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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What it’s like to be a Syrian refugee in Paris

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Walid al Omari arrived in Paris a little less than a month ago. Having fled the slaughter of his homeland and undertaken the long and dangerous journey, like tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees, to western Europe, he was finally safe.

Ten days later, a wave of brutal violence tore through the French capital as gunmen and suicide bombers put an end to the lives of 130 people who had been out enjoying a drink, dinner, a concert or a football match.

“It felt like terrorism was everywhere,” recalls the 57-year-old Walid, a former small business owner and journalist from the suburbs of Damascus.

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Syrian refugees, not just in Paris but across Europe and North America, have since found themselves caught up in a storm of suspicion. The backlash started after it emerged that at least two of the attackers arrived in Europe among refugees travelling to Greece, while a Syrian passport was found next to one of the bodies.

It has not yet been confirmed if the two men were really Syrian – all suspects whose identities have so far been made public were either French or Belgian – while the passport is widely believed to be a fake. But, already, several US states have said they will not accept any more refugees from Syria. In Europe, Poland has called for the EU’s quota scheme for resettling refugees to be scrapped, while lawmakers in France, Germany and elsewhere have called for caps on refugee and migrant numbers.

“I fear the worse,” says Sabreen al Rassace, who works for Revivre, a charity that helps Syrian refugees resettle in France. She says she has been swamped by calls by concerned refugees in the days following the attacks.

“They ask me if the papers they have been given since they arrived in France will be taken away, if they’ll be sent back to Syria,” she says.

Anas Fouiz, who arrived in Paris in September, has experienced the backlash against refugees first hand.

“One waiter at a bar asked me where I was from and when I said Syria he said that I must be a terrorist, that all Arab people are terrorists,” says the 27-year-old from Damascus, who had been a fashion student before leaving for Europe.

The irony is that the terrorist organisation that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, the Islamic State, is, along with Bashar al Assad’s army and other militant groups, responsible for the long list of atrocities that prompted many like Walid and Anas to flee their homes.

“As a man in Syria you have the choice of joining the Syrian army, the Islamic state or another militant group, or you run away,” says Anas.

He remembers seeing news of the attacks unfold on television screens in bars and cafés in the Bastille area of Paris – close to where much of the carnage took place – as he drank with a friend. Desensitised by having seen so much violence and death in his home city, he didn’t feel any shock or fear.

“I just felt bad, because I know this situation,” he says. “You just ask yourself ‘why? Why do these people have to die?’.”

Perhaps a more pressing cause for concern is how easily extremists in Europe can travel to Syria and back again through the porous borders on the EU’s fringes – as several of the Paris attacks suspects are thought to have done.

Both Anas and Walid speak of the lax security they faced when entering Europe.

“Turkey lets people across the border for $20,” says Walid.

“In Greece, they just ask you to write your nationality, they don’t check passports,” adds Anas. “It’s the same in Hungary and Macedonia.”

Nevertheless, and despite his experience with the waiter, Anas says he is happy with the welcome he has received by the vast majority of the French people.

In fact, at a time when fear and violence risk deepening religious and social rifts, Anas’s story is a heartening tale of divisions being bridged.

Upon first arriving in Paris he slept on the streets, before a passer-by, a woman of Moroccan origin, offered him a room in her flat. He then spent time at a Christian organization that provides shelter for refugees, before moving in with a French-Jewish family he was put in touch with through another charity.

He says the biggest problem is that he misses his parents, who are still in Damascus.

“I speak to my mum twice a day on the phone,” he says. “She asks me if I’m okay, if I’m keeping safe. She’s worried about me.”