A late-evening drug bust near a crematorium in India has links that extend all the way to other countries – including South Africa. It is one of several recent drug interceptions there that show how South Africa fits into the global heroin trade, which also has ties to Taliban activities.
First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
Consignments of heroin meant for various international markets are being smuggled through South Africa, ending up in India. The reverse is also happening, with heroin in India being channelled to countries that include South Africa.
DM168 has established that in roughly six months, at least eight suspected drug mules who travelled via Johannesburg, as well as a suspected global dealer with alleged links to this country, have been detained in India.
In three of the eight drug mule cases, suspects flew to India from Johannesburg via Doha, part of a route suspected of being used by criminal groupings with ties to the Taliban.
This pattern, along with details that have been revealed by two recent arrests in India, suggests that heroin linked to Afghanistan (and possibly the Taliban) touches down in this country.
South African Police Service spokesperson Vish Naidoo this week told DM168: “As far as drugs and other contrabands being smuggled through our borders [by] land, sea and air, there are multidisciplinary integrated approaches involving various South African government departments as well as Interpol at times.”
The Hawks did not respond to a query about operations to tackle heroin smuggling via South Africa, but it is understood the issue is of concern.
There have recently been several heroin capsule confiscations in South Africa.
Earlier this month, KwaZulu-Natal police arrested a suspect and seized 5,381 heroin capsules during a raid in Chatsworth in Durban. Firearms were also confiscated.
The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime reported in Daily Maverick in May that research showed capsulised heroin had become a trend specific to Durban in recent years.
“According to police sources in Durban, empty capsules are generally imported from China and India to Durban,” it stated.
India, in turn, was landing up with heroin smuggled from countries such as Afghanistan and, sometimes, via South Africa.
It was widely reported this week that Indian officials intercepted nearly three tonnes of heroin in one of its biggest drug busts. The drugs, with a reported street value of $2.7-billion, had arrived at a western Indian port from Afghanistan, the capital of which was taken over by the Taliban in August, the same month it vowed to ban drug production and sales.
The Times of India in July quoted an unnamed senior official at India’s Directorate of Revenue Intelligence as saying mules, from African countries and travelling with heroin originating from Afghanistan, were using locations including Johannesburg and Doha to get to destinations that included Australia.
“High-quality heroin, a trademark of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, is being smuggled into Mozambique. It then travels to Johannesburg, Doha and Indian cities before being sent to Australia and other destinations,” the official was quoted as saying.
“The Taliban are the source, but the operation is carried out by African drug cartels. It is possible that what is caught at airports is just the tip of the iceberg. Seaports are a major concern.”
In one of the latest smaller drug busts in India, also linked to several countries including South Africa, two suspects were arrested – one on 8 September and the second on 10 September.
According to a media release by Delhi police officer Pramod Kushwah, the arrests were made after two months of intelligence gathering and surveillance.
The first arrest was that of Babu Lal of Delhi. It was carried out at night near a crematorium where a heroin deal was meant to take place, with Lal intending to hand the drugs to a buyer. He was ambushed by a group of police officers.
“He was surrounded by the team and overpowered. Search of his bag led to the recovery of 4kgs heroin,” the Delhi police said in a statement.
Lal then allegedly told police he had received the heroin from Chigozie Okafor, originally from Nigeria and staying in a rented property in New Delhi.
Okafor was arrested two days after Lal when he was on his way to deliver a drug stash, police said.
Police said 1kg of heroin was discovered in Okafor’s bag. They raided his home and discovered chemicals and equipment suspected of being used to make heroin.
Okafor told police he used the items to make heroin in his residence.
“From the interrogation of both the arrested persons, it has been revealed that they are members of an international narcotic drug syndicate,” the police said.
Lal allegedly sourced heroin from Okafor and would then sell off small quantities to dealers in Punjab in the northern part of India.
The Delhi police alleged Okafor had also sourced heroin from an acquaintance who got it from an individual from Afghanistan who was based in Delhi.
Indian police said Okafor had disclosed that he used to send consignments of heroin to other countries such as the UK, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, Nepal, Bangladesh and South Africa from Delhi through courier companies by using fake IDs.
Aside from people physically smuggling drugs across South African borders, it also appears that parcels containing heroin are being couriered from India to South Africa.
DM168 has established that heroin is apparently also being smuggled in the opposite direction.
In September last year, India’s Narcotics Control Bureau reported that an investigation into 12kg of heroin that had arrived there led to the interception of two more parcels of the drug.
The heroin parcels, one of which included dagga, were concealed in books.
“The consignor address of both the parcels was South Africa-based, whose earlier parcels were seized,” the bureau said.
Towards the end of June this year, the Narcotics Control Bureau hosted the fifth Anti-Drug Working Group Meeting of Heads of Drug Control Agencies, which focused on various drug-smuggling methods that involved India.
A member of South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority was listed as among those who attended the virtual meeting.
Delhi police chief Rakesh Asthana flagged heroin being brought into India by sea as a problem, along with “drug trafficking attempts through couriers and parcels”.
The smuggling of heroin to and through South Africa is intricate.
The Heroin Coast, a 2018 research paper by Simon Haysom, Peter Gastrow and Mark Shaw, said: “Heroin begins its journey through Africa in Afghanistan, where farmers cultivate the poppy plant over hundreds of thousands of acres.
“Opium paste derived from the poppy seeds is transported to Pakistan, where it is refined into heroin.”
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2021 World Drug Report, released in June, described three major smuggling routes. One was the northern route, which goes from Afghanistan, through Central Asia mainly to markets located in the Russian Federation.
The report said the world’s single-largest heroin-trafficking route continues to be the Balkan route, along which opiates are smuggled from Afghanistan to the Islamic Republic of Iran, Turkey, the Balkan countries and various destinations in Western and Central Europe.
South Africa fits into the third route, the southern route. This route consisted of “an array of other trafficking routes running mostly south from Afghanistan”.
“Opiates are mainly trafficked along the route via Pakistan and/or via the Islamic Republic of Iran to India, for domestic consumption and re-export to countries in the region, and to Africa, for local markets and re-export to Europe.”
The report listed South Africa as a “main embarkation point” of heroin seized at the Australian border.
Other “main embarkation point” countries included India.
This points to Australia being among the key markets for heroin smuggled via South Africa and India. DM168
Aside from South Africa being a market destination for heroin, it is also used as a conduit by smugglers. It is widely suspected the Taliban is the source of heroin that finds its way to Pakistan, from where it is sent by boat to Mozambique, then by road to Johannesburg. From there, it’s sent by air to India by way of Doha. The heroin is then dispersed from India to other markets, including Australia.
7 April – Delhi airport customs officials arrest a passenger from Malawi, who arrived from Johannesburg via Doha, after 4kg of a white substance suspected to be heroin was discovered in her luggage.
15 April – Two passengers from Zambia are arrested at Indira Gandhi airport in New Delhi after an X-ray scanner picks up suspicious items in their checked luggage, which turns out to be heroin. They arrived from Johannesburg via Doha.
22 June – Indian media report that a passenger, originally from Zimbabwe, who had travelled from Joburg to India’s Cochin International Airport, was arrested with heroin hidden in her luggage.
26 June – Two suspects from South Africa, who arrived from Johannesburg via Doha, are arrested after customs officials in Delhi discovered 18kg of suspected heroin concealed in trolley bags.
26 June –Two suspects from Zimbabwe are arrested with capsules containing heroin in their bodies. They arrived from Joburg via Addis Ababa.
8 September – An arrest is made after a heroin deal interception near a crematorium in Delhi.
10 September – A second arrest is made. This suspect allegedly admits to sending consignments to countries that include SA. He allegedly says the drug was procured from an associate connected to someone with ties to Afghanistan. DM168
Sources: Delhi Customs on Twitter, Delhi police media release, India’s Finance Ministry, media reports
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.