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Unmasking the ‘cocaine cartel’ diver arrested in Brazil en route to South Africa

Unmasking the ‘cocaine cartel’ diver arrested in Brazil en route to South Africa
Left: Police divers find cocaine on a ship reportedly destined for South Africa. Right: Traffickers operating via Brazil use divers to hide drugs in the hulls of ships. (Photo: Brazil’s Federal Police)

Parcels found floating around a sailboat in Turkey led up to the arrest in 2023 of a diver, accused of hiding drugs in ships, in Brazil as he was about to board a flight to South Africa.

On the morning of 13 October 2022 customs officers in Turkey flagged a sailboat near the Antalya port that was travelling alongside a commercial vessel.

When they approached it, they noticed packages floating in the water.

They also saw a diver near the vessel and moved towards him, but he fled.

The diver was identified as Lucas Vieira Donati, who was based in Espírito Santo, on Brazil’s eastern coast.

Daily Maverick has reported that in May 2023 a diver was arrested in Brazil as he was boarding a flight to South Africa.

Read more in Daily Maverick: R70m cocaine seized in Durban harbour months after ‘cartel diver’ boarding SA flight arrested in Brazil

It turns out that the diver was, in fact, Donati and that when he was detained, he may have been heading to Durban, which international narcotraffickers seem to favour, using its seaport for smuggling operations.

According to media in Brazil, in January 2024 Donati was sentenced to nearly 12 years in prison there for international drug trafficking.

Court papers from Brazil, dated 2023, provide details about what Donati got up to ahead of his attempted trip to this country – as well as insight into how some transnational traffickers operate.

Hidden in a hull

Drug smuggling between South Africa and Brazil is a major problem and affects several other states.

More than two months before early December 2023, cocaine worth more than R360-million from Brazil was discovered in South Africa. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: More cocaine seized in Durban as Brazil cops confiscate consignment hidden en route to SA

Meanwhile, in February 2024, the month after Donati was sentenced, divers attached to Brazil’s Federal Police discovered a 124kg cocaine consignment in the hull of a ship anchored in the Imbituba port in Santa Catarina.

The drugs were reportedly destined for South Africa.

According to a Federal Police statement, the February cocaine crackdown took place after drugs were spotted “floating in Santa Catarina waters”.

The discovery of drugs hidden in the ship’s hull suggested divers were involved in getting the drugs concealed there and were prepared to remove the consignment when necessary.

This is the arena into which Donati fits.

A LinkedIn profile under his name and showing the same workplace as that identified as Donati’s in court papers, said he was a commercial diver, welder and underwater cutter.

That profile also said he had served in the Brazilian Army, was committed to his work, and had the ability to learn new roles.

The Brazilian court papers from 2023, which provide details about Donati, relate to the detention of another suspect, Gercy Izaias Mendes Junior.

cocaine Brazil

The cocaine intercepted in February. (Photo: Brazil’s Federal Police)

International travels

Those papers say Donati had travelled to Portugal three times between November 2021 and the end of 2022.

It was not clear if his trip to Turkey in 2022 – during which customs officials saw him recovering drugs from a vessel and fleeing when they approached – involved him later making his way to Portugal.

According to the court papers, travel records showed that in February 2023 Donati headed to Morocco with a stopover in Portugal.

He returned to Brazil later that month.

The papers say that about a month later, Donati was spotted at the Rio Grande bus station greeting Mendes Junior, who, by that stage, was suspected of being involved in drug trafficking.

Surveillance was subsequently carried out on the Jeep that Donati used – Federal Police officers tracked it on the nights of 23, 25, 26 and 27 March 2023, when they saw drugs being inserted into a ship, as well as on the morning of 28 March.

Tracking devices

During that time Donati and Mendes Junior, according to the court papers, went to shopping malls and bought tracking devices.

A previous statement by Brazil’s Federal Police picks up the sequence of events.

Investigations escalated on 29 March 2023.

Brazil’s Federal Police said this led to search operations being conducted on 10 May 2023, in that country’s southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul, another southern state, Santa Catarina, as well as in Espírito Santo (where Donati was based), and in São Paulo.

According to the Federal Police statement, those 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”.

Dodgy diving

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

According to the Brazilian Federal Police statement, investigations led to a professional diver – who Daily Maverick established is Donati – “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”.

Donati was arrested around May 2023 in São Paulo while boarding a flight to South Africa.

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

Based on other court papers from Brazil, he planned to travel to Durban. It was not clear what he intended to do in this country.

Lucas Vieira Donati cocaine

Lucas Vieira Donati was arrested in May 2023. (Photo: Instagram)

Brazilian gang

According to the court documents linked to Mendes Junior, inserting drugs into the hulls of ships was a trafficking method usually used by members of one of Brazil’s most powerful gangs, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), or First Capital Command.

Daily Maverick has detailed before how alleged PCC boss Gilberto Aparecido dos Santos, also known as Fuminho, was once in South Africa.

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

Sources in police circles in this country suspect Dos Santos, and the PCC, operate here.

The hull-smuggling modus operandi has been flagged in other countries too. 

Tried-and-trusted method

In June 2021 an 805kg cocaine consignment was found hidden inside the hull of the ski-boat that was being towed along the N1 highway in Tshwane.

Several suspects, allegedly involved in cocaine smuggling between Brazil and South Africa, were subsequently arrested in connection with that.

In November 2023, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) announced that about 150kg of cocaine had been discovered in the hull of a ship.

Police there had used a remotely operated vehicle to search the vessel when it arrived in Melbourne from South America.

A statement at the time said: “The AFP is warning criminals their attempts to hide illicit drugs in the hull of cargo ships continues to be disrupted by law enforcement.” DM

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


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Frank Fettig says:

    And where’s the ANC in this?

  • Johan Buys says:

    Attaching drugs below the water (in a pod onto the hull) would make it damned hard to find in a search.

  • Andries Gouws says:

    How does it work that a diver is involved with getting stuff INSIDE the hull of a ship? My stereotype of divers places them in the water, i.e. OUTSIDE any ship. Please clarify!

    • Charles Parr says:

      I’d say that the drugs are transported across the ocean in big ships and when they get near the coast of the destination country the packages are thrown overboard to be collected by smaller vessels that can dock in places where there is a lower chance of being discovered. Some packages don’t float as well as others and hence the need for divers.

  • Stef Viljoen Viljoen says:

    Sea chest. They can be quite large on big ships.

  • Patterson Alan John says:

    I guess that the pod containing the drugs is welded to the hull and designed for easy removal and recovery of the drug consignment. A noiseless process of attachment and removal and a wide choice of maritime vessels plying the oceans across the world.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    What an interesting story – well done to all the security personal ( including our own) who have kept pace with all of this – great job!

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