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Global Organized Crime Index

Observatory of Illicit Economies in Eastern and Southern Africa


Summary highlights

  1. Civil-society action is reshaping the illicit charcoal trade in northern Uganda.

    Northern Uganda’s forests are under threat as charcoal producers seek to meet high national and regional demand for the fuel. Recent bans on charcoal production and a civil-society initiative that brought together local activists, journalists and law-enforcement agencies have, it seems, had some success in reducing production in the region. Recent GI-TOC fieldwork has mapped out regional transport routes for illicit charcoal, surveyed regional variations in charcoal prices and investigated the impact of the recent initiatives on illicit supply lines. Fragmentation of the market into smaller-scale production and transit lines seems to have become the new order.

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  2. South Africa’s State v Rodriquez case shows how wine consignments are used to smuggle drugs and other contraband.

    One of South Africa’s largest heroin seizures was made at a wine estate in the Western Cape in 2017. Mark Ortega Rodriquez was accused of attempting to export the heroin hidden in wine crates, and his trial is ongoing. The use of South African wine as a cover for contraband demonstrates how smugglers can hijack licit trade routes and shipments in order to move illegal goods. We analyze several methods that traffickers have used to export contraband using wine shipments.

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  3. The arrest in Mozambique of a top Brazilian cocaine trafficker raises questions about the region’s role as a cocaine trans-shipment point.

    The arrest of the high-level Brazilian drug trafficker Gilberto Aparecido Dos Santos, alias ‘Fuminho’ – a close ally of leading figures in Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), Brazil’s largest and most powerful organized-crime group – on 13 April in Mozambique provides further proof of the growing links between South American and South East African crime groups. The arrest of such a prominent cocaine trafficker raises questions about the cocaine trade’s impact on local use and corruption across the region.

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  4. The prosecution and subsequent acquittal of an Iranian crew accused of trafficking heroin by dhow in the Seychelles highlights trends in drug trafficking in the Indian Ocean basin.

    Dhows – traditional small-scale wooden fishing vessels – have played an important role in trade routes in the western Indian Ocean for centuries. While the modern versions of these traditional boats continue to occupy a vital niche in the regional maritime economy, the ability of these small vessels to operate under the radar of regulatory oversight also makes them ideal for trafficking. Focusing on one dhow that was seized by Seychellois law-enforcement agencies in 2016 with a cargo of heroin, we explore the complexities involved in prosecuting drug trafficking as a form of international maritime crime.

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  5. Interlocking networks between Cape crime families may be enabling audacious and disruptive underworld power struggles.

    A failed hit on Ernie ‘Lastig’ Solomon, an alleged gang boss in the criminal underworld in South Africa, appears to have been triggered by an internal split in the criminal gang the Terrible Josters. This criminal gang is deeply involved in the drug trade in Cape Town and in the transnational trade in abalone, a seafood that is highly valued in China. The attempted hit may be driven by deeper trends, presaging wider disruption in the Cape Town underworld.

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About this issue

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it is now clearer than ever that organized crime and illegal economies are dependent upon and shaped by changes in the legal economy. It is already evident that the current shock to the global economy is reshaping global drug markets;1 that opportunistic criminal groups are responding to new demand for legal products such as pharmaceuticals and protective gear;2 and that lockdowns have disrupted routes of human trafficking and smuggling.3

This issue of the Risk Bulletin likewise reflects on the relationship between licit and illicit economies, but outside of the lens of the pandemic. In this issue, we examine five instances of such interconnectedness.

For natural resources such as timber and charcoal, the divide between licit and illicit goods is not always clear, as once shipped from the site of production it becomes almost impossible to ascertain a product’s legality. In northern Uganda, the tension between the demand for charcoal, particularly from poor urban populations (for whom there is often no alternative viable energy source), and government-imposed bans on charcoal production has shaped the illicit market, both for better and for worse.

In South Africa, our reporting investigates the ingenuity and adaptability shown by traffickers seeking to ship drugs masquerading as wine consignments. Here, the trafficking route is dependent on high-volume licit trade, as one of South Africa’s largest exports – wine – is moved towards European destination markets.

Similarly, in Mozambique, an increase in legal trade with Brazil following a trade agreement signed in 2015, which has facilitated an increase in containerized goods shipped to Mozambique from Brazil, has been reported as one factor in the growth in cocaine trafficking to the country. The arrest of a leading Brazilian cocaine trafficker in Mozambique in April 2020 may be another sign of the growing importance of the region as a cocaine trans-shipment point.

In the western Indian Ocean and East Africa, we explore the role played by dhows in trafficking. Dhows have occupied an important niche in trade routes in the western Indian Ocean for centuries, but the modern iteration of these traditional small-scale wooden boats – now equipped with engines and capable of long journeys – are also an ideal form of transport for trafficking, given their ability to operate under the radar of regulatory oversight. Focusing on one dhow that was seized by Seychellois law enforcement in 2016 with a cargo of heroin, we explore the complexities involved in prosecuting international maritime crime.

Finally, we report on the attempted hit on prominent South African gangster Ernie ‘Lastig’ Solomon, whose influence over the abalone and drug markets in Hawston, Western Cape Province, appears to have made him a target for rivals, either external, from within his own gang the Terrible Josters or even within his own family.


  1. Among the swathe of new reporting on this topic, see Cecilia Anesi et al., What Lockdown? World’s cocaine traffickers sniff at movement restrictions, Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, 20 May 2020, https://www.occrp.org/en/coronavirus/what-lockdown-worlds-cocaine-traffickers-sniff-at-movement-restrictions; and Jason Eligh, Crisis and opportunity: Impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on illicit drug markets, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, 13 May 2020, https://globalinitiative.net/coronavirus-illicit-drug-markets/

  2. Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Crime and Contagion: The impact of a pandemic on organized crime, 26 March 2020, https://globalinitiative.net/crime-contagion-impact-covid-crime/

  3. Lucia Bird Ruiz-Benitez de Lugo, Smuggling in the time of Covid-19: The impact of the pandemic on human-smuggling dynamics and migrant-protection risks, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, 28 April 2020, https://globalinitiative.net/smuggling-covid-19/