SAA drug ring - more arrests soon

By Time of article published Jan 25, 2009

Share this article:

Police in South Africa and London are expecting more arrests soon of members of a drug smuggling syndicate allegedly operating between South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Investigators said on Saturday their probe into the involvement of South African Airways cabin crew in the syndicate was progressing well.

SAA was this week rocked by the detention of 15 crew members, including the captain, on their arrival at Heathrow airport after the discovery of three crew bags packed with 50kg of dagga and 4kg of cocaine.

All the crew were released on bail and warned to appear in court in London in March after their DNA and fingerprints were taken to determine who the three bags bearing "cabin crew" tags belonged to.

On their arrival at OR Tambo International on Thursday morning flight attendant Mmatshu Mothlaga, 35, was arrested based on information supplied to investigators by security officer Pulane Hlahane, 43.

Hlahane, employed by Reshebile Aviation and Protection Services, which was hired by SAA to check the baggage of its air crew, was arrested after she confessed during questioning to her role in smuggling the drugs.

Mothlaga and Hlahane appeared in the Kempton Park Magistrate's Court on Friday on charges of fraud and corruption.

They were ordered to be held in custody until their next court appearance this week.

Superintendent Tumi Golding, the police crime intelligence spokesperson, said the investigation into the drug syndicate was a joint operation with British authorities.

The remaining crew members released by the British police remained under investigation.

"We are monitoring the movements of all the crew that came back on Thursday, including the pilots," she said.

According to Golding, Hlahane had admitted to working with Mothlaga, who is married to a Nigerian, by supplying her with additional cabin crew security tags apparently so that she could take additional luggage through customs.

"They worked together to get the consignments through the airport. The fraud and corruption charges relate to the luggage tags, but the prosecutors are studying the docket to decide whether they will also be charged with the violation of the Customs Act and with drug trafficking," she said.

All SAA international flight crew go through a security check point, manned by Reshebile officers, at Airways Park. Flight crew from other airlines are checked by security at OR Tambo.

Because no one had claimed the three bags containing the drug consignment, the British authorities were conducting forensic tests to determine who had handled the bags, and where the consignment had originated.

"The tags on the luggage only said "cabin crew". Under normal circumstances the passport code would match the luggage code. In this case it did not and is therefore not linked to anyone."

Golding said the intelligence-driven investigation would also determine who the middlemen were at Heathrow, and where the drugs were destined.

"There can't only be two people involved. There is a supply chain - from the supplier to the middlemen to the dealer."

Also being probed were allegations that Mothlaga had tried to bribe Hlahane in an effort to stop the guard testifying against her.

SAA said yesterday the 14 crew members would return to work "in due course".

In the meantime, Mothlaga has been suspended pending a "serious disciplinary", said Robyn Chalmers, the spokesperson for SAA.

Hlahane was facing disciplinary action from Reshebile.

Share this article: