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Crackdown — Suspected global cocaine smugglers arrested in SA in joint US-Australia ‘underworld hack’ swoop

Crackdown — Suspected global cocaine smugglers arrested in SA in joint US-Australia ‘underworld hack’ swoop
Illustrative image: Long regarded as a cocaine-consuming nation, Brazil has in recent years emerged as a major international exporter of the drug. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Bienvenido Velasco)

Eight suspects, operating via countries including South Africa and Brazil, have been arrested and nearly R19-million worth of assets seized. Sixteen others, including a Belgian kingpin, have been identified.

A spate of arrests carried out in South Africa on Tuesday is set to reveal more details about how a global cocaine trafficking syndicate is operating via the country and through other states including Brazil.

Aside from the arrests, boats, a rubber duck and a bakkie, worth nearly R19-million, were seized.

Drugs were also confiscated.

Brazil’s Operation Genesis

Daily Maverick can also reveal that ahead of the arrests in South Africa on Tuesday, Brazil’s Federal Police announced in October that it launched a crackdown known as Operation Genesis “aimed at repressing organised crime and international drug trafficking.”

Operation Genesis came about partly because of cocaine seized at the Port of Santos there, which was destined for places including Belgium, as well as Durban in South Africa.

Tuesday’s crackdown in South Africa has links to both Brazil and Belgium — cocaine was being smuggled between Brazil and South Africa and an international kingpin linked to that network was wanted by authorities in South Africa and Belgium.

The eight arrests in this country link back to an interception that happened back in June 2021 when a suspect driving a bakkie with a ski boat trailing behind it was arrested in Pretoria.

R400-million worth of cocaine was found in the hull of the ski boat.

Five other suspects were subsequently arrested for the 800-kilogram ski boat cocaine interception.

The saga did not end there.

Police in South Africa were on the hunt for three other suspects, one from Israel and two from Lithuania.

The case suggested a global drug smuggling ring was operating by way of South Africa, along the country’s coast and at its ports.

Hacking into global drug syndicates

Daily Maverick previously reported that the crackdown on the cocaine ski boat came about in part due to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Operation Trojan Shield and the Australian Federal Police’s Operation Ironside.

“Operation Trojan Shield is the codename for the project that involved the FBI secretly operating its own encrypted device company, called Anom. The Australian offshoot of this investigation was Operation Ironside,” it was reported.

Anom basically involved criminals across the world using encrypted communication devices sold via the black market — and which, unknown to them, the FBI was lawfully bugging.

The devices were initially distributed in Australia from October 2018.

By the following year, several hundred suspects in several countries were using Anom devices.

An indictment in the matter, according to the US Department of Justice, had revealed that: “The users … openly discussed narcotics concealment methods, shipments of narcotics, money laundering, and in some groups, violent threats.”

Based on the ski boat cocaine arrests coming about partially because of the FBI and Australian operations, it appeared crooks in South Africa were also using Anom devices.


Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations


Cocaine conduit between SA and Brazil

On Tuesday 1 November, it emerged that more suspects were arrested in connection with the ski boat bust.

While not mentioning Anom, Hawks spokesperson Colonel Katlego Mogale said the group was detained in a joint operation with the FBI and Australian Federal Police (the two key international authorities involved in the rollout of Anom devices).

“[The] eight further suspects who were identified as the members of an international drug trafficking organisation who are smuggling cocaine between South Africa and Brazil were arrested this morning after handing themselves over to the [Hawks],” Mogale said.

Daily Maverick previously reported that a two-decades-old cocaine-smuggling channel is in operation between the Port of Durban and the Port of Santos in Brazil.

It was also reported that Brazil’s Gilberto Aparecido dos Santos, also known as Fuminho, was in South Africa ahead of his arrest in Mozambique in 2020.

Dos Santos, who was allegedly linked to industrial-scale cocaine trafficking as well as Brazil’s — and one of the world’s — most powerful criminal gangs, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), or First Capital Command.

Cocaine trafficking between South Africa and Brazil suggests the PCC could also be operating in this country.

Boats and bakkie worth R19-million seized

On Tuesday, aside from the eight arrests carried out in South Africa, Hawks officers also confiscated several modes of transport.

“A bakkie, trailer, three boats and a rubber duck with a combined value of more than R18.6-million; seized drugs and cash that was seized from the suspect[s] have been forfeited to the State,” Mogale said.

The eight arrested suspects were expected to appear in the Bellville Magistrates’ Court in Cape Town on Tuesday.

Sixteen more suspects, including an alleged kingpin who was wanted in Belgium, were also identified.

Daily Maverick previously reported that following the ski boat bust, an arrest warrant was issued in South Africa for a suspect going by names including Ahmad Isa, Pardilov Ariel and Micky Paki.

He had last been seen in the Cape Town suburb of Camps Bay on 12 June 2021 but managed to escape arrest.

According to the Hawks, Isa was also wanted in Antwerp, Belgium, on cocaine dealing and money laundering charges and “is possibly armed … and dangerous”. DM

 Clash of the Cartels: Unmasking the Global Drug Kingpins Stalking South Africa, by Caryn Dolley, was published on Monday.

The Daily Maverick book further details the ski-boat cocaine arrests and suspected international links to it.

One chapter provides an in-depth breakdown of the joint FBI and Australia investigation that involved Anom devices being used to dupe criminals and how this affected an Italian Mafia grouping, ‘Ndrangheta.

Another chapter focuses on Australia and how drugs are being channelled there from South Africa and vice versa – and how violent incidents in this country may be linked to that narcotrafficking.

Yet another chapter focuses on Brazil and how cocaine was being pumped between the Port of Santos there and Durban harbour in South Africa – and how there were suspicions that networks using this sea route were linked to Serbian organised crime groups. 

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