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?

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution