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ILLEGAL SMUGGLING

Busted — Cocaine haul found in Brazilian port points straight towards dodgy Durban

Busted — Cocaine haul found in Brazilian port points straight towards dodgy Durban
Revenue service officials in Brazil intercepted cocaine concealed in a consignment of chicken gizzards at the Port of Paranagua in February 2023. It was destined for Durban. Narcotraffrickers operating via Durban also use Brazil's Port of Santos. (Photos: Brazil's federal revenue service)

A second port in Brazil has been linked to a drug-smuggling route for shipping containers with illicit cargo travelling between the South American country and South Africa’s biggest harbour.

The first cocaine crackdown carried out at Brazil’s Port of Paranagua this year is directly linked to South Africa and points to yet another route that global narco­traffickers are using between countries. 

Police investigations in Brazil focused on Paranagua also highlight how traffickers use a smuggling method reliant on corrupt workers at port terminals, and the link to South Africa implies that crooks are embedded in harbours here too.

DM168 has 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.

Cops and crooks

South African police are aware of the Durban-Santos route and have flagged cops as being complicit with criminals operating via Durban.

One of Brazil’s – and the world’s – most powerful criminal gangs, the Primeiro Comando da Capital, or First Capital Command, is among the organised crime syndicates known to use the Port of Santos for drug smuggling. It also appears that narco­traffickers are using the Port of Paranagua, on the coast of Parana province, to try to smuggle drugs to South Africa.

DM168 has established that several cocaine consignments previously intercepted at Paranagua had been destined for countries including Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. South Africa has joined this list.

Cocaine and gizzards

On 23 February, Brazil’s finance ministry announced that its first cocaine interception this year at the Paranagua port had been carried out on that day.

A container destined for Durban was its focus. DM168 has reported extensively on how global narcotraffickers use this port.

In a statement, the ministry said the container was selected for inspection and the country’s federal revenue service decided to scan it. “The cocaine [was] hidden in the container’s refrigerated engine, which was loaded with 27 tons of chicken gizzards,” it said. 

“The preliminary investigation indicates that the drug was introduced into the container without the knowledge of either the exporter or the importer.”

Mafia links

In February last year, Brazil’s Federal Police launched two operations to dismantle organised crime groups sending cocaine from South America to Europe. They discovered that these gangs were working with Italy’s Mafia.

Primeiro Comando da Capital is known to work with the Italian Mafia group ‘Ndrangheta. DM168 understands that these gangs could be operating between Brazilian ports and Durban.

Meanwhile, in 2021, the Federal Police, along with the revenue service, launched a project code-named Operation Reach Stickers, aimed at dismantling organised crime groups that were operating inside terminals at the Port of Paranagua.

“Those under investigation are responsible for providing privileged information about positions, routes and cargo of containers to support criminal organisations in actions in the Port of Paranagua, in addition to moving containers in order to allow the insertion of cocaine shipments inside the port terminal yard,” a Federal Police statement said.

Containers ripped off

Criminals, according to the Federal Police’s statement, were trafficking drugs using a method known as “rip-on/rip-off”. This method is used around the world, especially with containers on ships.

It involves drugs being secretly loaded inside cargo at a departure port, and then retrieved at the destination port without the knowledge of the ship authorities or those importing or exporting the cargo.

Corrupt workers at the two ports tamper with the original cargo seals and replace them to disguise what they have done.

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This suggests that if the cocaine concealed in chicken gizzards at the Port of Paranagua had not been intercepted in February, corrupt port – or related – workers could have been waiting to receive the drugs on arrival at Durban harbour.

The rip on/rip off method was previously flagged in South Africa that involved Durban.

Repeat trails to Durban

In June 2021, according to Hawks head Lieutenant General Godfrey Lebeya, a total of 541kg of cocaine worth about R216.4-million was discovered in “canvas bags placed in a legitimate shipment of animal food at Isipingo, Durban”.

Lebeya said the the rip on/rip off method was used with “a duplicate seal placed inside [a container] for easy resealing after the extraction [of the drugs] by the trafficking organisation”.

Two months later, in August 2021, the Hawks also announced that the method had been used in the smuggling of cocaine worth R500-million. The drugs had been hidden in a container of truck parts sent to Durban harbour.

“Initial investigations revealed that it would be a ‘rip-on/rip-off’ situation, where the drugs would be removed from the container clandestinely and the container seal replaced,” Hawks spokesperson Katlego Mogale said at the time.

“Upon searching the container, several black canvas bags wrapped in plastic were placed at the entrance of the container… It was established that the container was packed with cocaine bricks contained in the black canvas bags.”

No arrests were announced at the time.

Ship boarded

The recent interception of cocaine at the Port of Paranagua suggests that corrupt workers could still be operating at Durban as they would have been needed to receive the consignment. 

DM168 recently reported that Transnet is building a hi-tech fence around the Port of Durban to boost security there, although this will not address the issue of corruption.

On 26 January, DM168 sent Transnet questions about security at the port, but has still not received a reply. 

Transnet previously indicated that it did not have sight of what was carried in containers arriving in or leaving South Africa. It said it did, however, cooperate with government authorities when illegal substances or items were found.

On 23 February, the day of the Paranagua interception, 378kg of cocaine, worth about R1.3-billion was discovered in a container aboard a ship in Durban.

Police officers had boarded the ship, which came from South America, before the containers were offloaded at the port where workers could handle them.

A South African Revenue Service statement said this was done “to secure several containers”. DM168

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

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