Cocaine – the South Africa connection

South Africa has become a major transit-point for the drugs trade, some of which is destined for Britain.

South African police, co-operating with their Brazilian counterparts, are attempting to end a cocaine smuggle operation which has involved container loads of drugs, some of which were destined for the British market. The case underlines the importance of South Africa as a transit-point in the international drugs trade.

The key suspect is a Cuban exile, Nelson Yester-Garrido, who fled to South Africa in 1997 from the United States. He was wanted for attempting to buy a Soviet-era submarine to smuggle industrial quantities of cocaine into America.

The story had all the elements of a spy-thriller, complete with fast cars, expensive properties a racy life-style and plenty of dead bodies. The only difference is that it was not fiction. The United States attempted to have Yester-Garrido extradited. 

Affidavits seen by South Africa’s Mail and Guardian newspaper attached to the request outline the story.

“[Yester-Garrido] and this group were negotiating for the purchase of a Russian diesel submarine for Columbian drug suppliers, who intended to use it to transport cocaine to the west coast of the US and Canada,” one affidavit said. That attempt was foiled, and with the American police on his trail, Yester-Garrido fled to South Africa.

There he is alleged to have continued his drugs dealing, leading to his arrest in August 2010. Chris Els, of the South African Police, told the New Statesman that the investigation is continuing, since those involved are still plying their trade. “They won’t stop,” he said. Brazilian authorities are holding eight suspects in an operation that was co-ordinated with the South African authorities. “The Brazilian end is still being sorted out,” said Warrant-Officer Els.

The South African arrests took place in a raid during which 166 kilos of cocaine were seized at the port of Ngqura, near Port Elizabeth. The drugs were found hidden in the metal pillars of a container transporting used cooking oil.

According to Officer Els, the container only one of a number being used by the smugglers, some of which had slipped past the authorities. “A further three to four containers are still outstanding,” he said.

The British link was revealed in what was probably the most high-profile conviction since the end of apartheid. South Africa’s most senior law enforcement officer, Jackie Selebi, the National Police Commissioner was convicted of corruption and sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment in 2010.

Selebi had been a trusted associate of President Thabo Mbeki. He became the first African to hold the post of president of Interpol, amid much publicity. Selebi was found guilty of accepting cash in brown paper bags from a known drugs trafficker, Glen Agliotti.  Selebi and Agliotti used to meet almost daily at the Brazilian coffee shop in Sandton, a plush Johannesburg suburb. Among those sharing their table was Yester-Garrido.

It was during the Selebi trial that documents were produced, indicating the route into Britain.

UK Customs and Excise had contacted the South African police seeking information about Agliotti. He was accused of trafficking "significant quantities of cocaine to the UK" in association with others. The drugs, hidden in a container of furniture, would be flown from Venezuela to Angola and then driven by road to South Africa. According to the information, a dummy run had been conducted via Tilbury in 2004. Three "clean" containers would precede a further three "dirty" containers, which would be packed with drugs. A British associate; "Baldy John" was named in the document, complete with his address and mobile phone numbers.

Unfortunately for UK Customs and Excise, the docket was passed from Selebi to Agliotti, who shared it with Yester-Garrido. Agliotti subsequently turned state evidence, helping to convict the Police Commissioner, and escaped prosecution.

The South African police are currently searching for a number of others involved in the current cocaine shipment. These include Shane Paul Bhatti, who has lived in both Zambia and Zimbabwe.  Warrant-Officer Els says he has spoken to Bhatti, who was considering handing himself in for questioning. But the murder of an associate, Chris Couremetis, who was gunned down at a wedding, has left Bhatti fearing for his life. The murder had all the hallmarks of an assassination, with Couremetis, known locally as "Mr Cocaine", killed by two men armed with an AK-47 and a 9mm handgun, as he got out of his Porsche Cayenne. Nelson Yester-Garrido, who was allegedly found with a gun belonging to Couremetis, was questioned at the time.

Officer Els says the US Drug Enforcement Agency are also involve in the case. In a statement, the head of the DEA’s Europe and Africa Section, Special Agent Jeff Breeden said that Yester Garrido is still "a fugitive of ours from a case against him in Miami." The DEA expects the South African authorities to deal with him, but they refused to comment further as the Miami case was still open.

South Africa became an important element in the global illicit drugs trade at the end of apartheid. Border controls were reduced as the authorities fighting against the African National Congress evaporated. As the Vienna-based UN Office on Drugs and Crime report for 2012 put it:

The subsequent end to decades of international isolation also increased South Africa’s exposure to transnational drug trafficking, which led in turn to increased domestic illicit drug use. Traffickers also took advantage of the country’s good infrastructure and South Africa emerged as a transit hub for cocaine shipments from South America destined for Europe, as well as for heroin shipments from Afghanistan and Pakistan destined for Europe.

International drugs syndicates from the Italian Mafia to the Chinese Triads found a safe haven for their operations. South Africa was used to trade in everything from rhino horn to abalone and marijuana. Some of these networks had been established well before Nelson Mandela took over the presidency. Others were linked to the ANC’s operations in exile.

Repeated attempts to extradite organised crime bosses from South Africa have failed. South Africa’s strict protection of human rights has proved a serious obstacle, preventing alleged criminals from facing justice in other jurisdictions. Vito Palazzolo, a convicted Mafia banker, who was involved in the 1970s pizzaria opium smuggling made famous in the film The French Connection lived happily in South Africa and Namibia since the 1980s. It was only when he went to Thailand to visit his son that he was finally arrested and extradited to the Italy, where he has already been convicted.

Britain’s Serious Organised Crime Agency, SOCA, is well aware of these activities. While they would not comment on the documents from the Selebi case or the operations of Yester-Garrido, they did issue this statement. “SOCA remains alive to established and emerging organised crime threats. Understanding and tackling the efforts of criminals to traffic class A drugs towards Europe and the UK, including via the African continent, is an ongoing priority, and we work with partner agencies domestically and internationally to protect the UK public from the impact of the Class A drugs trade."

South African ex-Interpol head Jackie Selebi. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Ellie Foreman-Peck
Show Hide image

Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit