it was reported that the Mediterranean Shipping Company had suspended some of its operations at the port effectively owing to external criminality.
The company did not respond to a request for comment.
Transnet indicated to DM168 that while it cooperated with government authorities when illegal substances or items were found, it did not have sight of what was carried in containers arriving in, and leaving, South Africa.
The declaration of goods was done via the South African Revenue Service (SARS).
SARS, in a response to questions from DM168, said it used scanners to check trucks for suspicious goods.
“Then, of course, we use sniffer dogs to detect narcotics, (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora items, rhino horn) and currency… We also increasingly use data from many sources … to detect suspicious cargo.” 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.