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Agliotti and the Cuban 'drug lord'

Zukile Majova and Mbuyisi Mgibisa: COMMENT, Stefaans Brümmer, Sam Sole, Nic Dawes

The Mail & Guardian has identified a notorious international fugitive as part of Glenn Agliotti's former circle of intimates -- adding a new twist to the probe of Agliotti's relationship with police National Commissioner Jackie Selebi. Antonio Lamas, as he was then known, joined the group around Agliotti in the late 1990s.

The Mail & Guardian has identified a notorious international fugitive as part of Glenn Agliotti’s former circle of intimates—adding a new twist to the probe of Agliotti’s relationship with police National Commissioner Jackie Selebi.

Antonio Lamas, as he was then known, joined the group around Agliotti in the late 1990s when they met almost daily for lunch at the Brazilian coffee shop in Sandton City.

The idyll didn’t last. By 2002, Lamas was behind bars, fighting extradition. He was exposed as Nelson Yester-Garrido, wanted in the United States on suspicion of trafficking large quantities of cocaine and negotiating to buy a Soviet-era submarine for a Columbian drug cartel.

Yester-Garrido denies “any illegal activity anywhere in the world”.

Three years later, in 2005, two further members of the coffee-shop set, Martin Wingate-Pearse and Adriano Mazzotti, became the target of a massive South African Revenue Service (Sars) raid based on suspicion of drug smuggling. No drugs were found and both men maintain their innocence.

Last year, Agliotti was charged with the murder of mining magnate Brett Kebble and, separately, for alleged involvement in a scheme to smuggle hashish and marijuana worth R200-million. Agliotti has admitted having a hand in Kebble’s “assisted suicide”, but has yet to plead in the drugs case.

There are conflicting versions of the relationship between the main players and their activities. However, they all tend to support the view that Agliotti, Selebi’s friend, was a significant player in the drugs business and that senior officers at police headquarters knew this.

Some sources close to the main players continue to cast suspicion on all of them, but others maintain that Mazzotti and Wingate-Pearse were set up to divert attention from Agliotti’s activities.

From Porky’s to Sandton City

Cuban-born Yester-Garrido fled to South Africa sometime after January 1997, when he was indicted in the US on drugs, conspiracy, and racketeering charges worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, complete with international intrigue, a Soviet submarine and a Miami strip joint called Porky’s (see “Who is Nelson Yester-Garrido?”).

In Johannesburg, Yester-Garrido became close to Wingate-Pearse, an importer and exporter in the clothing trade, and to his business partner, Mazzotti, who rose in the rag trade from street hawker to “brand consultant”. These men, in turn, were close to Agliotti, several sources who knew them said, and company records confirm.

Café society ...

The association between the men was most visible in their regular lunches at the Sandton City branch of the Brazilian, where, said one person who knew them at the time, they “lorded it” over the coffee bar. Though Yester-Garrido denied through a lawyer even knowing Agliotti, one source specifically remembered both of them joining in the lunches.

From those lunches sprang at least three business enterprises: the close corporation Tradefirst 1095, which sources sympathetic to the men claim was a vehicle to invest in an IT business, and partnerships in two Sandton City clothing boutiques, Fubu Collection and DKNY.

In Tradefirst, Agliotti, Mazzotti and Wingate-Pearse were among seven partners.

The partners in Fubu included Mazzotti, Wingate-Pearse and their wives—sisters Analisa Mazzotti and Donatella Wingate-Pearse—as well as Agliotti’s former wife, Vivien, with whom he has remained close.

DKNY was backed by members of the same group, with Donatella Wingate-Pearse and Analisa Mazzotti as the public faces.

More to it?

Was there more than lunch and designer brands between the rag-traders, Agliotti and Yester-Garrido?

Two sources who knew the coffee-club group have claimed their activities were far from innocent. One said simply: “They did [trafficked] drugs.”

Another claimed detailed knowledge of how clothing imports were used for illegal business. The source described how bales of imported second-hand clothing were brought to a bonded warehouse—a government-licensed facility where in-transit wares are stored pending re-export—where Yester-Garrido would identify certain bales to be removed illegally.

These, the source claimed, contained concealed drugs, though he had not seen them himself. Wingate-Pearse and Mazzotti reject these claims.

The source claimed that Agliotti’s role was to arrange police protection through Selebi.

Selebi has declined repeatedly to answer to specific allegations, but has issued broad denials of criminality—or of even knowing of Agliotti’s alleged crimes.

Agliotti now stands accused of using his mastery of the import-export game to subvert customs procedures and to facilitate the smuggling of drugs and contraband cigarettes. When the Scorpions raided him last year the search warrant authorised them to confiscate “documents that will indicate the existence of imported and or exported containers containing amongst other [things] clothing, engine parts, ceramic tiles, alcohol and tyres”, as well as waybills and customs clearance documents.

In the so-called Paparas trial, set down to start in October, he is accused of being the “Landlord” responsible for a R200-million shipment of hashish and marijuana.

Two sources sympathetic to ­Wingate-Pearse and Mazzotti denied they had done business with Yester-Garrido. However, one confirmed Agliotti had done customs clearing for Wingate-Pearse.

Action time

By the early 2000s, relations between Agliotti and the rag-trade men appear to have deteriorated.

Both sources confirmed that Wingate-Pearse had fallen out with Agliotti by 2002. Wingate-Pearse said through a lawyer that this happened after he “realised that Agliotti had ‘stolen’ certain of his business information and was trying to communicate directly with [his] customers from whom [he] was importing clothing”.

On April 23 2002, police, executing an Interpol warrant issued by US authorities, arrested Yester-Garrido near his upmarket Sandhurst, Johannesburg, home. At the time he was driving a Mercedes registered to Wingate-Pearse. Some of Wingate-Pearse’s business documents were found at his home.

And when Yester-Garrido appeared in court in drawn-out extradition proceedings, evidence was presented that he had multiple identities and passports, including one bearing his photograph, but Wingate-Pearse’s personal particulars.

The two sympathetic sources denied that Mazzotti and Wingate-Pearse knew at that stage of Yester-Garrido’s true identity and fugitive status. One denied the documents indicated a business relationship: Yester-Garrido had acted only as a translator for Wingate-Pearse in Angolan dealings, the source claimed.

Wingate-Pearse’s lawyer said the alleged passport was a photocopy, which proved nothing, and that until Yester-Garrido’s arrest his client had known him only as Antonio Lamas. “His true identity was never disclosed.”

After Yester-Garrido’s arrest, the heat was turned up on the Wingate-Pearse and Mazzotti families, culminating in an April 2005 Sars raid on 20 or more premises associated with them.

Legal authorities said “a large quantity of smuggled second-hand clothes” and R1-million in cash had been found. Wingate-Pearse denies that his activities were illegal.

The sources sympathetic to Mazzotti and Wingate-Pearse confirmed that a key reason for the raid had been a suspicion of drug trafficking—the premises were minutely searched with sniffer dogs. An official source confirmed that no drugs were found.

Mazzotti commented this week: “Yes, there were raids, there was a police investigation. Nothing untoward was ever found and in particular nothing relating to drugs was ever uncovered. We’ve always conducted our business in a legal manner.”

Wingate-Pearse’s lawyer said: “At no time was [Wingate-Pearse] ever involved in the smuggling of drugs or involved in any other operation involving drugs.”

Shopped by the Landlord?

Mazzotti and Wingate-Pearse appear to blame Agliotti for Yester-Garrido’s arrest and the raids on their premises.

The sources sympathetic to them said there was a strong suspicion that Paul Stemmet—another key figure in the Selebi-Agliotti saga—was initially involved in the Cuban’s arrest. Stemmet’s security firm, Palto, freelanced for police under Selebi’s orders, while maintaining close relations with Agliotti. However, a senior police source denied Stemmet’s involvement.

One source said the arrest was completed by Superintendent Tallies Taljaard of the police organised crime unit—previously identified by the M&G as a police headquarters officer who acted as Palto’s paymaster. Taljaard also made a later affidavit, which Sars used in obtaining warrants for the raids on the Wingate-Pearses and Mazzottis, the M&G has established.

It is no secret that Agliotti acted as a police informer in the past. Wingate-Pearse’s lawyer confirmed his client had been “aware that Agliotti was a police informer, but did not consider the possibility that this may have led to any investigations”.

It is not uncommon for criminals, particularly in the drug trade, to seek informer status, as it can be manipulated to target competitors—and conceivably innocent parties—while buying indemnity for themselves.

The M&G has detailed a symbiotic relationship between Agliotti, Selebi, Stemmet and Palto that appears consistent with this scenario.

Yester-Garrido has so far successfully resisted extradition. But judging by the detailed affidavit US authorities submitted in support of his extradition, he clearly has a case to answer in the US.

Whether the rag-trade men also have a similar case to answer is not clear. If their suspicions about Agliotti are correct, however, it might be that his relationship with Selebi paid off once again.

More on the M&G podcast from Monday July 2 at www.mg.co.za/podcast

RIGHT TO REPLY: Martin Wingate-Pearse

Until Yester-Garrido’s arrest, Martin Wingate-Pearse (MWP) had no knowledge that he was a fugitive from US justice.

Regarding the allegations that Yester-Garrido was involved in drug smuggling in the US, MWP had no knowledge of this. These allegations were learnt only later from newspaper reports.

MWP knew Yester-Garrido by another name, Antonio Lamas. His true identity was never disclosed [until after his arrest]. At Yester-Garrido’s bail application MWP learnt that a photocopy of MWP’s passport was found which contained a photograph of Yester-Garrido.

At the time of his arrest, Yester-Garrido was an acquaintance and was not involved in any of MWP’s businesses. MWP is not aware of any of his business documents that would have been found in the premises of Yester-Garrido at the time of his arrest, except documents in respect of which Yester-Garrido was assisting MWP with a language translation.

Garrido, being a likeable person, became an acquaintance of MWP and MWP assisted Yester-Garrido to establish a home in Johannesburg. MWP and Yester-Garrido did spend time together on a social basis but at no time did Yester-Garrido give the impression of, nor did MWP suspect, any involvement by Yester-Garrido in drug dealing in any manner whatsoever.

Furthermore, as far as MWP is and was aware, Yester-Garrido and Agliotti are not friends or associates in any capacity.

At no time was MWP ever involved in the smuggling of drugs or any other operation involving drugs. MWP is personally involved in the running of his businesses and would have known if they were being used for any illegal activity.

MWP has no knowledge of a police investigation into his business. It is true that there is an investigation by Sars into the financial affairs of Wingate-Pearse, Mazzotti and others, which relates to tax issues.

The investigation by Sars is ongoing. The search of the premises took place on April 14 2005 and continued for a number of days thereafter. MWP was specifically advised by Sars that the police were not involved. The search warrant gave no indication there was an allegation that his business was being used as a front for drug smuggling. It related merely to income tax issues. No drugs or evidence of drugs were found during these raids.

Regarding the allegation that drugs were concealed in bales of clothing, MWP runs a legitimate import and export business. He would find the allegations laughable if they weren’t so serious.

The relationship between MWP and Agliotti cooled as a result of MWP realising that Agliotti had “stolen” certain of his (MWP’s) business information and was trying to communicate directly with customers from whom MWP was importing clothing. MWP was aware that Agliotti was a police informer but did not consider the possibility that this may have led to any investigations.

MWP is aware that Agliotti is an accused in a drug trafficking case but he is not aware of when it is alleged that the drug trafficking activity commenced. MWP broke off all contact with Agliotti in about 1999 when MWP experienced the unacceptable business behaviour of Agliotti.

MWP has been involved in import and export for many years and accordingly came in contact with Agliotti, who is an amiable fellow and befriended pretty much everyone with whom he came into contact.

Our client conducts a legitimate business and broke off all ties with Agliotti as set out above and has since refused to maintain contact despite numerous approaches from Agliotti.

MWP has never seen or met Selebi. MWP has never been involved in any drug dealing and therefore there was never a need to be warned about any searches or roadblocks or investigations, et cetera.

MWP has never been and never would become involved in any venture remotely linked to drug dealing, as he abhors the very concept and the shocking effects of drugs.

There has never been a scrap of evidence to support the allegation of the drug-related activity by MWP, despite more than five years of thorough and diligent surveillance and investigation by the powers that be, which factor alone should be more than sufficient to exonerate MWP from any remote possibility of “guilt by association”.

This reply was provided to the M&G by Kurt Wiehl, Wingate-Pearse’s attorney

  • Garrido told the M&G: “I came to South Africa with the bona fide purpose of establishing a home base from which I could operate my business of aircraft pilot and maintenance ... As a result of my arrest, I have suffered greatly. I have lost my family and all of the initial investment I made — I have followed all of the proper legal channels and continue doing so in order to prove my innocence.”

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