A 3-year covert investigation into a multi-billion rand racket at the Durban harbour has exposed an international mafia, allegedly bribing customs and police officials to allow in container-loads of contraband.
This week, a former Sars customs official was taken by surprise when Hawks and Sars investigators swooped on his Umbilo home and arrested him on 80 counts of alleged corruption. Etienne Kellerman, 47, a former Sars anti-corruption task team member, appeared in the Durban Regional Court on Tuesday. He was released on R100 000 bail and the matter was adjourned to next week. Kellerman is suspected of receiving substantial benefits for allowing contraband through. It is alleged that Sars lost millions of rand in revenue as a result. He resigned from Sars three years ago, days after he was quizzed by Sars investigators about his alleged role in the racket. His job had been to profile and identify high risk companies and containers entering the country.
A further seven Sars officials from Durban and Johannesburg were suspended for their alleged roles in the smuggling racket. Hawks investigator and project manager of this undercover operation, Colonel Brian Dafel, said that in coming weeks they would swoop on 100 more suspects in the country, including Sars officials, police and syndicate members, on charges ranging from racketeering, corruption, money laundering, extortion, murder and attempted murder.
He said the investigation was triggered by informers who tipped them off about the alleged crooked activities and racketeering at the harbour. The undercover investigation was a joint operation by the Hawks, Sars, independent law enforcement agencies and other key role players, Dafel said. He said they were also closing in on suspects believed to have ordered the hit on Warrant Officer Johan Nortjé, an officer in the police’s protection security service. He was responsible for investigating smuggling of goods and drugs through Durban harbour. A hit was allegedly ordered on his life days after he made a R100m counterfeit bust at the harbour. Nortjé was gunned down outside his Montclair home on January 17 last year, 10 days after he had made the bust.
“Nortjé was one of the few honest cops. He was aware of the container racket and was determined to expose it. He was killed because he was hampering the operation of the syndicate members,” Dafel said.
“This is a very dangerous investigation that involves extremely high levels of corruption. “Durban harbour is the biggest port authority that handles 40 percent of the containers nationally. In the past two years, during this investigation, we have seized over R1 billion worth of counterfeit goods and contraband.” He said that several witnesses had been placed in witness protection programmes as they feared for their lives. “People’s lives have been threatened and hits have been ordered. But, none of this will deter this investigation.
Dafel told the Daily News that investigations had revealed that certain SARS and police officials were working in teams between KZN and Gauteng. “This could not be done alone. They worked in groups, including those who cleared the documentation to those who inspected the containers and gave them the final clearance.
Thousands of containers pass through the harbour daily and it is impossible to check each and every one. That is how the counterfeit goods and contraband got through so easily. The syndicate members also communicate through cellphones making it a very smooth operation. He said every member of the syndicate was paid for his or her role in allowing the illegal goods through. The potential value of the illegal commodities was between R10 and R20 million for each container. The international mafia pays bribes of up to R30 000 per container that is allowed to pass through customs undetected. It is reported that one of the biggest problems is the clearing agents who work in cahoots with the police and syndicate members.
Dafel said many of the SARS and SAPS officials who were being investigated stood accused of allowing counterfeit goods or contraband to enter the country illegally, or under-evaluating containers. Since the investigation started, much stricter measures are in place at the harbour making it difficult to smuggle goods into the country. “We have closed the gap significantly for any form of corruption to take place. Also, staff know that they will be arrested and charged if they break the law,” Dafel said.
He said they were also working closely with people abroad and international law enforcement agencies to close in on the racketeers. “There are big name international companies, mainly from China, that are also being investigated. In fact, the goods imported from China are the biggest problem.” Source: Daily News E-edition