Four-leg drug mules seized

2013-09-21 00:00

DRUG traffickers who regularly transport large quantities of dagga from Lesotho into KwaZulu-Natal using “donkey trains” are armed and dangerous, and are becoming more and more organised.

This week, members of Pietermaritzburg’s mounted police unit and KZN Wildlife officials who are at the forefront of the “dagga war” being waged in the Drakensberg were startled when they saw that one of the 13 arrested suspects was even wearing a bulletproof vest.

Colonel Sean Jacklin, commander of the mounted unit, told Weekend Witness they frequently encountered gunfire when confronting the donkey trains that are invariably accompanied by armed escorts. “There’s a lot at stake. Someone stands to lose a lot of money when these guys are arrested and the dagga is taken away,” he said.

He said the smugglers themselves were sometimes robbed of their valuable cargo by rival gangs.

“It’s international drug trafficking on a large scale. The only difference is that the drugs are transported on foot or on donkeys instead of the airlines,” he said.

During this week’s joint operation in the Upper Tugela area, police and wildlife officials arrested a total of 13 suspects and seized 66 bags containing 1,8 tons of dagga worth R3,6 million, as well as an unlicensed firearm and ammunition.

Jacklin said the first four suspects — each carrying a bag of dagga on foot — had accidentally stumbled into the police camp where police were busy with preparations to ambush the donkey train.

Subsequently, nine suspects escorting the donkey train were arrested, and another 62 bags of dagga seized.

Trapped in a mountain pass at night, the smugglers did not resist arrest.

In a bid to strike at the heart of the smuggling operations, police also decided to seize the 30 donkeys that were used to transport the dagga.

Previously, the animals have been freed to make their own way back to their home territory.

KZN provincial police spokesperson Colonel Jay Naicker said the seized donkeys were impounded and checked by a state veterinarian. Many were in extremely poor condition and some might have to be humanely destroyed. The others would be sold to new owners by auction.

Jacklin confirmed that the donkeys used by the smugglers are often in such a bad condition that they die along the dagga routes. “It makes you want to cry to see them. We often come across the skeletons of donkeys along these routes,” he said.

The police are aware of at least three major dagga routes into the province from Lesotho that skirt the protected parks that are well protected by wildlife field rangers.

Unpredictable weather patterns and harsh, mountainous terrain add to the difficulties facing the law enforcers.

The detained suspects appeared in the Bergville Magistrate’s Court and were remanded in custody until September 30 pending further investigations.

Provincial police commissioner Lieutenant-General Mmamonnye Ngobeni congratulated the members on another successful operation in the area.

“We are concerned that such a large consignment of drugs was being brought into the province and we will be working very closely with prosecutors to ensure that we deal decisively with these criminals. Their actions are contributing to other crimes in the province and we will continue to monitor activities on this known drug route,” she said.

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