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Wide-Open South Africa Faces A New Enemy - Drug Traffic

New air links, freer borders bring a tough task for police

IN a dark and smoky club without a name on Rockey Street, the seedy mecca of Johannesburg nightlife, a long line of stumbling, red-eyed young professionals forms in the hallway

The dance floor is packed, the techno-rap blares. But the furtive clusters are not lining up to dance, but to buy cocaine and other stimulants, adherents of a growing trend in the new South Africa.

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The demise of apartheid and South Africa's return to the international fold has ended decades of isolation and the country's cultural cocoon. But the throwing open of its borders has let in a dangerous new enemy - drugs.

New international air links and increased border traffic in the past couple of years are encouraging international smugglers searching for new markets.

They are streaming in by sea, air, and land, with anything from marijuana to cocaine. West African, Latin American, and Asian drug syndicates have converted South Africa into a major transit and selling center, placed strategically between Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas. ''Drug traffic has gone up, sharply up,'' says Marius Botha of the national narcotics bureau in Pretoria. ''And we expect it will continue to.''

Homegrown dagga, or mari-juana, has long been commonplace among poor South African blacks and middle-class white progressives. But widespread use of cocaine akin to that in the United States and Europe is a fairly new phenomenon here.

The latest annual report of the UN International Narcotics Control Board warned that Africa was increasingly becoming an attractive manufacturing alternative, transit route, and market for drug smugglers because of political instability, lawlessness, unemployment, and poor border controls. South Africa has joined Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, and Angola as a regional drug center because of its excellent infrastructure and transport system, its relative affluence, and renewed international investor interest, the UN report said.

Carrying drugs into the country

Smugglers enter South Africa with cocaine from Brazil, heroin from Bangkok and Pakistan, and Mandrax, a highly addictive stimulant in tablets from India, hidden in their stomachs, false suitcase bottoms, fruit cans, baby-powder bottles, picture frames, and bicycle tires.

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The statistics speak for themselves.

Cocaine confiscated by South African authorities rose to 68,895 grams (2.4 million oz.) in 1994 from 11,042 grams in 1992, according to police figures. For heroin, the amount soared from 1,338 grams to 24,887 grams, and LSD increased from 4,675 units to 16,502 units during the same period. Similar trends were recorded for seizures of other drugs. Cannabis escalated from 4.6 million kilograms (10.12 million pounds) to 7.2 million kilos.

Three other drugs - hashish, Ice, and Ecstasy - jumped from zero to 27,078 oz., 30 grams, and 1,262 units, respectively. Arrests linked to drug dealing soared over the same period - from 54 to 65 for LSD, 7 to 29 for heroin, and 108 to 266 for cocaine.

Sergeant Botha of the police narcotics bureau in Pretoria says the rise is partly due to officers having grown more efficient at nabbing offenders. But the main reason is that traffic has soared.

The drug trafficking has been accompanied by a rise in arms smuggling, burglaries, car thefts, and gangsterism, creating further burdens for a police force already overwhelmed by one of the world's highest levels of criminal violence.

By being a transit point, South Africa's local appetite for drugs has increased. Availability has brought prices of a gram of cocaine down to $80 from $100. South Africa's National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence sees a big rise in cocaine use and heroin addiction.

This has sparked public cries for greater crackdowns and better policing of borders, which are no longer sealed by the military.

Drug use spreads domestically

''For a society that was once comfortably accustomed to reading reports about drug problems elsewhere, South Africa has lately been hit by a rude awakening,'' said a recent editorial in Johannesburg's The Star newspaper.

''Now it turns out that cocaine, something we thought was a bad habit among American yuppies, is spreading through ... our own society,'' the newspaper said.

Police say one promising sign is greater international cooperation to fight drug smuggling, now that South Africa has rejoined the fraternity of nations.

Since joining Interpol in 1993, South Africa has increased its liaison with police agencies worldwide, leading to formal and informal treaties with other governments.

For instance, nearly half of the Mandrax confiscated by South African police last year was seized in neighboring Swaziland. International cooperation led Belgian police to seize nearly 4,350 kilograms of heroin destined for South Africa in June last year.

But Botha says this is just the tip of the iceberg.

''They are getting more expert in getting away,'' he says. ''We are not getting enough of them.''

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