When Johannesburg mother Jacky* (43) suddenly went missing, her friends were shocked. The last they knew was that she was on a flight to Brazil. Then everything went quiet.
“Anyone with information on her disappearance please inbox me. Her family do not even know,” read a message posted by a friend on her Facebook timeline on November 13 last year.
Another message nine days later read: “We have been told that she was ‘escorted’ out of South Africa to Brazil.” Reads another: “Her husband is dealing with it. He has all the details and knows exactly where she is.”
Jacky’s ordeal lasted more than nine months – from when she was arrested at Guarulhos airport in Sao Paulo in October last year to early June during the World Cup, when she returned to South Africa.
She spent six months in a Sao Paulo prison and three months on the city’s streets after being released before a local church took her to a halfway house that helps people like her find their feet.
Jacky is just one of an increasing number of South Africans caught trafficking drugs between Brazil and Johannesburg.
As of June 30, says Sao Paulo’s prison secretariat, 60 of the 517 foreigners imprisoned in the state were South Africans – most serving sentences for drug trafficking.
The number of foreign inmates in Brazil is also shooting up.
While the number of local inmates in Brazil doubled between 2005 and 2012, those of foreigners tripled. Last year, of the 234 people – an average of more than four a week – caught at Guarulhos International Airport and imprisoned for drug trafficking, 38 were South Africans.
Last year, Brazilian police seized 1.2 tons of cocaine from drug mules caught at Guarulhos airport.
The drama for many South Africans doesn’t end once they have been released, though. After leaving prison, many find themselves with neither the passport nor the money to return home. They face weeks or even months before being expelled from the country and find themselves living on Sao Paulo’s dangerous streets.
That’s when Silvanete Jesus dos Santos comes to their rescue. The no-nonsense woman runs Associacão Casa Recomeco, a halfway house for released drug mules, which she began with eight others after her regular church visits to the women’s prison.
All her friends dropped out after a few months, but she continued in the home, close to the prison in the north of the city – a flat on the first floor of a run-down building, above a small workshop.
There are a few sparsely furnished rooms and the paint is peeling off the walls. The one toilet is broken and is flushed by water thrown in from a bucket.
Old furniture is stacked in a hallway, which Dos Santos is now selling, struggling to keep alive the association that she funds with her own money.
She speaks of one South African woman, a former addict, who spent 40 days waiting for her expulsion after her release from prison in 2011.
Another woman, from Magabeni on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast, secured an emergency passport from the consulate in Sao Paulo, but then waited two months before the Brazilians expelled her after her three years in jail.
In eight years, 500 male and female drug traffickers have passed through her home. Of those, 51 were South Africans. Most of the women were from poor families, drug addicts or prostitutes. But Dos Santos does not appear to believe any of their sob stories.
“There is not one woman who was tricked. They all knew what they were getting themselves into,” she says.
And if they want to stay, they must make some changes. Dos Santos has strict rules: no drinking alcohol or using drugs, no bringing men home and the women either work or study.
Two years ago, she had to ask a 65-year-old woman from Durban, who had completed a four-year sentence, to leave because she was always drunk.
Most of the women who are freed return to South Africa, but one 30-year-old chose to stay in Brazil when she left prison in 2010, and now has children with a Brazilian husband. The UN’s International Narcotics Control Board says Brazil is the principal corridor for cocaine produced in Bolivia and Peru, and sent to Europe.
Luciana Saldanha, spokesperson for Sao Paulo’s federal police, said according to an agreement between South Africa and Brazil there is an SA Police Service attaché in Brazil and a Brazilian police attaché in South Africa. The two countries cooperate regularly – particularly in the exchange of information on drug trafficking.
Hawks spokesperson Paul Ramaloko confirmed the arrangement.
Dos Santos’ children help fund the centre, but are growing weary of continually forking out money, so she may have to close down.
But despite the hardship, she believes there’s hope for her charges. If they use the same determination that brought them to Brazil to traffic drugs, they could turn their lives around.
“If a person can leave their own country to traffic 10kg of cocaine, you have to have courage,” she says.
*?Not her real name