Coke smugglers playing chicken with South Africa’s port authorities

Coke smugglers playing chicken with South Africa’s port authorities
In April 2023, authorities in Cape Town discovered cocaine worth R84m in the industrial area near Cape Town International Airport. (Photos: South African Police Service)

Cocaine hidden in frozen poultry has been found in Brazil, en route to South Africa – with some seasoning in Spain. Fruit exports are also a cover for drug shipments between the three countries.

Narcotraffickers are trying to push cocaine shipped from different ports in Brazil to South Africa, sometimes via Spain, hidden in consignments of frozen poultry.

Brazilian authorities have made interceptions that point to this new smuggling tactic and show how enmeshed South Africa is in global drug smuggling.

Though one of the latest cocaine interceptions in South Africa does not seem to link to Brazil, it highlights international drug routes.

Officers linked to the Port of Ngqura in East­ern Cape discovered 32 blocks of cocaine, worth about R12.8-million, in an empty cargo container, national police spokesperson Brigadier Athlenda Mathe said recently.

“The container was due to transport fruit from South Africa to the United Arab Emirates,” she said.

It is not the first time fruit has been used to disguise illicit drugs. In October last year, tik and cocaine worth billions of rands were discovered in consignments of apples, pears and oranges exported from South Africa to India. In November, a shipment of cocaine was found hidden beneath oranges sent from South Africa to the UK.

Powerful organised crime groups are linked to cocaine being smuggled to South Africa in chicken cargo shipped via Brazil.

Daily Maverick has reported extensively on how a thriving cocaine conduit exists between South Africa and Brazil.

The Hawks previously confirmed they were aware of a two-decades-old smuggling channel in operation between the Port of Durban, which global drug traffickers seem to favour, and the Port of Santos in Brazil.

Smugglers mostly seem to use the ports of Santos and Paranaguá in Brazil to traffic cocaine to South Africa. But Daily Maverick can now reveal that traffickers are using yet another Brazilian harbour, the Port of Itaguai, west of Rio de Janeiro, suggesting they could be expanding their activities, or moving their operations as authorities close in on them.

In some cases, the cocaine first stops over in Spain.

Brazil’s gangs plus Italy’s mafia

One of Brazil’s – and the world’s – powerful criminal gangs, the Primeiro Comando da Capital, or First Capital Command, is known to work with the Italian mafia group ’Ndrangheta.

On 15 June, Spain’s national police said several members of the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta, “in addition to being hidden in Spain, use the national territory as a logistics platform for drug trafficking and money laundering, among other criminal activities”.

This suggests these criminal gangs may be tied to the recent cocaine interceptions linked to Spain, Brazil and SA.

coke smugglers south africa

Police in Brazil discovered 276kg of cocaine at a port there in June 2023. The drug was hidden in boxes of frozen poultry cuts destined for South Africa. (Photo: Brazilian Federal Revenue Service)

On 20 June, the Federal Revenue Service in Brazil announced that, working with police, 276kg of cocaine was intercepted at the Port of Itaguai.

“The drug was hidden in a load of 2,400 boxes containing frozen poultry cuts and was destined for South Africa, with a stop at the port of Algeciras, in Spain.”

In a previous statement, the service said that 12kg of cocaine, alongside a container of frozen chicken, was intercepted at a terminal at the Port of Paranaguá on 9 May. The cocaine was meant to have been unloaded at Spain’s Port of Las Palmas before being sent to Durban.

“This is the second seizure carried out by the Federal Revenue in Paranaguá in the last four days, in an identical situation,” it said. “On May 5 … 22 kg of cocaine [was] found.”

Gizzards in Paranaguá

The “rip on/rip off” method was used. It involved 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.

There have been other poultry-cocaine interceptions linked to South Africa and Brazil.

Daily Maverick reported that cocaine concealed in frozen chicken gizzards, destined for Durban, was discovered at Brazil’s Port of Paranaguá in February.

It is not unusual for Brazil to export chicken to South Africa. It was previously reported in Daily Maverick that South Africa relies heavily on imports of chicken from Brazil.

Brazil is the world’s second-largest poultry-producing country.

Other countries have also been flagged in chicken-drug consignments. In January, cocaine was reportedly discovered in Hong Kong, concealed between boxes of frozen chicken feet, transported from Brazil.

Cocaine hidden in a truck transporting frozen chicken was reportedly intercepted in Australia in October last year, and four smugglers were jailed in the UK in 2020 for importing similar consignments.

Chicken and the sniffer dog

Cocaine concealed in – or as – chicken has previously also been flagged in Cape Town.

On 18 April, the City of Cape Town said a massive drug consignment was discovered in the Airport Industria area near Cape Town International Airport.

The South African Police Service had asked the Metro Police to help after being told there were drugs at premises in the area. “On their arrival, [members of the law enforcement team] were informed that a container, filled with poultry boxes, looked suspicious,” a city statement said. Sniffer dog K9 Khalesi gave a positive indication of the presence of drugs.

Western Cape police spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Malcolm Pojie said 16 boxes containing 140 bricks of cocaine, worth R84-million, were found in a container. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


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