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Drugs a Growing Problem for S. Africa : Narcotics: Cocaine bust surprises nation. Post-apartheid system is said to have opened borders to trafficking.

August 27, 1994|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Front-page newspaper headlines here Friday trumpeted a surprising side to the new South Africa.

"Police Hunt for Cocaine Dealer," shouted the Star. "Coke Haul in Hotel Raid," boasted the Citizen.

The seizure of 28.6 pounds of high-quality cocaine from a dingy 10th-floor hotel room in central Johannesburg, while minor by American standards, nonetheless was called the largest ever in the city. Only 24 pounds was seized here in all of 1992, for example.

More importantly, officials said the latest cocaine cache, and the arrest of five Nigerians, was proof of a growing problem with global implications.

Four months after the country's first democratic government was elected, officials say South Africa is fast becoming a significant transit point for cocaine and heroin trafficking to Europe and the United States. At the same time, South Africa is becoming an ever-larger market for illegal drugs smuggled from abroad.

"Unfortunately, we are becoming a focal point," Gen. Johan van der Mervwe, commissioner of the nation's police service, said in an interview.

He attributed the growing traffic to the opening of borders, greater overseas trade and increased air traffic as the long-isolated nation establishes international links in the post-apartheid era.

Drug syndicates in Nigeria, the Netherlands, Colombia, India, the former Soviet republics and other nations have moved quickly to take advantage of the relaxed restrictions, he said.

"Because we are now integrated into the world community, we are no longer immune," agreed Craig Coetzee, spokesman for the Ministry of Safety and Security. "A groundswell can be expected."

For that reason, Lee P. Brown, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, spent all week meeting officials here. He told a news conference Friday in Pretoria that when U.S. drug enforcement officials took stock of international drug trafficking a few months ago, South Africa "did not even come up on the radar screen."

But since the April election, Brown said, officials have tracked cocaine moving from Latin America to Europe via South Africa. Heroin has gone the other way, moving from South, West and Southeast Asia to the United States through here.

"The drug syndicates are taking advantage of the new openness," he said. The syndicates, he said, "have seized on this country as a new center of operations."

Brown, the top U.S. drug policy official, said the Clinton Administration would respond to requests from Pretoria for technical assistance or training. But he said no decision has been made on a proposal to open an office of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA office in Cairo currently covers the continent.

South African officials, he said, are committed to passing new legislation to qualify as a signatory of the 1988 Vienna Convention against illegal trafficking in narcotics and psychotropic substances. He said laws are needed, for example, to combat money-laundering and conspiracy.

Last week President Nelson Mandela promised a crackdown on drug smuggling and other crime. He said that the upsurge in drug trafficking and abuse is making it more difficult for "the social initiatives and projects we have planned to take off and to get the cooperation of the country."

Despite the sudden spotlight on cocaine and heroin, officials say the drug still abused most is Mandrax, or methaqualone, an illegal depressant in pill form. It is produced in India and Pakistan and smuggled into South Africa, where it is usually crushed and smoked with locally grown marijuana.

Brown, who leaves today for Nigeria, said South Africa can become a model for drug control because the problem here is still relatively small. "South Africa can get ahead of the problem and make a difference," he said. "I think the U.S. waited too long. And we're suffering because of that."

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