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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times