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By Gareth Cotterell

Digital Editor

Joburg’s OR Tambo airport a major trafficking hub, says global report

Report states that OR Tambo airport is a hub for illicit wildlife products, while abalone poaching in SA plays a role in global cocaine trafficking.

Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport is a major trafficking hub for “all sorts of illicit commodities”, a report by Global Initiative has found.

OR Tambo airport hub for illegal wildlife products

The report said the illicit items that moved through the airport was particularly wildlife products.

“Between 2016 and 2018, OR Tambo recorded the second-largest number of wildlife trafficking seizures of all African airports and the most for rhino horn and drugs,” the report states.

The report, written by Alastair Nelson, a senior analyst at Global Initiative, is titled ‘Convergence of wildlife crime and other forms of transnational organised crime in Eastern and Southern Africa convergence of wildlife crime’.

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Research for the report was conducted between January 2021 and August 2022.

It used 105 interviews with government officials, staff from multilateral or bilateral organisations, NGO workers and individuals in the private sector. All the people interviewed work in roles combating wildlife crime and organised crime in eastern and southern Africa.

Two incidents at OR Tambo airport

Although OR Tambo airport was not specifically researched for the report, it was mentioned twice during interviews around the illegal abalone trade.

Two incidents were highlighted.

“The first incident involved bribes paid directly to customs officers to allow marked bags to pass through a scanner undetected onto a flight to Hong Kong,” it said. “These bags contained dried abalone.”

Around R1 500 was allegedly paid per bag, which the report said was a relatively low amount of money for this illegal act.

“This is an exceptionally small amount of money to be taking the risk of passing illegal goods through a scanner and onto a plane. It suggests that this is a regular occurrence,” said one of the Global Initiative investigators.

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The second incident involved a private-sector shipping agent who exports goods through the airport.

“During an active investigation, an undercover source was party to a shipment of dried abalone being dropped at this shipping agent’s premises for special packaging in order to be shipped undetected to Hong Kong via airfreight.”

The undercover source also photographed other items being exported from OR Tambo airport. These items included rhino horn and drugs.

Abalone trafficking

The report said South Africa is the global hotspot for abalone poaching.

The South African abalone illicit economy is more than 30 years old, it said.

It has “matured and evolved over time into a structured, lucrative and sometimes violent system that includes multiple convergences and, in some cases, value exchanges where abalone are traded for other goods or services.”

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According to the report, the abalone drying process is overseen by global abalone syndicates who control the trade in South Africa, but the drying facilities are often managed by local criminal networks.

It said abalone poaching in the Eastern and Western Cape provinces was controlled by local gangs, which are also involved in drugs, illegal firearms and protection rackets.

The gangs use violence to maintain prices and keep outside buyers away from the divers that poach the abalone.

“Better the devil you know. We sell to the gangs we know, because when new gangs arrive there is often violence,” said one of the divers interviewed.

Chinese criminal organisations

South African gangs usually sell or exchange the wet abalone directly to Chinese buyers.

“In Cape Town, the wet abalone can be sold to Chinese buyers for R2 000 to R2 200 per kilogramme. However, at this stage, abalone is often exchanged for drugs and sometimes other criminal services.”

Western Cape gangs often use hitmen from Gauteng-based Chinese criminal organisations to carry out assassinations on their behalf. Payment for this is then made in abalone.

Cocaine trafficking

The report said that abalone poaching is playing a growing role in global cocaine trafficking.

There are increasing quantities of cocaine being trafficked through South Africa, it said. The domestic cocaine market is also growing in South Africa.

“Chinese criminal networks in South Africa were well placed to take advantage of this opportunity. They already play an importation and wholesale distribution role in South Africa’s domestic synthetic drugs markets and are involved in the logistics side of the illicit abalone trade. Thus, they are used to moving and protecting large shipments of illicit goods nationally within South Africa.”

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