HARARE: Zimbabwean Customs seized 48 kg illicit gold worth R 20 million and arrested 46 people for initial investigations. Forged gold serial-number stamps, specially designed armoured vehicles, clandestine refineries, fake customs clearance papers and documents with links to the black market.
These and other pieces of evidence are the keys that the Hawks believe link a Zimbabwean and South African gold-smuggling syndicate to scores of buyers in Europe masquerading as dealers in precious metals.
For two years police have been zeroing in on the syndicate, whose roots are in illegal gold mining in Zimbabwe. . Inside were 48kg of gold bars valued at R20-million.On Friday, they acted. In the early hours teams from the Hawks, the Special Task Force and Crime Intelligence raided luxury homes and farms across Gauteng and North West.
In one of the raids police discovered a walk-in vault at a warehouse outside OR Tambo International Airport. Inside were 48kg of gold bars valued at R20-million. They were being prepared for stamping with official South African gold serial numbers designating that the metal had been officially mined and refined in the country. Police sources say the gold was to have been flown to at least three European countries at the weekend before being smelted, re-refined and distributed.
Hawks spokesman Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi, confirmed that raids had taken place in Limpopo, Springs on the East Rand, and Johannesburg.
“No arrests were made this time, but 46 people have been arrested during other parts of the investigation.” He declined to elaborate further, saying the investigation was sensitive.
A source with knowledge of the investigation has revealed the inner workings of the syndicate, from how and where the gold is mined to how corrupt customs and mining officials facilitate the metal’s passage across borders.
“The amount this syndicate has handled is immeasurable. We have known about them for two years and in that short time we have recovered R40-million,” he said.
“They have operated both in South Africa and Zimbabwe as well as other SADC [Southern African Development Community] countries for years, well before we even discovered them. We can only imagine how much ‘legitimate’ gold they have smuggled.”
Illegal miners in Zimbabwe supplied the syndicate.
“With the instability and corruption there it’s dangerous but easy. Once they have the gold, runners take it to the border where, through corrupt officials, it is smuggled across disguised as things such as household products.”
The gold was taken to farms in and around Modimolle in Limpopo where illicit refineries smelted and refined it, the source said.
With the help of South African mining officials, gold clearance documentation and special serial and insignia stamps were sourced.
“Once stamped you would never know the difference. We have placed it next to legitimate bars and it looks and feels the same.”
He said the gold was distributed through legitimate channels in Europe.
“Those running the syndicate know what they are doing. They are well-connected and influential businessmen with ties to Africa, Europe, the US and Asia.
“They are linked to the gold powerhouses of the world. These are not ‘mickey-mouse’ people. They are immensely powerful and extremely well connected to some of the world’s top legal firms. Within hours of Friday’s raids lawyers were arriving at their clients’ homes and businesses.”
He said police seized hundreds of official gold clearance documents, serial stamps and other paperwork with links to mines and importers and exporters.