They sell cheap cigarettes and fruits on rickety makeshift tables at the Gaborone and Francistown bus and taxi ranks. The women, clad in white dresses and matching head scarfs, are almost invisible to most commuters who do not smoke.
They are, however, part of a huge regional cigarette smuggling syndicate that is targeting Botswana and South Africa.
In a sting operation, South African authorities watched and waited for five months as two trucks crossed the border between Botswana and South Africa, with its cargo of 15-million smuggled cigarettes.
Finally, as the consignment was offloaded into a warehouse near Pretoria, authorities pounced and bust 10 alleged members of an international syndicate – and charged them with smuggling.
Most of the suspects were caught red-handed at the warehouse late on Sunday night. Follow-up operations in the joint operation between the South African Revenue Service (Sars), police and the National Intelligence Agency netted the others.
Sars spokesperson, Adrian Lackay, said that after months of monitoring the syndicate, on August 24 information was finally received about when the consignment would enter the country. However, the arrests could be made only once offloading had begun.
Then authorities checked who was renting the warehouse, and 30-year-old Willie Randles’ name emerged.
Police arrested him and his wife Sarae at their Pretoria home on Sunday night.
The previous night, Randles had held a large birthday bash for his wife, whom he married a month ago. Authorities found that the couple had R1,9-million in cash hidden in their closets.
During his arrest, Randles allegedly sat on top of the stash of money and loudly proclaimed that it wasn’t his. Also found at their luxury house in Faerie Glen, Pretoria East, was an unlicensed Colt Magnum pistol.
On Monday, Randles was denied bail, but his wife’s application was successful. Authorities found an additional 5-million cigarettes in storage at the Rooihuiskraal warehouse.
On Thursday, the warehouse was sealed off and guarded. It is too early to tell whether the cigarettes were counterfeit or legitimate packets that had been stolen and smuggled.
Lackay said counterfeit cigarettes often were not of the same quality as real cigarettes and were a health concern.
On Wednesday, eight suspects appeared in court, five of whom were granted bail of R2 000.
Jannie and his son, Dewald Steenkamp, Jaco van Jaarsveld, and Solly and Ananias Mphahlele were each released on R2 000 bail.
Bodhanya and Jonathan Guhwa, as well as Takawira Mushemwa, were denied bail and remain in custody.
Lackay explained that, in just five months in 2005, about R34-million worth of smuggled cigarettes were seized. These included both fake products and real cigarettes, confiscated in more than 500 seizures. Police spokesperson, Senior Superintendent Vish Naidoo, said the bust, using the police’s national crime intelligence unit, was a major success.
Lackay explained that South Africa, Malawi and Botswana were the biggest cigarette manufacturers in Africa. The three countries were also the chief targets of smuggling syndicates.
According to Sars, cigarette smuggling is increasing at a rate of 2 percent a year. This means a loss of about R2-billion in revenue every year.
Although it is extremely difficult to spot the difference, fakes don’t have a special indented stamp on the packet.
In South Africa, the legitimate cigarette market was worth R11-billion in 2005, catering to some 5-million adult smokers. About 35-billion cigarettes were produced, 25-billion of which were destined for local consumption.
The 10-billion cigarettes for export was the “high-risk area”, Lackay said.
Because no duties and taxes were charged on exported cigarettes, syndicates pretended to export large shipments (with bogus paperwork), but in fact kept the cigarettes for the local market.
Another growing scam was being operated with petrol tankers delivering fuel to Zimbabwe, Lackay added. (Sunday Standard \Independent)