Dirty war on drugs in Cape Town

The Cape Town Metro Substance Abuse Unit tackles a man while on patrol. (Matthew Brown, M&G)

The Cape Town Metro Substance Abuse Unit tackles a man while on patrol. (Matthew Brown, M&G)

Ibrahim won't stop talking, going on about how he's persecuted and religious and generally as innocent as a newborn lamb. His whinging is a relentless soundtrack for this dingy room. The cops don't tell him to shut up.
The Cape Town Metro Substance Abuse Unit just get on with the job at hand: searching through all of Ibrahim's shit, looking for drugs.

They don't find much – some marijuana and a "tik lolly", a small test tube with a glass bubble at the end made exclusively for smoking methamphetamine (meth). Ibrahim goes on and on and on, wailing about how he is the only person who gets searched, how he has rights. Then one of the cops pulls out a massive pile of porn and, at last, Ibrahim is quiet.

It's easy to find Ibrahim's house in Bellville, just metres away from a row of second-hand shops and fast-food joints on a main road. It's a double-storey with a pool and a Mercedes parked outside the garage – but that's not quite how it should be described: the pool is empty and full of trash, as is the roofless garage. The Mercedes clearly doesn't run, and if it did, the draft from the smashed rear window, mixed with the rotting trash on the back seat, would make for a poor ride.

Inside, we're faced with the stench of rotting food and human faeces. The smell gets deep into your clothes and up your nostrils, before lodging itself in your brain and sporadically re-emerging throughout the day. The floor is sticky and crudely written Arabic drips down the walls in green spray paint.

It's 10am, but it's pitch-black inside the house. I follow an officer we'll call James upstairs and he points to a closed door with a handwritten warning to cops scrawled on it.

Inside the room, two women sit washing clothes in plastic basins while two toddlers lie on the bed. I step inside, but a new, even more pungent smell forces me back. James giggles and points to the bath; it's overflowing with sewage.

These are the living conditions of low-level dealers in the Western Cape, one of the world's most concentrated hotspots for meth, alcohol abuse, rape, murder and gangsterism.

This year, according to Crimestats SA,  there have been 2542 murders in the Western Cape and 81472 drug-related crimes.

The Western Cape has a similar number of murders to Gauteng each year, despite having almost half the population. Crimestats SA also says nearly 40% of South African drug crimes are committed in the Western Cape.

But statistics only help so much when they are already six months out of date when released.

Africa Check, an organisation that studies the crime data and interprets it intelligently, says we should be getting our hands on monthly crime stats instead.

Bogotá in Colombia changed the way it released, studied and responded to crime stats and managed to reduce its murder rate by 71% in 10 years.

The metro cops I have been travelling with don't know the crime stats well, and they don't really care – their task is to hunt down one drug dealer at a time, slowly pushing back against the tide.

My escorts through the bottom end of the drug business are James, a cheeky, English-speaking cop with an infectious giggle, and a huge Afrikaans bear of a man who goes by the nickname "Fluffy". They drive a rusted metro unit undercover car and wear plain clothes.

James reminds me that big-time marijuana dealers are just as violent as other dealers. "People think, 'oh it's just grass', but they lie and cheat and kill, just like crack dealers."

Captain Althea Jafta, a petite pixie of a woman, is in charge of the drug unit. I say petite, but she would mess up a Springbok rugby player without breaking a sweat. Everyone knows who Captain Jafta is. Cops, dealers, users.

During a house search for a notorious gangster, she hugs his wife and emerges from a bedroom cuddling a puppy. She's funny, smart and likeable, and the other unit members clearly go into protection mode when she's around.

Drug bars
Partly because they are bored and partly to show off, the unit of eight metro drug cops that I'm riding with hit a "drug bar" in the newly hipster, but still pretty crummy area of Main Road in Woodstock. A drug bar is where you can purchase the narcotic of your choice and then consume your order right then and there, maybe even getting a little nap in afterwards.

The building has a steel door opening on to Main Road, serving to delay the cops' entry just long enough so that the guys inside have time to run out the back or flush the goods down the toilet. Despite this, we still manage to get a decent stash of tik and grass. Two dealers, barely adults, are arrested. Stoned users crawl out of every conceivable space and gather in the building's courtyard. They are searched, face down, and told to fuck off.

All these users and dealers have seemed quite amicable, doing what they're told and taking their cavity searches like men, so to speak. But when we hit a drug house in the excruciatingly awful suburb of Brooklyn, the guy who appears to be the main dealer, sporting shades and weightlifting gloves, refuses to put his hands on the wall.

He turns and moves towards one of the cops in a menacing way. He gets a full-force smack on the side of his ribs with an open hand that takes the wind out of him and he duly places his palms on the wall.

Later, Fluffy explains: "Gangsters need to know who is in charge when we arrive. If we go in weak, it sends the wrong message to these guys, and cops could die."

The members of the unit chase down meth addicts and apprehend gangsters who are armed with anything from a rusty butter knife to a stolen .45. But the first hint of fear I spot is when we hit the home of a mid-level dealer and encounter their arch-nemeses. Dogs.

"I fucking hate dogs," says James as he cocks his 9mm Glock. It's the first time I see any of the men unholster their guns. Last year, James tells me, he had to empty his full clip into an attacking Rottweiler while its owner jumped over a back wall with his drug stash.

I can just see past four metro cops through the open door into the yard of the house. The young men inside the yard have a pit bull on a chain and are seriously struggling to keep it under control. It's up on its back legs, barking frantically and straining against the chain.

There's a lot of shouting and cocking of guns and, eventually, the young men ­manage to get the dog inside the house where it is locked in a room, ­wheezing from the damage inflicted to its neck. We enter the yard and six men are forced to the ground and searched. A young pit bull with two puppies barks constantly from inside a cage. As she grows, I'm told, she'll be trained to attack.

There is another dog, in a sealed wooden box, which head butts the door with all its force. One of the suspects is ordered to lean against it, an extra barrier between the cops and the canine.

Five feet away, a woman dishes out chips to two young children and fries up some kind of meat paste from a tube, as though all this commotion is just as trivial as the washing up she's about to do. We don't find any drugs.

Metro and SAPS

A few months ago, Wesley Woodman, a South African Police Service (SAPS) traffic cop,  pulled over a driver and gave him a ticket for a minor violation.

That would normally be an uneventful evening in Cape Town, but this was in Lavender Hill, halfway between the city and Muizenburg. It cost both the cop and the driver their lives.

The story goes that the driver was a gangster. A rival gang, happening across the scene, decided this was a great setup: kill the rival, kill the cop, take the officer's gun as a bonus.

As a result, members of metro drug and gang units, ­tactical response and the SAPS were told to teach the Lavender Hill gangs a lesson.

The situation has become so bad, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille wants the government to deploy the army to relieve the pressure on the SAPS and metro units.

The metro units of traffic, street and specialist cops are run by the city, but they often work alongside the SAPS. The SAPS rarely grant interviews, in the belief that any press is bad press. The metro police are different. They agreed to let me tag along for a few days so I can understand what working in Lavender Hill is really like.

It's broad daylight, but the cops still drive in mini convoys. Everyone holds their Glocks close, even the drivers.

The township looks like a halfway camp made of tin sheeting, wood and sewage. Shacks and houses are built so one car can just barely pass by on the watery sludge they use as roads. Unfortunately, those same roads are littered with children, dogs, unidentified pieces of cars and dealers.

At random, the unit pounces on some young men on a corner. One seems a teenager and baby-faced. But the cop holding him lifts up his T-shirt to show me the "Mr No Good" tattooed on his chest and the JFK on the back of his neck. On closer inspection, his eyes are bloodshot and seeping. He's a junior member of the Junky Funky Kids (the JFKs), a medium-sized gang in these parts. They have been at war with the Americans and the Hard Livings gang for years. The cops talk about the upcoming release of Rashied Staggie, the leader of the Hard Livings gang. Everyone's on edge. (This week, a few weeks after my ride-along, Staggie was released on day parole, after serving time for robbery, rape, housebreaking and theft, and possession of firearms and ammunition. He will have a tracking device secured to his body at all times and will return to Pollsmoor Prison at night.)

A cute girl crosses the street next to us. James sees me glance at her.

"It must suck to be a pretty girl here," I say. "Or a pretty boy. Or anyone," he giggles. "If you are a father of a pretty girl, your life is shit. Either let the gangsters take her or die standing up to them."

Four girls, around seven years old, practise writing their alphabets outside their home while metro cops stomp around, searching the grass and trash.

The girls watch with interest, but I gather that this is a common event. Barely a metre away from the children, the unit finds a stash of tik, glass "lollies", mandrax and marijuana.

"I got a weekender," shouts one. "I got an outfit," betters the unit leader we'll call Wynand.

"A weekender is enough marijuana to get through two days," Wynand explains. "An outfit is half a mandrax tablet and one joint's worth of grass that you can smoke together to get totally off your face."  The kids go back to writing their homework.

The sun has just set. It's almost pitch-black – this section of Lavender Hill has few streetlights and only intermittent, hijacked electricity to some houses. Wynand rests his gun on the steering wheel and looks around nervously.

"We'll probably have a pot shot taken at us," he says, "but actually, I stress more because we could run over a kid very easily."

I slide from the window to the middle of the back seat. They gave me a bulletproof vest, but my head and neck are feeling terribly exposed.

We continue to search without a real plan into the night. It becomes tedious. James reminds me that that is exactly when you die, with your guard down, late at night.

It's 1am and the end of shift is coming in two hours, so it's time for logistics. It takes at least three cops an hour and a half to book an arrested suspect into the system.

There are eight cops on duty tonight and we have one arrested suspect in the van who needs to be booked, so it makes good sense to try to pick up another one before heading off to the station.

"How are you going to find someone with enough stuff on them to be booked as a dealer in the space of 20 minutes?" I ask.

Wynand answers by pointing to a man walking down the street ahead of us. "Him," he says. Sure enough, the young man has some tik on him, separated nicely into one-hit plastic packets. The cop who searched the kid holds out his hand so I can see the grimy packets.

A small group of women and children are watching us from across the road. The cop looks at them and shakes his head. "Babies on the street at midnight," he sighs.

I wonder out loud what's keeping the poor communities of the Western Cape from rising up and taking power. "Well," says the cop, ironically,  "we have the drugs. It keeps them down. Be thankful for that."

Some of the names of the metro officers have been changed.

A version of this article was originally published in August by ­Vice.com

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