Southern Africa--New Gateway for Narcotics


When apartheid ended, the forecast of a new era for South Africa failed to include places like 10 Abel Road in the seedy neighborhood of Hillbrow.

There, in a recent raid, Johannesburg's vice squad found another bag of crack cocaine, a drug unknown here until a few months ago.

The seizure was one more grain of proof signaling that South Africa and its neighbors are fast becoming a global gateway for drug traffickers to ship cocaine, heroin and marijuana to the United States and Europe.

To a growing number of diplomats and drug experts, the future no longer looks so golden.

The southern African connection stretches from Asia's opium fields to South America's cocaine way stations. Drugs pass through poorly watched African harbors and airports, then move on to New York, the Netherlands or London with less risk of seizure than direct shipments from Colombia or Thailand.

Some of the drugs are being left behind to create a new market. The raid on the garbage-strewn apartment building on Abel Road--home to West African immigrants, local hustlers and prostitutes--was the third in three weeks. Police found crack each time.

"If I was a lawyer for the Cali cartel, I would advise them to look at Africa," said Jean-Francois Thony, a United Nations expert in money laundering. "Why? Because the population is huge and the controls and laws are very weak. There is practically no risk."

Thony participated in a recent conference of officials of the European Union and 12 southern African nations seeking to get a grip on smuggling.

The challenges go beyond the rising numbers of addicts. Diplomats and politicians fear drug money could eventually lead to widespread corruption in the region, even in relatively wealthy South Africa, undermining fledgling governments and stability.

Since President Nelson Mandela's election in April 1994, South Africa has tried to lure foreign investment by touting first-class telecommunications, air connections, roads and harbors as a springboard to doing business in Africa.

The drug cartels apparently listened.

Police report that 136 known drug syndicates were operating in and from South Africa by the beginning of 1995, more than half working internationally. In 1994, $2 billion worth of illegal drugs were seized and destroyed--seven times the amount of the previous year.

Cocaine and heroin have been seized in shoes, baby powder bottles, aerosol cans and false-bottomed bottles of wine. Mandrax--a depressant smoked with marijuana--is secreted in shipping containers from India and Kenya and unloaded in Durban, the busiest port in sub-Saharan Africa and a nightmare for overworked South African customs officers.

Nigerian syndicates, which experts say move half of the world's heroin, top everybody's list as Africa's worst traffickers. They shifted routes through southern Africa after the United States banned direct flights from Nigeria.

The smuggling infrastructure was already waiting, developed over the last two decades to smuggle weapons and poached ivory.

"Traffickers are very market-sensitive and can seize opportunities faster than governments can respond," said Robert Sims, a U.S. State Department expert on drugs. "South Africa has good communications links with the outside world, plus a lot of very porous borders. That's the ideal."

South Africa's developed-world trappings--such as financial services perfect for money laundering--lie next door to chaotic, corrupt or nonexistent customs and immigration controls in poorer countries. When South Africa won't do, Mozambique or Lesotho often will.

A major bust in Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony emerging from three decades of civil war, illustrates how difficult fighting drugs can be in Africa.

Acting on information from South African police, Mozambican authorities seized 40 tons of hashish May 19 in Maputo, the capital. It was in containers purportedly holding cashew nuts. Believed to have originated in Pakistan, the hashish was destined to pass through Maputo's harbor to the Netherlands.

Within days, police identified a local millionaire, Mohamed Iqbal, as their principal suspect. Three months went by before Iqbal was briefly detained and charged--not for drug trafficking, but for failing to answer a summons. He remains free on bail, defended by the lawyer husband of the deputy finance minister, one of Mozambique's most powerful people.

And southern African nations have few rehabilitation facilities to wean addicts off drugs. The sole program in Swaziland--dealing with alcohol and tobacco as well as Mandrax and crack--is in danger of closing for want of $10,000 to keep operating.

African laws are often woefully inadequate to cope with modern drug trafficking. Thony, the U.N. expert, said a heroin trafficker got off because one country's only drug statute--dating from 1903--prohibited opium and nothing else.

At the recent European-African conference on drug trafficking, officials agreed to strengthen their laws and to share information to make the region less friendly to smugglers. But any solutions are a long way off.

"Countries begin to think they have a problem only when they start intercepting really big shipments," Thony said. "By then, it's too late."

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