Cocaine-filled pistons and other smuggling tales from OR Tambo


Police have previously arrested drug traffickers carrying cocaine in pistons.

JOHANNESBURG – If you thought cocaine concealed in fake dreadlocks was bizarre, how about smuggling drugs in a doll carried by your child?

It’s just one of the inventive ways drug smugglers have tried to get drugs into the country via South Africa’s largest airport – OR Tambo International.

It’s just one of the stories in the extensive trove of prosecution tales from senior prosecutor Wollie Wolmarans, who spoke to eNCA exclusively about drug trafficking in South Africa.

Wolmarans has spent 16 years prosecuting cases at the Kempton Park Magistrates Court. His time there has afforded him a bird’s eye view into the drug smuggling underworld.

Location, location, location

Wolmarans hasn’t gone looking for drug cases. Instead they’ve landed on his desk as a result of the court being located within 5km of  the airport. It has meant busy Mondays in particular, with some weekend travellers trying to cheat airport security.

With its 19 million domestic and international passengers and hundreds of connecting flights into the rest of the continent, Europe and the Americas, OR Tambo has a unique position on the continent, and drug smugglers know it.

There is little that smugglers have not tried. Packages that appear to be conventional tinned foods have turned out to be sealed tins packed with cocaine.

An innocuous and perhaps ugly pair of sandals have also proven to be an unusual drug smuggling device.  With perfect stitching, one wonders how police discovered this hiding place.

Wolmarans can’t give away investigative secrets, lest he jeapordise future investigations, however he will say that brand new passports for flights to Sao Paulo and other South American destinations raise red flags.



Wolmarans’ time at the court has taught him that, regardless of country of origin, drug smugglers are often lured with a promise of a better life.

“If you look at their circumstances, in those matters where cases are finalised and they put their circumstances before the court, you can clearly see that those are people which suffered in their life,” he says.

“They were approached not directly by the drug dealer, but through his runners to go and carry the drugs for them. So they are people in need. And unfortunately, these people have been misused,” Wolmarans says.

Often drug couriers are set up for failure by their employers – sent on missions which are destined to end in their arrest only to ensure another courier makes it through airport security.

And once caught, the consequences can be dire.

“In terms of the drug and drug trafficking act, for a person who brought in five kilograms of cocaine, he’s going to get a sentence of anything between 20 to 25 years. Twenty-five years is the maximum direct imprisonment sentence,” Wolmarans explained.

Magistrates aren’t shy to hand down tough sentences when the circumstances allow.

“We had recently one year where the person came in with 11 kilograms of cocaine and he was sentenced to imprisonment of 25 years,” Wolmarans says.

Pistons and baby dolls

The veteran prosecutor can spend hours talking about the case files that have crossed his desk, and he spends some time taking us through them.

“They try anything possible to get the drugs in. The ordinary ones, the people try to bring the stuff through in their luggage. But we also have the swallowers. A swallower is a person who is carrying the drugs in a condom, in his stomach,” he explains.

In November one drug swallower tried to traffic more than a kilogram in cocaine - hidden in condoms swallowed like massive tablets.

“Normally it is between 700, 800, 900 grams. But this one was more than a hundred bullets that he swallowed and the weight of it was more than a kilogram,” he said.

“The danger about that - and we did have two swallowers who died here in South Africa - where those condoms were damaged since he left probably Sao Paulo. When they ended up in hospital, there was basically nothing they can do.So within hours, this person died,” Wolmarans explains.

Even more strange than a 1kg cocaine meal?

Couriers have hidden drugs in the pull-out handles of luggage and in hidden panels within laptop bags and suitcases.

“We’ve got cases where inside the sole of shoes, inside tins, inside chocolates. We even had one matter where a young couple arrived here at the airport with their little daughter of five years old and she was carrying a baby doll. The drugs were inside. Nobody would have expected it. But it was inside the doll,” he says.

“Strange methods how they bring it in. We had one year where the police seized a set of pistons, car engine pistons. And it was on the inside. They cut open one of the pistons with an angle grinder and they found a whitish powder inside. When they sent everything for the laboratory to investigate and cut it open, all of them have cocaine inside,” Wolmarans says.


He admits some frustration, particularly when he realises few kingpins every make it to the dock.

“The frustration lays if you see the consequences. We can be happy if we stop a person with four or five kilograms of cocaine. And you know that (that) cocaine cannot come into the country. But you stop one and another one comes through. If you look at the consequences, and here at court (we see) people coming and appear(ing) for possession of stuff.

“I can tell you stories of families. That their children are no longer children but they are adults. A person is 28, 29 30 years old. He’s staying with his parents. He has no occupation, he has no work, he’s a drug user.”

“He’s so dependent on that drug that he’s stealing from his own family members to get hold of the drugs. To such an extent that people cannot take it any longer and they report the cases to the police and the children are being arrested,” he says, perhaps for the first time appearing defeated.

It&39;s not glamorous work, but someone has to do it. 

Paid Content