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Five suspected traffickers arrested at OR Tambo airport in sting after R500m cocaine flown from SA to Australia

Five suspected traffickers arrested at OR Tambo airport in sting after R500m cocaine flown from SA to Australia
Illustrative image: The Australian Federal Police intercepted 100kg of cocaine, smuggled via a plane from South Africa, during the first week of October 2023 | An Australian police project, codenamed Operation Lucian, started in October 2022 and resulted in arrests, related to cocaine and South Africa, in October 2023 (Photos: Australian Federal Police / iStock)

In October, Australian cops arrested five suspected traffickers after R500-million cocaine landed there on a plane from SA. Now police in this country say in the first crackdown of its kind, they have arrested another five suspects — at OR Tambo International Airport.

Police officers in Australia last month made several arrests when intercepting a cocaine consignment flown to Sydney on a passenger plane from South Africa.

Two of the five suspects who were detained on 7 October 2023 in Australia were apparently baggage handlers.

Trio of crackdowns

According to the Australian Federal Police, the crackdown happened after a year of investigations that started “in October 2022 following a report from an airline of suspicious activity that occurred near the cargo area of a Sydney-bound flight in Johannesburg”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Australian cops ground suspected traffickers after cocaine worth R500m flown in from SA

After the five arrests in Australia, Daily Maverick last week reported that a massive crackdown in Turkey, targeting an outlaw motorcycle gang with a strong base in Australia, was carried out and that too had links to South Africa.

In that case, which involved more than 30 arrests carried out in Turkey and investigations into narcotrafficking that stretched to South Africa, a man named Hakan Ayik was among those detained.

Aside from drug smuggling, Ayik allegedly promoted the use of encrypted communication devices, some of which landed in South Africa, that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation secretly monitored.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘Most-wanted drug trafficker’ accused of peddling FBI hacked phones linked to South Africa, arrested in Turkey

Ayik was reportedly once also involved with cocaine being flown out of South Africa.

Now, in the third bust linked to Australia and this country in just more than a month, national Hawks spokesperson Colonel Katlego Mogale said five suspects were arrested at OR Tambo International Airport (ORTIA) on Wednesday, 15 November 2023.

Airport arrests linked to Australia

They were detained for alleged drug trafficking, and contravening the Civil Aviation Act, as well as the Customs and Excise Act.

Mogale, in a statement, said this was “after a large drugs consignment was recently confiscated in Australia and two suspects arrested.”

That consignment was not detailed but could be the R500-million bust of 7 October involving cocaine flown on a passenger plane from South Africa to Sydney. 

However, that incident involved a total of five arrests (of which two were baggage handlers) in Australia, and not two as Mogale said.

In terms of the five arrests in South Africa, Mogale explained: “These suspects are employees of various companies at ORTIA where they are said to be facilitating the thoroughfare of drugs coming into and out of the airport.”

Two of the suspects worked for the Airports Company South Africa, two worked for Menzies Aviation, while a fifth was employed at Swissport.

They were expected in the Kempton Park Magistrate’s Court on Friday, 17 November 2023.

‘First bust’ and previous smuggling

“This is a first operation of its kind in relation to transnational drug trafficking perpetrated through ORTIA, where a drug seizure made abroad was positively linked to suspects in South Africa for their complicity,” Mogale said.

However, it is not the first time drugs have been smuggled on a plane from an airport in South Africa to Australia.

A chapter in this journalist’s book, Clash of the Cartels: Unmasking the global drug kingpins stalking South Africa, focuses on another case.

That case, which played out in Australia, involved Damion Flower and John Mafiti, who about 23 years ago worked as baggage handlers for Qantas airline at Sydney International Airport.

Joburg to Sydney

Both were arrested in May 2019 and later convicted.

A 2020 New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal judgment against Flower and Mafiti said they smuggled cocaine using commercial flights taking a particular route and landing in Sydney.

The judgment said: “The alleged modus operandi was that cocaine would arrive at the airport in quantities of around 20-25kg, aboard a Qantas flight from Johannesburg, South Africa (being flight QF64).”

This was similar to how the 100kg cocaine haul from South Africa was smuggled to Australia last month, leading to the five arrests there.

Among those arrested in Australia in that case, aside from the two baggage handlers, was Ahmed Haoucher, the alleged facilitator of the cocaine consignment.

Lamborghini and luxury watches

A man with the same surname, Bilal Haouchar, who was wanted in Australia, was reportedly arrested in Lebanon this week.

On Wednesday, 15 November, the same day as the ORTIA arrests, Australia’s New South Wales police announced that they had dismantled an international criminal syndicate.

This had involved executing 43 arrest warrants, including one linked to a man in Lebanon (presumably Bilal Haouchar who was reportedly arrested this week), as part of an international criminal syndicate

Another of the arrests was carried out at Sydney International Airport — the Sydney Morning Herold named the man detained there as Bilal Haouchar’s brother, Nedal.

New South Wales cops, according to a police statement, said the arrests happened after a year of investigations.

Officers had acted “to target the activities of a syndicate originating from Lebanon, linked to the movement of over $1-billion through firearm, drug, tobacco, and money laundering offences.”

The police statement added: “Across the course of the investigation, a total of 25 firearms have been seized… as well as… nearly $1-million in cash, $2-million in cryptocurrency, a Lamborghini, over $3-million worth of luxury watches, equipment consistent with drug manufacture, and two tonnes of prohibited drugs and precursor drugs with a street value of over $130-million”. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Betsy Kuhn says:

    How did this get pas oliver tambo’s customs….problem needs to be investigated, much bigger than we thought

  • John Cartwright says:

    Good PR, but this is a drop in the bucket in relation to the quantities of banned substances flowing through Cape Town. This sad farce will continue as long as the state authorities are fixated on prohibition as a ‘cure’ for the drug trade. The only rational and proven way forward is the ecriminalisation and appropriate regulation along the lines of the two well known drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

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