Chirundu Border Post, located on the banks of the Zambezi River, divides the Zimbabwe and Zambia border and is regarded as the gateway to North – allowing trade between southern Africa as well as central and East Africa.
It’s not a coincidence that it is ranked second among the busiest ports of entry in Sub-Saharan Africa. Hundreds of commercial trucks and buses loaded with cross border traders passes through its gates daily.
A Lusaka bound bus, departing from the Harare’s Roadport trudges along the narrow steep roads passing through Chinhoyi, Karoyi and Makuti heading towards the border – Chirundu.
The bus filled with travelers – mostly cross border traders – has its trailer, boot and carrier loaded with large amounts of boxes and bags. Zimbabwean made basic commodities, such as sugar, cooking oil, Schweppes-Mazoe products, traditional African beer [Chibuku Super] are among the goods finding their way into Zambia. The majority of these products are being smuggled through the border into Zambia for resale.
One of the passengers, Irene Machanzi*, has been a trader for the past eight years.
She travels twice a week along this route smuggling these commodities across the border. There is a huge customer base for Zimbabwean products in Zambia and beyond.
“This is my trade. I have been a cross-border trader for the past eight years and it is rewarding,” she explains.
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“Daily buses pass through the Zimbabwe-Zambia border loaded with these products. The drivers and conductors work closely with officials at the border who assist in the smuggling of goods into or outside the country.”
Machanzi reveals the smuggling is facilitated by a network of officials, who have strong links with high-ranking immigration and Zimbabwe Revenue Authority officials as well as customs clearing agents.
A taxi driver in Chirundu, who has a transporting role in smuggling rackets transports says border control officials play a pivotal role in the operations, including the smuggling of drugs into Zimbabwe.
“Taxi drivers are the transporters but there are links withing the border system that involve various stakeholders such as the police, border patrol officers, immigration officials. There are drop off points that bus drivers leave the goods, a few kilometers outside Lusaka. Taxies, customs clearing agents or immigration and off duty Zimra officials can use their vehicles and clearance border passes to enter through the border without being traced and searched,” said the taxi driver.
Returning from Zambia, Machanzi says she smuggles goods such as medical supplies, alcoholic beverages into Zimbabwe using the same modus operandi.
She cannot afford to come back empty-handed when trading in, smuggling products, including pharmaceutical drugs, is a lucrative business in Zimbabwe.
In recent years, Zimbabwe has seen a spike in drug use, ranging from illegal beauty creams to pharmaceutical drugs, injections and pills to alcohol. Some of these products are being smuggled through the Chirundu border.
“Zimbabwe has gradually become an informal market economy where its working population survives on buying and selling of various goods. The rise in products such as beauty creams, pharmaceutical drugs and medicines has been aided by the need to come up with a lucrative channel of supply for commodities that can bring an interest in a short space of time,” says Owen Dhiwayo, Platform for Youth and Community Development, Board Secretary.
Data recorded, by African Network on Debt and Development, [AFRODAD], 2023 on illicit drug trafficking reveals that due to globalization the influx of Chinese and Nigerians in Sub-Saharan Africa has contributed to the transportation of illicit drugs- a lucrative business worth billions yet affecting the growing generation through addictions.
Establishing the corridor for exchange
As part of the investigation, this reporter, disguised as a potential trader aspiring to smuggle goods for the first time, makes an inquiry with a bus driver and conductor, at the Road Port in Harare, in June 2023.
The reporter is assured that the mission can be accomplished without hurdles.
“There are taxi drivers we can connect you with as we get to the border. They will assist you in transporting the goods at a fee [the fee ranges from US$50 depending on the size of the package]. After you are done with your purchases in Lusaka, you will contact the taxies and we make a drop off before the border that is where the driver can pick the package,” the driver says. “As we proceed with the journey to cross the border, the taxi driver will pass through the gates using their official links. We arrange a drop off a few kilometers away from the border where the taxi driver brings the products and we pick the packages proceeding to Harare without a trace.”
In July, this reporter endures the six-hour to journey from Harare to Chirundu, making it to the border after midnight.
Due to dry and hot weather at the border, the reporter spends the night in the bus until 6am when the gates open, before proceeding to Lusaka.
On return from Lusaka more the operations of smuggling become clearer at Chirundu, through a conversation with a police officer at the border. This was after the reporter told the police officer, she was a first-time trader seeking to smuggle illegal products into the country.
The officer, who identified himself as Rowayi explained how the underhand dealings take place.
Enablers to organized crime
He said illegal drugs and medicine make it easily through the border without being intercepted because they evade scanning machines as they can be carried using personal vehicles of officials working at the border.
The syndicate of enablers comprises of police officers, customs clearing agents, immigration officers, with some officials posing as taxi drivers.
Some of the taxis used to smuggle, are owed, by border control officers.
“We did not come all the way from Harare to Chirundu to see wild animals. We came here to make money,” said Rowayi.
“There are many stakeholders in the smuggling business that include high ranking immigration officials, ZIMRA officials, the police, border patrols, customs and vehicle clearing agents. It is a food web that everyone benefits. If you want to smuggle your products you just have to form links and contacts within the system and everyone benefits.”
A customs clearing agent who works for a private vehicle clearing company at Chirundu, Raymond Sinyoro says corruption and weak institutional framework have contributed towards the rising smuggling rings working in cohorts with border officials.
“Institutional corruption has weakened these institutions and the officials who work there. They could be effective in carrying out their duties in monitoring and preventing illicit drug smuggling and trafficking but it has been hindered by corruption,” Sinyoro says.
Drug trafficking is one of the world’s most lucrative illicit activities worth an approximately US$500 billion per year worldwide. Drugs are a major source of health-related issues, and have caused a sharp rise in mental health related illness gradually leading to a spike in health care cost- burdening the public health system.
The 2021 Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, (GI-TOC), which investigates the risk posed by organized crime [transnational crimes] in Africa, states that drug trafficking in Africa is a business that spreads across borders and penetrates urban and rural spaces.
Drug transport groups contracted to move illicit drugs across borders, while pharmaceutical companies are playing a large role in laying the groundwork for massive illicit drugs and gradual spikes in drug consumption among the youth in urban low-income communities leading to addiction problems and skyrocketing health care costs.
The GI-TOC documents that, “If left unchecked organized crime impairs African economies, development, undermining rule of law and exacerbates health harms, discouraging investment while debilitating human and natural environments.
It says drug trafficking is a business that spreads across borders and penetrates the society gradually depleting human capital development.
The Global Initiative reports that South Africa and Zimbabwe have become domestic markets for illicit drugs including heroin, cocaine and crystal meth through the transnational networks that use weak immigration, law enforcement institutions and state corruption.
Machanzi says: “The drugs are small merchandize that can be concealed between piles of clothes. Counterfeit medicine, pharmaceuticals drugs being sold into Zimbabwe range from family planning tablets, hormone inducing pills, abortion pills that end being sold through back yard pharmacies, livestock vaccines are being smuggled into the country.”
According to Machanzi pharmaceutical drugs are cheaper and available in Zambia while they are on demand in Zimbabwe. Some people, she said, are contracted by pharmacies to supply the drugs, medicines and vaccines because they are cheaper in Zambia.
Tracing the connections
Zimbabwe Immigration’s Drug Section Investigating Department says Zimbabwe is gradually growing into a transit point for the smuggling of drugs through its ports of entry inland or through airlines.
The department says drug smuggling and trafficking operations are difficult to trace due to various institutional challenges such as lack ICT tracing systems and scanners at the borders to dictate leakages.
“Apart from livestock vaccines, pharmaceutical drugs and medicines, traces of cocaine and meth are making it through the border despite efforts to capture these transport networks operational challenges continue to persist,” says Albert Mpofu, Investigations Officer, Immigration Drug Section.
Information gathered during this investigation reveals that buses are not the only trafficking route used to smuggle drugs into the country. Private vehicles from Tanzania and haulage trucks also form part of the smuggling ring from Tanzania, Rwanda, Nigeria and Uganda-passing into Zimbabwe through the Chirundu border post.
“In most cases when private cars are being cleared at the border the clearance is for the car not the contents. There is no ICT technology for scanning and clearance physically done making it rare to trace for illegal drugs. Criminal syndicates from Nigeria and Tanzania contract car transporters to bring cars into the country while they are loaded with drugs. Haulage trucks are also part of the transport network which ferry the drugs to other destinations such as Mozambique or South Africa,” says Mpofu.
In the face of weak institutions, weakened by state corruption, lack of transparency and accountability at the country’s boarder immigration officials and the failure by the government to implement ICT technologies, illicit enterprises continue to thrive.
The connections between markets and criminal, entrepreneurial networks have spreads across the continent seizing the opportunities of weak institutions. These transnational criminal syndicates according to the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, harm the county’s economy and society.
As the investigation traces the trafficking it also uncovers Beit-bridge border post as a connecting route for smuggling illicit drugs and illegal or undocumented immigrants travelling to and from South Africa.
A Kukura-Kurerwa bus from Johannesburg to Harare, makes a stop over in Pretoria and is loaded with large amounts of unmarked boxes in its trailer and boot. The owners of the boxes are unknown. The terminus in Pretoria is a drop off point for goods smugglers.
The middleman at the terminus says he makes a living manning the boxes when they are dropped off and loading in the bus as it arrives.
At the border, the immigration officials receive bribes for the illegal immigrants travelling into the country without travelling documents as well as for the illegal products in the unmarked boxes and containers loaded with illicit beverages.
These long -distance buses get clearance from border officials despite the heavy load of smuggled beverages, drugs and illegal immigrants making their way into the country.
Countering transnational crimes, the State’s response
The government of Zimbabwe has admitted that drug abuse in the country is gradually becoming a pandemic that is burdening its national development strategy as it has affected the country’s growing population. In the 2023 National Budget, government states that it prioritizes the construction of rehabilitation centers and increase awareness to support those affected by substance abuse.
The Zimbabwe Republic Police says it has stepped up its operations against drug peddling and all the forms of unlawful dealings in dangerous drugs across the country. In its weekly reports on drug abuse, Assistant Police Commissioner Paul Nyati says police have been arresting suspects found in possession of illegal drugs such as cocaine, Bronclear, Histalix, Crystal Meth, skin lightening creams and unregistered pharmaceutical creams and medicines intended for resale.
“The ZRP reports that from January 2023 to date, the police have arrested more than 7 000 suspects for drug related offences. Within the same period 1 100 kilograms of dagga plants; cocaine, bottles of Bronclear syrup, crystal meth, elphedrine, histalix, skin lightening creams and other unregistered medicines were recovered. These drugs have already incepted into the border and are peddled in communities by drug lords who supply illicit drugs to youths and adults,” says Assistant Commissioner Nyati.
According to the Ministry of Home Affairs report on threats and challenges to police cooperation, due to globalization criminal enterprises are not restricted by existing geographical boundaries making it easy for illicit operations to take at a greater distance.
“Both physical and legal protection for criminals complicate law enforcement efforts to detect, disrupt and investigate transnational crimes. Varying levels of sophistication in policing system and differing capacities in funding national security operations complicate developing international cooperation among nationals. International criminal networks have also taken advantage of the failure by African countries to harmonize their domestic legislation with international instruments making the threat of organized crime to detect and stop,” reads the Ministry of Home Affairs report.
This report was funded by the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe under the Investigative Journalism Fund on Illicit Financial Flows and Organized Crime
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