Unlikely ‘nexus of evil’

2010-03-28 10:14

ON THE streets of Ermelo she was known only as “JJ”. On most nights

she could be found in the shadows of a lamppost on Church Street waiting to be

picked up by truck drivers, local farmers and businessmen.

She sold herself for R100 a time – sometimes less – to satisfy the

demands of her Nigerian pimp and her growing drug habit.

Her real name was Mzana Houo. She was 32 and police believe she

came from Pretoria. She was trafficked by a Nigerian drug-and-sex syndicate to

Ermelo in Mpumalanga, fed crack cocaine and put on the streets to make money for

her pimp.

Two weeks ago she was raped and strangled to death, her body left

next to a drainpipe in a filthy alley. She was a potential witness against nine

members of a Nigerian syndicate who were arrested in a series of ­police raids

on Valentine’s Day. She had refused to enter a witness protection programme but

was “thinking about” giving evidence.

The police were called hours after her murder. Yellowing cigarette

butts, plastic wrappers and used condoms littered the ground around her corpse.

She was probably strangled with a shoelace or a piece of rope. She was naked

from the waist down, her legs spread apart. One of her shoes lay next to her

head.

Police believe she might have been killed by the Nigerian syndicate

as a savage “message” to other prostitutes about the consequences of speaking to

the police.

Her murder has once again highlighted the extent of the trafficking

and sexual enslavement of women and girls in South Africa.

Ermelo police and Organised Crime Unit detectives from Secunda have

been targeting the syndicate – believed to number no fewer than 30 – for several

months.

In February, nine Nigerians – including two apparent kingpins –-

were arrested. In the absence of trafficking legislation they have been charged

under the Sexual Offences Act. They face up to life imprisonment if

convicted.

Six more Nigerians were arrested for being in possession of false

documents. They are also being investigated for dealing in drugs.

Altogether 40 women aged between 18 and 33 were rescued by police

during the February raids. Twenty-six were sent to a place of safety in Badplaas

and five agreed to enter a witness protection programme. One has fled since

then, her addiction proving to be overwhelming. Another eight women who had

agreed to testify have all disappeared.

An undercover crime intelligence operative involved in the case

said: “Not a single one of the girls has an ID. They’ve been stripped of their

documents by the Nigerians. They’re ghosts. If they should disappear we won’t be

able to trace them.”

Ermelo seems an unlikely nexus for organised crime and trafficking.

Situated in Mpumalanga’s commercial farming and coal-mining region, it is a

close-knit ­community.

“It is the loveliest place to bring up your children; a place where

there wasn’t evil,” said Inspector Magda Scholtz, one of the first investigators

on the case.

“But between the Pakistanis and the Nigerians, we find ourselves in

the middle of a crime wave.”

In just over two years there has been an explosion in the number of

prostitutes working the streets and in the amount of heroin, cocaine, crack and

LSD being sold in drug dens.

“The women are trafficked from all over the country: Kimberley, the

Cape, Upington, Pretoria, PE, Bloemfontein, Johannesburg. They’re black, white,

Indian, coloured. Most come from Rosettenville in Johannesburg and most had

never done drugs until the Nigerians forced them to smoke crack,” Scholtz

said.

The youngest prostitute found by police was a 16-year-old Afrikaner

girl who had been “sold” to a Nigerian by her mother for drugs.

“When we found the mother she was feeding beer to her

nine-month-old baby,” said Scholtz.

Some of the women have been impregnated by their pimps and their

babies taken away and kept as hostages to ensure that the women keep working.

Others become slaves to debt, trying in vain to “work off” thousands of rands

lent to them by the Nigerians.

One police officer said: “Clients from Ermelo pick these women up.

It is not the poor guy from Wesselton (an impoverished township), it is your

businessman with his German car, and farmers from the area. Truck drivers are

also regulars.”

Scholtz had to identify Houo’s body. Condoms found at the scene

were submitted for forensic tests. “It is a spot frequently used by prostitutes,

so we don’t know if the condoms were used by her rapists or were there from a

previous client.”

Scholtz said Houo stood out from the rest of the women on the

streets.

“She spoke English fluently, was literate, neat and dressed well.

“I think it is because she talked,” said Scholtz. “There are

policemen who are involved with the Nigerians and they see who we talk

to.”

Anyone with information about Mzana Houo’s family can contact

Constable TR Sangweni on 078-647- 5202. Anyone with information on Cassey Smith,

AKA Lauren Ike, can contact Constable Stanton Francis on 082-303-9970.


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