South Africa


Suspected drug traffickers arrests at OR Tambo airport echo prior SA-Australia ‘cocaine plane’ smuggling scheme

Suspected drug traffickers arrests at OR Tambo airport echo prior SA-Australia ‘cocaine plane’ smuggling scheme
Illustrative image: (Photos: Rawpixel | iStock | Supplied)

Five suspected drug traffickers have been arrested at OR Tambo International Airport after a separate earlier crackdown in Australia for cocaine smuggled there on a plane. Journalist Caryn Dolley’s Book ‘Clash of the Cartels’ details another case involving drugs being flown out of SA.

There are clear drug trafficking conduits between South Africa and Australia.

One of the standout cases stems from 2019.

It involved a 20-tonne excavator that arrived in Australia from South Africa — 384kg of cocaine, worth about R1.4-billion, was discovered crammed inside it.

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa’s lucrative drugs highway to the land Down Under

Traffickers have resorted to various other methods to try and get drugs into that country.

In January 2021, for example, 81kg of methamphetamine was discovered inside a consignment of meat smokers delivered to Melbourne from Cape Town.

In one of the most recent crackdowns linked to Australia and South Africa, five suspects were arrested at OR Tambo International Airport (ORTIA) on Wednesday, 15 November 2023.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Five suspected traffickers arrested at OR Tambo airport in sting after R500m cocaine flown from SA to Australia

The month before, in October, five suspects were arrested in Australia after R500-million of cocaine was flown there from South Africa.

More details about cocaine being smuggled on planes between South Africa and Australia are contained in this journalist’s book, Clash of the Cartels: Unmasking the global drug kingpins stalking South Africa.

Here we include an extract:


Getting high

While cocaine makes its way between Australia and SA via the sea, there are also consignments flying back and forth, especially between Sydney and Johannesburg. 

Back in 2000 two men, Damion Flower and John Mafiti, worked as baggage handlers for the airline Qantas at Sydney International Airport.

It was alleged that, instead of simply doing their jobs, they were also handling much more lucrative items — consignments of cocaine. 

Flower left his job as a baggage handler in 2004, but seemed to stay in touch with Mafiti. 

This all happened at roughly the same time a syndicate was planning to use airline baggage handlers to get cocaine into Australia. 

That year, 2004, the syndicate allegedly smuggled 10 kilograms into the country from South America. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: The curious case of the snoozing skipper, an angry seal and drug smuggling off SA’s coast

Members of this criminal organisation included a rugby player, Les Mara (who later pleaded guilty to conspiracy to import a drug), and a man viewed as Australia’s cocaine importing king, Michael Hurley (who died in 2007 before he could go on trial).

The Flower-Mafiti case also involved cocaine being flown into Oz. 

“The alleged modus operandi was that cocaine would arrive at the airport in quantities of around 20-25 kg, aboard a Qantas flight from Johannesburg… (being flight QF64),” court papers would later reveal. 

“It would be packed inside a duffle or sports-type bag which had been placed in one of the baggage containers in the cargo hold.” 

Flower, via coded cellphone text message, would tell Mafiti which bags to intercept.

“Mafiti would then remove the bag from that container and carry it off the airport premises, avoiding customs scrutiny by virtue of his employment, and pass the bag on to others.” 

Authorities in Australia suspected that between 1 June 2016 and 22 May 2019, Flower was involved in 43 actual or attempted cocaine importations. 

Three of these were intercepted. 

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

In one of these interceptions, on 29 June 2016, Australian Border Force cops discovered an unclaimed sports bag arriving on a Qantas flight. 

They searched it and found 24 blocks of cocaine, each weighing a kilogram. 

In the two days leading up to this, Flower sent 12 text messages to Mafiti.

The day after the cocaine touched down, Mafiti used his security pass to get into the airport even though he was not on duty. 

Evidence was stacking up against him. 

“In 2019, there were six alleged importations,” a court judgment in the matter later stated.

“The prosecution case includes CCTV images of Mafiti entering and exiting the airport on the date of each alleged importation. He is seen not to be carrying a bag when entering the airport and exiting the airport with a large black bag over a shoulder.”

It was suspected that Flower and Mafiti communicated via carefully coded text messages to try to disguise what they were really discussing. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: No business like blow business: Encrypted devices unravel knots of worldwide organised crime

Flower, it was further suspected, used three phones, subscribed in the names of other people and which authorities viewed as “covert phones”, to message Mafiti.

“The texts incorporated three numbers that coincided with the last three numbers of the relevant baggage container, from which Mafiti was observed to retrieve a bag, later found to contain 1 kg blocks of cocaine. The texts also incorporated a reference to a city in New Zealand, which would appear on a label on the bag as the city to which the bag was to be forwarded.”

Both Flower and Mafiti were arrested in May 2019.

Three phones were confiscated from Flower’s vehicle.

One of these, according to Australian authorities, “was connected to a South African ‘Vodacom Vibe’ mobile phone handset.” 

The seized gadget added to the shadowy SA-Australia connections. 

Flower would apparently not give police a password for the confiscated phone that turned out to be encrypted.

“Police also seized multiple mobile phones and SIM cards from [his] residence.” 

Following Flower’s detention, cops found a bag at his home containing AU$119,800, as well as AU$11,000 in his vehicle.

Flower countered that this was nothing unusual because of the work he was involved in — he “had a flourishing business and in particular whose interests and occupation involved horse racing and gambling”.

Horse racing and more gambling

When Flower left his job as a baggage handler in 2004, he got into the horseracing industry. 

That same year he got into trouble — he was ordered to pay compensation of AU$1,000 in the Melbourne Magistrate’s Court for an incident recorded in court papers simply as “recklessly causing injury”.

Five years later, in 2009, Flower again found himself on the wrong side of the law — he was convicted in a Queensland court for “a serious assault of a police officer or a person acting in aid of a police officer, and committing a public nuisance”. 

This incident didn’t lead to any jail time or a fine.

Flower, together with Mafiti, was suspected of importing cocaine from SA into Australia between June 2016 and May 2019, the same month as their arrests — which means Flower was taken into custody, already with a criminal record and while fully involved on the horseracing track. 

He was the sole director of two companies. 

One traded “in horse bloodstock by buying and selling racehorses, syndicating and managing racehorses, stabling and training racehorses, racing and breeding racehorses, as well as gambling on racehorses”.

This company also purchased commercial and residential property. 

The second company operated a horse-training complex. 

Flower’s May 2019 arrest and detention in custody severely impacted his business, and he had to sell 23 horses.

In March 2021, Flower pleaded guilty to importing drugs. 

Mafiti followed him to prison. 

The case finally concluded in February 2022 when Flower was sentenced to 28 years in jail, with a non-parole period of 17 years.

Mafiti was slapped with a 23-year sentence of which 14 were a non-parole period. 

The Australian Federal Police referred to the duo as “two members of a criminal syndicate”, implying that many other figures had been working with them. DM


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