South Africa’s cop-organised crime web

Investigative journalist Caryn Dolley talks about her new book To The Wolves which exposes how organised crime is sustained and enabled through police, politicians and gangsters.

In the 1990s, Pablo Yester-Garrido, a cocaine trafficker born in Cuba, was a man with a dream. He wanted to buy a Soviet-era submarine for underwater smuggling into lucrative North American drug markets. 

He and his associates got as far as visiting a Russian naval base. But after the brazen narco-submarine plan was uncovered, Yester-Garrido was forced to flee the US. He then moved to postapartheid South Africa. Despite continuing to be implicated in drug smuggling while living an opulent lifestyle in Johannesburg, he was allowed to stay in the country. He even gave an interview from inside a private jet in the documentary Operation Odessa (2018) in which he brags about his supposedly Tony Montana-like career. 

A drug-related case involving a major cocaine deal between Yester-Garrido and Brazilian traffickers was withdrawn in 2013 apparently because the state could not translate documents from Portuguese into English, investigative journalist Caryn Dolley reported last year. But evidence suggests Yester-Garrido was allowed to continue his illegal enterprises through the patronage of rogue intelligence agents. Dolley shows this and more in her new book To The Wolves: How Traitor Cops Crafted South Africa’s Underworld.

Rogues in the state 

The successor to The Enforcers: Inside Cape Town’s Deadly Nightclub Battles (2019), To The Wolves is a well-researched, gripping read, which explores the connections between the underworld of violent crime and the overworld of political and economic power. 

It looks at the role of police officers in selling guns that have wreaked havoc in gang-dominated areas of the Western Cape as well as how members of the Jacob Zuma family are linked to mobsters. Her investigations show that “state capture” barely covers the scale of the complicity between compromised state officials and sophisticated organised-crime networks.

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Her exploration of this world of Byzantine political intrigue began when she worked as a young reporter. “I started covering crimes, which lead to court cases, which lead to interviewing police officers. It’s through looking at various aspects of the state and what’s happening on the ground,” Dolley said.

Over the years she has developed a method of establishing contextual links that expose the outline of criminal power. “I look at the crime hotspots, then look at the police, then look at the politics and then overlay those for people to show them its not simply a ‘murder in a gang hotspot’, it is also linked to transnational organised crime and politics that control that area.” 

The muscle 

These connections were illustrated in The Enforcers, which shows how what she calls the “muscle” of the Cape Town private-security world, gunmen and bouncers, rubbed shoulders with police officers and spies. 

A particularly shocking revelation was how gangs were using security companies as legal fronts to stockpile guns. In turn, multiple corrupt police officers have been implicated in funnelling guns to street-level gangs, leading to horrific killings – including the 261 children who have died in shootings and crossfire between 2010 and 2016. 

The South African state has a legacy of working with organised-crime groups. After the Group Areas Act displaced people from Cape Town’s urban areas, there was a rise of gangs in the Western Cape. Police officers began to work with criminals – for both political repression and personal gain. 

These roots ran deep. To The Wolves shows a photograph of apartheid death-squad leader Dirk Coetzee posing with gang bosses Rashied Staggie and Ernie Lastig, all happily holding hands. 

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As Dolley makes clear, today’s violence is rooted in the abuses of the past. “Apartheid was not just state capture, it was social capture [that] horrifically [affected] people’s lives on the ground”. 

The South African criminal landscape shifted after 1994. The country’s reintegration into the global economy made it easier for transnational criminal networks to insert themselves into society, sometimes fighting, sometimes collaborating with existing illegal enterprises. 

One of these criminal entrepreneurs, it is alleged, is South African-born Nafiz Modack, who, in The Enforcers, is shown to have links with everyone from high-ranking police intelligence officials to Pakistani smugglers.

Modack was recently in the news for a photograph that showed him at a court appearance flanked by a group of armed men waving rifles in public. This kind of violent spectacle is intended to “send a message to his rivals and to create an image of power and terror. And that specific image is one of countless images that are circulated to instil fear. And it is worrying. If we go to a normal court case, we see one single suspect in the dock. We don’t see them surrounded by firearms.” 

With impunity 

Links between organised crime, corrupt police officers and complicit intelligence officials fuels impunity. To The Wolves focuses on how investigations into the connections between drug gangs and police have collapsed under the weight of smear campaigns and counter allegations. The result is a Kafkaesque climate of suspicion and paranoia within the state. 

“There are police [officers] saying that they have uncovered evidence of actual criminals in [the South African Police Service]. And there are cops saying that these same investigators are actual criminals, who are trying to deflect. There is constant disinformation in the SAPS and it’s clear that whoever is pointing the finger, someone is at least telling lies to hide their own complicity,” said Dolley.

The persistent corruption within the police “filters down to people on the ground. And the problem is, who [then] can we trust as ordinary citizens? If I was an ordinary person living in a gang-infested area, and I heard about SAPS involvement in gangsterism, it would not leave me with much hope.”

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Police officers have become key agents in a broader environment of state crime in contemporary South Africa, Dolley concludes in To The Wolves. This was demonstrated, for example, when the Zondo commission exposed how Zuma used the state for predatory capital accumulation and security agencies to shield himself from prosecution.

Within the media and academia, organised crime is often framed as the prerogative of the impoverished. This class bias obscures the delinquency of the powerful. “When people talk about gangsterism and violence in the Western Cape, for instance, they have this image of a hardened gangster on a street corner, with his pants pulled a little way down. But gangsterism does not take one set form. You can have an esteemed businessman who, at the end of the day, is a gangster and a basic criminal,” said Dolley.

Her research increasingly explores the links between violence in South Africa and transnational crime. It looks at the vast underground economy of smuggling, money laundering and tax evasion. “Something that I’m increasingly learning is that organised crime, or the underworld, is everywhere – it has saturated everything. There are no longer dividing lines.” 

Global underworld 

Both books show how the South African underworld connects to a global web of security-state corruption and destructive criminal entrepreneurship. They feature appearances from some of the world’s most feared underworld figures, such as Serbian warlord and war criminal Željko Ražnatović, better known as Arkan, and Mumbai gangster and political terrorist Dawood Ibrahim, who, witnesses allege, casually fraternised with disgraced former police chief Jackie Selebi at the 2003 Cricket World Cup.

Despite their highly cultivated images as outlaws, such powerful criminals flourish because of their proximity to wealth and power. As Mexican journalist Yolanda Figueroa wrote about the notoriously violent Gulf Cartel: “It is not possible to move tons of cocaine, launder millions of dollars, maintain an organisation with hundreds of armed individuals operating clandestinely, without a system of political and police protection, without growing alliances with the productive and financial sectors.”

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The “war on drugs” conveys a simplistic, moralistic distinction between legitimate capitalism, state power and a vicious underworld. But in reality, while resources are poured into militarised security and the mass incarceration of the impoverished, organised crime and its attendant violence flourish – and it is because they are compatible with global capitalism. 

From US banks laundering cocaine money to the Machiavellian intrigues of the security state, sustained and sophisticated gangsterism flourishes as long as it benefits the rich and powerful. This is even more pronounced under the “cash rules everything” and winner-takes-all ethos of neoliberalism, including its celebration of unlimited wealth and materialism. 

Asked about how South African society can recover momentum among endless political and financial scandals and abuses – and their links to everyday street violence and fear – Dolley suggested that we should “see crime for what it is. We need to acknowledge that there is criminality in the police service and there are such things as criminal politicians.”

“We should not be blindsided by flashy cars, brand-name clothing, luxury vehicles, jets – whatever it may be. We should aspire to human decency. If enough people can apply – both externally and within the state – enough pressure, we can crack the grasp of the claws of organised crime in our society. It’s about not being blinded by political mirages and a life of other things that people tell us we should aspire to,” said Dolley.

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