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Dodgy transactions lead to arrests of 4 SA women for cocaine smuggling in the US

Dodgy transactions lead to arrests of 4 SA women for cocaine smuggling in the US

Suspicious money transactions have led to the arrest of four South African women employed as crew members for MSC Cruises.

The women and three other crew members were arrested for allegedly smuggling cocaine from Jamaica to Miami in the US.

Londiwe Shange, 27, Wandile Mhlongo, 29, and Thembeka Sokhulu, 36, all from KwaZulu-Natal, and Viwe Tshaka, 23, from the Eastern Cape, were arrested on November 17 at the Port of Miami.

Department of International Relations and Cooperation spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya said they were aware of the arrests.

“All South Africans arrested out of the country or in distress receive consular service. We will visit them in prison. We will coordinate any assistance they need at their own cost, like lawyers and family visits. We offer non-financial support to them. We are monitoring the case and also update the family,” said Mabaya.

A source told News24 that the women were sending lots of money back home through financial services company, Western Union.

“The company became suspicious of their large transfers and an investigation into how much MSC Cruises paid them per month ensued. We are still shocked [at] why they agreed to be recruited by Jamaicans,” the source said.

Cocaine and cash

The Miami Herald reported that US Customs and Border Protection found seven crew members with 7kg of cocaine in their possession or in their cabins during a drug sweep of the vessel, the MSC Seaside.

It also reported that another MSC employee, Damion Hawthorne, 32, was arrested on charges of hiring five crew members for a smuggling operation.

Federal prosecutors allege that Hawthorne recruited Shange, Mhlongo, and Sokhulu to pick up drugs when the MSC Seaside docked in Jamaica, and deliver them to someone in Miami, according to the report.

US Customs and Border Protection officers also reportedly found just under 1kg of cocaine in each of the backpacks of two others, Errol Roy Sutherland, 39, and Carl Michael Smith, 27.

“They were also found in possession of about $100 000 in cash. Their belongings were confiscated and all of their (bank) accounts have been frozen. Sadly, there were others who have been dismissed from work just because they were close to those who were arrested,” the source told News24.

The source said some of the crew who were also taken in for questioning that day even missed their ship.

“Some were dismissed just because they were taken in for questioning. Others had their visas cancelled and were immediately deported from the US.”

‘Fully cooperated with the investigation’

MSC Cruises PR manager Alison van den Heever confirmed that seven crew members of MSC Seaside had been arrested upon arrival at the Port of Miami.

She said that, as soon as the matter had come to their attention, “we fully cooperated with the investigation conducted by the law enforcement authorities”.

However, she claimed that the seven were the only crew members dismissed.

“The crew members who were arrested or deported by the US Customs and Border Protection have also been dismissed from their working contract. No other staff dismissals were made in relation to this matter. In the interest of the investigation, we are unable to provide any further details,” said Van den Heever in an email reply to News24.

MSC Cruises has a very strict, proactive and zero tolerance policy towards drugs on board its ships, which was applicable to crew and passengers, said Van den Heever.

“The health, safety and wellbeing of our passengers and crew are our first priority and we therefore do not tolerate any illegal drugs or improper behaviour on board our ships. Any allegation which may suggest misconduct is always taken very seriously, and the company would always engage with law enforcement if needed,” she said.