From: The New Age (SA)
By De Wet Potgieter and Herbert Matimba
The multimillion-rand cross border cigarette smuggling operations from Zimbabwe are orchestrated by well organised syndicates who do not hesitate to resort to violence when police and soldiers apprehend them on the South African side of the Limpopo River.
The “runners” carrying the contraband in specially built rucksacks across the border are paid R150 per run through the river where smuggling syndicates wait for them at pre-arranged rendezvous points along the borderline.
According to inside sources, each runner carries two master boxes containing 100 cartons of cigarettes and sometimes runs a distance of up to 30km through the bush to prevent detection by law enforcing agents. One such carton is worth R129 on the black market in South Africa, meaning that each runner carries R12900 worth of cigarettes per run.
Lt-Col Ronel Otto, police spokesperson for Limpopo, said the cross-border cigarette smuggling syndicates are a “definite and big problem,” but specialised police units regularly achieve successes in fighting this crime.
“Four smugglers were arrested two weeks ago and illegal cigarettes worth R2m confiscated during the operation,” Otto told The New Age.
“Soon afterwards, the police wounded another two suspects during a shoot-out on the border close to the Beit Bridge and cigarettes worth millions were also confiscated,” she added.
In October 2010, the police’s border patrol unit discovered cigarettes worth R2.8m hidden in the bushes near Madimbo. The smugglers hiding in the dark were waiting for an Interlink truck to load the loot when the police unit pounced on them.
According to Capt George Moss, the smugglers pelted them with stones and everything they could lay their hands on to scare them off. “It took five police Canter trucks to remove the confiscated contraband on that night alone,” he said.
The police patrolling the border, undercover at night looking for smugglers, frequently get involved in gunfights with the criminals, who mainly drive around in vehicles from Gauteng and the North West Province.
Fritz Pretorius, 54, who farms at Poplar Ranch, the last farm on the banks of the Limpopo bordering the Kruger Park, told The New Age the smugglers had become so arrogant that they approached him recently for a partnership if he was prepared to allow use of his game farm as a thoroughfare to get their contraband to safe access roads.
“Our biggest problems on the border are the smugglers and human traffickers cutting our game fences to sneak through to avoid being caught,” he said.
Another prominent farmer and top businessman in Musina, who asked not to be named, said he found four armed soldiers on his game farm last year assaulting two suspected illegal immigrants.
The severely beaten men’s hands were tied with fence wire. When he confronted the soldiers, they were arrogant and aggressive. The farmer reported the incident to the military police in Musina.
“But the military police denied that any soldiers were active in the area at the time of the incident,” the farmer told TNA.
The farmer only then learned that the four armed men were in fact robbers wearing the brown uniforms that were used in earlier years by the now disbanded commando units. It is not clear how they managed to get hold of the uniforms and firearms.