Quick buck is lure for SA drug mules

By Time of article published Jun 22, 2009

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By Rizwana Sheik Umar and Dasen Thathiah

South African drug mules hired to courier drugs from foreign countries face harsh sentences and even the death penalty abroad.

At least 668 South Africans are in foreign prisons on drug-related charges, with half of them held in South American prisons.

In the past year alone, five South Africans, including three from KwaZulu-Natal, have been arrested for being carriers in international drug operations.

Senior Supt Devan Naicker, the national head of Narcotics for Organised Crime, said the number of those imprisoned could be larger, adding that foreign prisons were not good places to be. He said: "Conditions are horrendous. SA prisons are like Sun City compared to those in South America."

He said mules charged with trafficking in Pakistan, China and Malaysian countries could face the death penalty.

The plight of South Africans in foreign prisons came to light after the most recent incident involving a Durban woman, Leanna Magdalena Lupke, who was arrested on June 14 at OR Tambo International Airport in possession of 1kg of cocaine.

Lupke was allegedly nabbed with the drug, with a street value of R700 000, by members of the organised crime unit.

The Hillary resident appear-ed in Kempton Park Magistrate's Court last Monday.

"The case was postponed to June 22 for further investigation and leave to apply for bail," said investigating officer Detective Sergeant Makgabo Tsiri.

The arrest came after months of profiling and intensive collaborative investigations by members of the organised crime units in Durban and Johannesburg and the Bellair SAPS.

Naicker said cases reported by the media were "merely a fraction" of the number of South Africans facing drug trafficking charges.

The common link between all the suspects was their desperation to make a "quick buck." Asked if there was a common demographic trend in drug mules, Naicker said: "Profiles change all the time; these days anything goes."

He said that in most cases, mules were approached by someone within the drug ring called a "recruiter".

The organised crime unit's provincial commander, Dir Johan Booysen, warned the public against proposals that seemed "too good to be true".

"If you are approached to courier a parcel, don't get involved, rather go straight to the police," he said.

Bellair police spokesperson Derek Vijiam said more operations to "crack down on drug infestation" were in the pipe-line. He attributed the success in the most recent case to "first-class teamwork".

"We couldn't have done it without the full backing of our commander, Superintendent Lionel Pillay, who has supported us in our efforts to do whatever we have to do to rid our community of drugs," he said.

Three cases involving KZN women and international drug trafficking made headlines in the past year.

In June last year, a South Coast woman, Tessa Beetge, was found in possession of more than R3 million worth of raw cocaine in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Beetge is reportedly serving an eight-year prison sentence.

Sheryl Cwele, a senior official in the Hibiscus Coast municipality and the wife of State Security (Intelligence) Minister Siyabonga Cwele, was linked to Beetge at the time.

National police spokesperson Director Sally de Beer said police were still investigating the link between Cwele and Beetge.

Joeleene Phillips, 24, was sentenced to three years and seven months in a Sao Paulo prison for trying to smuggle 3kg of cocaine out of the country in 2006. She was released on parole in March and was due to return to her Durban home in October.

Amanzimtoti resident Lorraine Penny was facing a seven years and eight months jail term in Lima, Peru.

Belinda West, director of Locked Up-2nd Chances for SA's (in) Mates, said most mules faced life imprisonment.

Her organisation aims to create awareness about the plight of South Africans in foreign prisons to prompt the government to take action.

According to West, Sao Paulo had the largest number of South Africans detained - 180 and rising.

She said that in the Far East drug trafficking carried the death penalty, and foreign sentences were usually commuted to 100 years, with most serving between 40 and 60 years.

West said: "Drug mules are really the bottom of the rung in this global trade and are easily expendable. So there is no value on human life, and certainly no morals."

The organisation's website displays personal accounts of South Africans held in foreign countries.

- To read personal accounts of the detained drug mules, visit Locked Up

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