Smuggling rings and other security breaches plague Durban harbour, with cross-country crime on the rise

Smuggling rings and other security breaches plague Durban harbour, with cross-country crime on the rise
‘Hi-tech’ security fencing, which is being installed around Durban’s port boundaries, is intended to curb crimes such as theft and vandalism. (Photo: Gallo Images)

Global drug cartels and vandals are targeting Durban harbour. The installation of a ‘high-tech’ fence is among the plans to keep the baddies out.

More than a billion rands worth of cocaine discovered on a ship at Durban harbour has again highlighted the scale of illicit dealings via the port that trespassers and international drug traffickers target – all the while housing a national key point.

The latest mass cocaine discovery has also brought into question what security measures are in place there.

DM168 has reported extensively on how global drug trafficking gangs have for years operated, and are still operating, via Durban harbour. Parliament last year heard that the “terminal’s infrastructure and design have remained the same since 1963”.

A South African allegedly tried to smuggle cocaine, hidden in shoes and coffee packaging, from Brazil. Photo: Brazil’s Federal Police

There is a long-term plan to expand it, and another to improve physical security at the hub that clearly attracts traffickers. In November last year, police in Europe started dismantling what they called a “super cartel” that controlled a third of Europe’s cocaine trade.

Cross-country crime on the rise

Part of their investigations revealed plans relating to a 739.5kg consignment of cocaine, destined for Rotterdam, being despatched from Durban.

The book Clash of the Cartels: Unmasking the Global Drug Kingpins Stalking South Africa also details how drug traffickers from various countries, including Brazil, Italy and Serbia, sometimes working together, use Durban harbour as a node for cocaine smuggling.

Sources linked to security have questioned whether officials involved in policing and other activities at Durban harbour are being paid off to ensure drugs pass through there smoothly.

A Hawks spokesperson in the past told DM168: “Police officers have previously been arrested in cocaine interceptions, particularly related to Durban.”

In Parliament about two weeks ago, a South African Police Service (SAPS) presentation said there was an increase in transnational organised crime, including drug trafficking.

“Transnational organised crime syndicates target corrupt border officers for money laundering and illicit trade,” it said.

Fence to prevent illegal access

This all emphasises how sharp security is needed at Durban harbour, which is exposed to local and international criminality that approaches from land and sea, as well as potential corruption.

Sources linked to security have questioned whether officials involved in policing and other activities at Durban harbour are being paid off to ensure drugs pass through there smoothly.

On top of all that, the harbour also houses a point of national and lucrative significance – the Island View Precinct.

A Transnet National Ports Authority document describes the precinct as “a petro-chemical hub” where those overseeing “the movement and storage of South Africa’s petroleum, diesel, chemicals, oils, lubricants and aviation fuel” are based.

Despite the array of sensitive security issues, it seems the port does not yet have an adequate border fence.

In October last year, Transnet National Ports Authority announced that the installation of “high-tech security fencing” around the port’s boundaries had started. The installation, expected to be completed by March 2024, was meant to curb crimes including theft and vandalism. 

Terrorism and stowaway risks

“With the Port of Durban housing a National Key Point – the Island View Complex, having a high security fence will tackle many safety issues caused by the public who [are] illegally accessing the port,” a Transnet National Ports Authority statement said.

“This is crucial to the safety of the port in limiting the risk of theft, vandalism, terrorism, stowaways and most importantly unauthorised entry to the port.”

The statement quoted Durban’s port manager Mpumi Dweba-Kwetana as saying the fence would mean “a decline in criminal activities including but not limited to theft and vandalism, which does pose a threat to our employees and tenants at large”.

DM168 initially asked Transnet, on 26 January, what other security measures were in place at the harbour.

Despite repeated follow-up emails and an initial commitment to reply, no response was provided.

In terms of cracking down on illegal cargo, Transnet previously 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 made via the South African Revenue Service (SARS).

Durban Port in KwaZulu-Natal. (Photo: Leila Dougan/Daily Maverick

Billion-rand bust

On 24 February, in the latest mass drug interception at Durban harbour, 378kg of cocaine, worth about R1.3-billion, was discovered in a container aboard a ship. While no arrests were announced, this week national police spokesperson Athlenda Mathe told DM168 investigations were progressing.

Last week, following the raid, both SARS Commissioner Edward Kieswetter and acting SAPS head Lieutenant General Tebello Mosikili said transnational traffickers were on authorities’ radar.

“This should send a stern warning to all drug traffickers utilising our harbours that South Africa continues to intensify its efforts to dismantle and disrupt the global drug trafficking trade,” Mosikili said.

The raid was carried out after a week-long intelligence operation that involved SARS and police officers monitoring the vessel that, according to a SARS statement, was “heading from South America”.

“The containers were inspected after they were unloaded in the Durban harbour. The inspection revealed zinc metal products and several black bags containing 378 bricks of pure cocaine,” the statement said.

“The illicit cargo and what appears to be cellular tracking devices, were handed over to SAPS for further investigations.”

DM168 understands that traffickers sometimes attach location tracking devices to drug consignments and place these in the sea, so that water currents move the parcels to the next intended pick-up point.


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


South Africa and Brazil

A SARS-issued photograph from the raid showed the partial name of a ship, which DM168 has established matches that of a container ship that was in Santos, Brazil, on 9 February ahead of arriving in Durban on 23 February, a day before the crackdown.

DM168 has previously reported that a two-decades-old cocaine-smuggling channel exists between the Port of Durban and Brazil’s Port of Santos.

One of Brazil’s most notorious gangs, Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), or First Capital Command, operates via the Port of Santos, along with the Italian Mafia group ‘Ndrangheta.

In November the Hawks announced that they had arrested eight suspects allegedly linked to cocaine trafficking between South Africa and Brazil.

Daily Maverick had reported that the arrests were connected to an incident dating back to June 2021 when a suspect driving a bakkie with a ski boat trailing behind it was arrested in Pretoria.

R400-million worth of cocaine had been found in the hull of the ski boat. Five other suspects were subsequently arrested, and police tried to trace three others – one from Israel, and two from Lithuania.

Ships, coffee and shoes

In October, Brazil’s Federal Police announced it had launched Operation Genesis, stemming from an investigation launched back in November 2021, aimed at dismantling international drug trafficking.

Part of this involved focusing on cocaine, intercepted at the Port of Santos, some of which was destined for Durban. Meanwhile, several individuals have been arrested for trying to smuggle smaller quantities of cocaine between South Africa and Brazil.

In one of the recent cases, Brazil’s Federal Police announced last month that a South African man, with an airline ticket to his home country, was arrested in that country in connection with four kilograms of cocaine.

He had allegedly tried to smuggle the drug inside shoes and coffee packaging. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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