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R70m cocaine seized in Durban harbour months after ‘cartel diver’ boarding SA flight arrested in Brazil 

R70m cocaine seized in Durban harbour months after ‘cartel diver’ boarding SA flight arrested in Brazil 
From Left: R70-million worth of cocaine was discovered on a vessel in Durban harbour on Wednesday 18 October, 2023. The vessel travelled from Brazil. (Photo: South African Police Service) | In August 2023, Brazil's Federal Police intercepted 760kg of cocaine at the Port of Navegantes. The cocaine was reportedly destined for South Africa. (Photo: Brazil's Federal Police)

For a month cops kept tabs on a vessel making its way from Brazil to SA — and on Wednesday intercepted R70-million worth of cocaine on it. This comes months after a diver, who allegedly helped store drugs on ships, was arrested in Brazil as he was about to board a flight to this country.

The inner operations of how traffickers are using maritime routes to smuggle cocaine between South Africa and Brazil are being exposed following crackdowns in both countries, one involving cocaine worth R70-million being discovered on a ship in Durban this week.

Daily Maverick can also reveal that at least four harbours in Brazil have been linked to drug trafficking in South Africa — in August 2023 cocaine, that may have been destined for this country, was intercepted at two of those four harbours.

And a few months ago, a professional diver, suspected of being part of an international drug trafficking cartel, was arrested in Brazil as he was about to board a flight to South Africa.

This all points to how deeply entrenched mass cocaine smuggling between South Africa and Brazil is.

Trafficking via Durban

Daily Maverick has extensively reported on this, previously revealing that the Hawks are aware that a smuggling channel between the two countries has existed for about 20 years.

It has also been reported that global drug traffickers favour Durban harbour, with several mass cocaine interceptions there.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Cocaine’s deadly destinations – the Durban link to the bodies piling up in Brazil’s drug battles

In the cocaine confiscation in Durban harbour this week, national police spokesperson Brigadier Athlenda Mathe said the crackdown was part of a Hawks investigation.

She said for the past month, police officers at Durban harbour had kept surveillance on a vessel making its way there from Brazil.

Cocaine in paint containers

“Prior to the vessel arriving at the Port of Durban, members intercepted [it] and mobilised various units and resources to conduct a search and seizure operation on… identified containers,” Mathe said.

On Wednesday, 18 October 2023, paint containers that could each hold up to 20 litres were seized.

“Inside, police found 200 blocks of cocaine worth R70-million,” Mathe said.

Police Minister Bheki Cele, referring to the interception, said: “We will continue to stamp the authority of the state, we are strengthening our response and our strategy in dealing with these syndicates”.

Meanwhile, authorities in Brazil have also been cracking down on traffickers in cases linked to South Africa.

Drugs hidden in a hull

Brazil’s Federal Police announced in May this year that officers had been involved in a clampdown on international drug dealing.

Investigations that led up to that started on 29 March 2023.

In a statement, Brazil’s Federal Police said that subsequently, on the morning of 10 May 2023, search operations were carried out in Brazil’s southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul, another southern state, Santa Catarina, as well as in Espírito Santo along its eastern coast, and in Sao Paulo.

According to the statement, the investigations that led to the search operations were launched after “the Brazilian Navy seized, in Rio Grande, 206kg of cocaine hidden in the hull of a ship, which was destined for the Port of Setúbal, in Portugal”.

Diver detained

That cocaine had been hidden in a chest, found to have been previously manoeuvred by divers and fitted with trackers, on a ship.

This suggests the chest with cocaine in it may have been floated out to sea from one vessel so that divers could retrieve it and move it to the ship.

The Brazilian Federal Police statement said that investigations led to focus being placed on a professional diver “whose role in the criminal organisation consists of storing the drug on ships docked in Brazilian port terminals, as well as removing it from the sea boxes, through diving activity abroad”.

It added: “The investigated diver was arrested in Sao Paulo while boarding a flight to South Africa.”

Trafficking ties

In Brazil, various ports there have been used to traffic cocaine to and from South Africa.

It was previously reported that traffickers operated between Durban and the Port of Santos — a route that had been on South African authorities’ radar since the early 2000s.

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

Cocaine linked to South Africa has also been intercepted at Brazil’s harbour in Paranaguá.

On 18 August 2023, Brazil’s Federal Revenue Service announced it had seized 55 kilograms of cocaine at the Port of Paranagua “in a load of furniture destined for the Port of Durban, in South Africa”. 

“During the inspection, the Federal Revenue’s scent dog was used, which identified the presence of cocaine in the container.”

A statement added that the “rip on/rip off” method was used.

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

Daily Maverick revealed in July this year that traffickers operating via South Africa were using a third 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.

Concealed in ceramic enamel

It since appears they may be using yet another port — a fourth one — in Brazil.

On 9 August 2023 Brazil’s Federal Police announced that 760 kilograms of cocaine was discovered at the Port of Navegantes.

“The drug, which was hidden in two containers of ceramic enamel cargo, is the biggest seizure of the year,” a Federal Police statement said.

Several Brazilian news agencies reported that the cocaine was destined for South Africa

Cartel arrests

In November last year, eight suspects were arrested in South Africa for their alleged involvement in international cocaine trafficking, including via Brazil.

Boats, a rubber duck and a bakkie, worth nearly R19-million, had also been seized.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Crackdown — Suspected global cocaine smugglers arrested in SA in joint US-Australia ‘underworld hack’ swoop

Daily Maverick previously reported that Gilberto Aparecido dos Santos, also known as Fuminho and from Brazil, had visited South Africa ahead of his 2020 arrest in Mozambique. 

He was allegedly linked to one of Brazil’s most powerful criminal gangs, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), or First Capital Command.

Read more in Daily Maverick:  Blood ties: South Africa caught in a web of murderous, drug-smuggling Brazilian gangs

It was widely suspected the PCC was among the global gangs operating via, and smuggling cocaine through, South Africa.

Cop collusion

Underpinning crackdowns on cocaine traffickers in South Africa are suspicions that police officers are sometimes involved in drug smuggling.

Last year Hawks spokesperson Katlego Mogale told Daily Maverick: “Police officers have previously been arrested in cocaine interceptions, particularly related to Durban. [A] special task team has been assigned to conduct investigations which are ongoing and still sensitive.”

In July 2021 cocaine worth R200-million was discovered in a bakkie following the hijacking of a cargo truck after it left Durban harbour.

Police officers had been among those arrested for that.

A few months later, in November 2021, the Hawks announced that 514kg of cocaine, worth about R200-million, had been stolen from its Serious Organised Crime offices in Port Shepstone in KwaZulu-Natal.

Suspects had apparently forced open windows to get into the building and tampered with a safe in which evidence was kept.

In this journalist’s book, Clash of the Cartels: Unmasking the global drug kingpins stalking South Africa, it said that it was believed that the stolen cocaine was the consignment intercepted in July 2021 when cops were among those arrested.

Other suspicions relating to that burglary, the book said, “were along the lines that the theft was an inside job, and cops had been bribed by suspects linked to powerful international cartels from Brazil, Serbia or both, to ensure the cocaine was retrieved.” DM

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