Cocaine by the shipload – why narco-traffickers use maritime routes to push the drug through South Africa

Cocaine by the shipload – why narco-traffickers use maritime routes to push the drug through South Africa
The MSC Gayane. (Photo:Flickr)

DM168 has reported extensively on how global narco-traffickers push cocaine through the Port of Durban. A new United Nations report on the drug confirms that since the Covid-19 pandemic, smugglers targeting South Africa are increasingly using maritime routes.

Narco-traffickers prefer using maritime routes to pump cocaine into South Africa, meaning they are targeting the country’s harbours.

On 16 March, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released its Global Report on Cocaine 2023 – and South Africa featured prominently.

DM168 has reported extensively on how global traffickers are using Durban harbour to smuggle cocaine.

In one of the latest confiscations there, the South African Revenue Service said that on 23 February, 378kg of cocaine, worth about R1.3-billion, was discovered in a container aboard a ship in Durban.

The global report also flagged the harbour, saying: “Durban, one of the busiest ports in Africa, has recently been linked to a spate of large cocaine seizures.”

‘Record’ cocaine interceptions

It said that South African authorities reported “a record amount of cocaine seized”, suggesting more cocaine was being pushed into and through the country.

“Indeed, seizure data suggest that cocaine flows into South Africa have increased significantly in recent years, and a majority of this is likely further trafficked to other countries, consolidating South Africa’s long-standing role as a transit country, as confirmed by South African authorities.”

Smuggled from South America

The global report said shipments of cocaine were landing in South Africa from South America.

Some of the cocaine was destined for other countries including Hong Kong, Pakistan, the UK and Australia.

DM168 previously reported that Australia was closely linked to this country’s drug scene.

The global report said drug confiscations dropped in 2020 in Africa, Asia and East and southeast Europe “before rebounding in 2021”.

It said South African authorities reported that Covid-19, and presumably the lockdowns associated with it, “created a shift in international trafficking towards the use of vehicles and sea transportation”.

The report added: “In South Africa, the authorities reported traffickers were increasingly using maritime routes since the pandemic.”


Narcotraffickers using sea routes rely on corrupt workers on ships and at ports.

In South Africa, the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) was previously flagged when cocaine was discovered on one of its vessels.

At the time, November 2021, the Hawks issued a statement about R240-million worth of intercepted cocaine.

It said: “The team received information about the MSC vessel that was sailing from South America to South Africa transporting containers with wooden flooring boards [beneath] which cocaine had [been] concealed within the consignment.”

The Hawks did not say anything to suggest MSC staff were involved in the incident. 

This week MSC told DM168 that in 2022 it spent $100-million on cargo security.

“Today we have more than 50 ways to detect and disrupt container drug trafficking,” it said. 

Shipping company arrests

A massive case involving MSC is playing out in the US and highlights how drug cartels can infiltrate legitimate shipping business.

In June 2019, one of the largest cocaine interceptions in US history was recorded when more than $1-billion worth of cocaine was discovered on the MSC Gayane at the Port of Philadelphia.

Two MSC Gayane crew members, from Montenegro, were jailed over the smuggling conspiracy in the US – Ivan Durasevic for six-and-a-half years and Nenad Ilic for seven.

“Five other crew members from the MSC Gayane involved in this smuggling scheme were arrested, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, and have previously been sentenced based on their participation in the scheme,” the US Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of Pennsylvania said at the time.

Heavyweight boxer and Balkan cartel

At the end of October 2022, a former heavyweight boxer from Montenegro, Goran Gogic, was arrested in Miami in a case linked to the MSC Gayane scandal.

He was detained for allegedly violating the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act.


Aggregates for 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2019 were not available. (Source: United Nations Office on Drugs Crime, global report on Cocaine 2023)

According to a US government detention memorandum against Gogic, the trafficking syndicate he was allegedly part of would hoist loads of cocaine from speedboats onto commercial cargo ships at night off the coast of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Busted — Cocaine haul found in Brazilian port points straight towards dodgy Durban

“To physically load the cocaine aboard, they used the ship’s cranes as well as nets,” it said.

“Once the cocaine was on board, the crew members would secrete it within specific shipping containers that they knew had room to conceal the large quantities of cocaine they were trafficking and for which they had duplicate counterfeit container seals.”

This suggests the syndicate was using the rip on/rip off smuggling method, which is also used in South Africa.

Containers of cocaine

It involves corrupt workers at harbours tampering with cargo seals to secretly load drugs into containers at a departure port and retrieve it at a destination port without the ship authorities, or those involved in importing or exporting the cargo, knowing.

In the case of Gogic, the detention memorandum against him said it was part of “an extensive federal investigation into the criminal activities of a vast international narcotrafficking conspiracy responsible for transporting multiton loads of cocaine”.

It added: “[Gogic] and his co-conspirators used commercial container maritime vessels that transited from South America to the United States to Europe to transport cocaine for cartels in the Balkans.”

DM168 has previously reported that Balkan criminals also operate via South Africa.

This week, MSC told DM168 the MSC Gayane scandal was “a wake-up call for the entire container shipping and logistics industry, given the elaborate nature of the underlying criminal activity”.

It added “The traffickers behind the MSC Gayane incident used groundbreaking methods to smuggle their drugs and the operation could not have been foreseen or predicted by any honest shipping operator.” DM168

Caryn Dolley has spent years tracing the footprints of crime/drug kingpins from across the world. In her latest book, Clash of the Cartels, Dolley provides unprecedented insight into how specific drug cartels and syndicates have operated via South Africa, becoming embroiled in deadly violence in the country and bolstering local criminal networks. Available now from the Daily Maverick Shop.

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


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