SA is 'top drug smuggling base'

Government plans to stiffen immigration legislation follow warnings by Western intelligence services that illegal immigrants have turned South Africa into a top drug conduit

Paul Kirk

The British intelligence service, MI5, has singled out South Africa as one of the “most important” conduits for South American drugs into Western Europe in a confidential report submitted to the British Foreign Office and handed to the South African police.

The report, submitted late last year, suggests that poor border controls and the rapid increase of illegal immigrants - especially Nigerians - have catapulted South Africa to the top of the drug- peddling world. Senior South African police sources said this week the British report is based on intelligence sources as well as extensive interviews with convicted drug smugglers arrested in Britain en route from South Africa.

The proposed new laws will give police and the Department of Home Affairs powers similar to the United States Immigration and Naturalisation Service. Authorities will be able to raid premises looking for illegal aliens, and the deportation of aliens involved in crime will be streamlined in order to crack down on foreign career criminals.

“We regard South Africa as a country which we would expect to find South American cocaine coming from,” says Ranald MacDonald, chief press officer for Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise department.

Since around 1994 British customs have discovered that increasingly large quantities of narcotics are finding their way into Britain and other parts of Europe via South Africa. Officials say South Africa is being used as a conduit as the smugglers feel that goods emanating from South Africa are less likely to be searched than goods from Nigeria or other traditional West African ports used by smugglers.

Top sources in the police said this week that for some time Western intelligence agencies have been warning the South African police that poor border controls are encouraging major drug cartels, including the feared Colombian Cali cartel, to move their bases to South Africa.

The sources, who did not want to be named, said that the proposed new Bill regulating illegal aliens was apparently inspired by the huge number of complaints the government has been receiving from intelligence agencies about unchecked drug and arms smuggling.

South Africa has among the most porous borders in the world. There are 350 registered airports, but police are only deployed at four of them. Only three policemen cover 100km of the Mozambique/KwaZulu-Natal border, a hotbed of gun-running and Mandrax smuggling.

According to latest police statistics, 15% of all serious crimes in South Africa are committed by illegal aliens. The police organised crime unit told the Mail & Guardian this week it calculates that nearly 90% of the local cocaine trade is controlled by Nigerian illegal immigrants.

Intelligence sources say the majority of the Nigerian drug peddlers who make their way to South Africa do so on the pretext of securing refugee status. The Department of Home Affairs could not tell the M&G exactly how many Nigerians had applied for refugee status, but confirmed the figure runs into thousands. Each applicant is entitled to a formal hearing to put his or her case, and until that hearing, refugees are given temporary political refugee status, allowing them full rights to work and study in South Africa. Until the middle of last year, fewer than 10 Nigerians had been found to be genuine political refugees.

Smuggling has increased on a huge scale in South Africa since democracy, according to a South African Revenue Service (SARS) study which blames porous borders and the free movement of illegal aliens.

SARS representative Christo Henning told the M&G: “We have started to take steps, serious steps, to curb smuggling. To this end we have formed multi-disciplinary teams with the police who go after illegal goods as well as home affairs who take care of the illegal aliens.”

The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) told the M&G that, while South Africa is not a conduit for drugs into the US, it is well known that South American syndicates - and their Nigerian allies - are setting up shop in South Africa. The DEA said the conduit for much of the narcotics intended for Europe is likely to be South Africa.

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