Harare — HOW on earth can a high technology scan machine that can detect a small object such as a needle fail to detect a one-tonne consignment of contraband, unless the person manning the machine is sleeping on duty?
This is a common question people ask each other whenever a smuggling bid is foiled on the South African side of Beitbridge Border Post.
Every week dealers are arrested smuggling goods either into South Africa or Zimbabwe, despite the border post having international standard state-of-the-art scanners.
According to Zimra, it is a different case of hide-and-seek with dealers who are very daring and moving with technology. Zimra officials say most smuggling rackets were being operated by the elites, given the way things are done.
He said that Zimra had since made a mutual arrangement with their South African counterparts (South African Revenue Services) to put smugglers into a tight corner.
"We are doing the best we can to arrest this smuggling problem which at times is a result of ignorance and cultural behaviour on the part of the criminals. "At some point, we intercept people trying to smuggle goods which do not attract any customs duty. You will realise that we have 120 officers doing a job for 400 people and at times this also affects our efficiency and leaves room for some shoddy deals within the organisation," said a senior official.
But the question remains: How do these goods get smuggled when each vehicle is searched? "We search most of the vehicles but not all of them pass through the scanner as we exercise risk management and use the officer's discretion on others.
"The dealers are now taking advantage of this hence we have reached a mutual agreement with our South African counterparts to do more physical searches on some trucks especially those transporting metals and make use of sniffer dogs on containers," said the official.
Mobile scanners which can clear about 12 trucks within an hour, were installed on the Zimbabwean side of Beitbridge Border Post in 2003 as Zimra intensified efforts to avert smuggling which had become rampant.
Currently, the border is running on two scanner machines with one clearing north-bound (into Zimbabwe) and the other clearing south-bound (into South Africa) traffic, respectively.
A bigger mobile scanner with the capacity of clearing between 30 and 50 trucks per hour has been installed on the new trucks' clearing point for north-bound traffic.
An average of between 900 to 1 500 trucks pass through Beitbridge en route to South Africa, while an estimated 15 000 people come into the country through the same border post daily.
The machines can scan consignments in relation to the Zimra Customs documents known as the Bill of Entry and detect any foreign object as small as a needle. But since then, it is inexplicable how a number of Zimbabwean trucks pass through Beitbridge Border Post with smuggled goods only to be nabbed on the South African side where there are no scanning machines.
This scenario has been boggling the minds of many who of late have been alleging that some Zimra officers were getting kick backs to facilitate the shipments. Buses and private vehicles are some of the modes used in smuggling after people realised there is increased scrutiny on haulage trucks.
This development has led to the revenue collector introducing a 100 percent search on all vehicles coming into the country in a bid to force compliance on duty payments. When you think of smuggling at Beitbridge, every time items like cigarettes, electrical gadgets, flea market wares and copper cables come to mind.
It is understood cigarettes and copper cables have a lucrative market in South Africa, while the flea market stuff is destined for the informal sector in Zimbabwe.
The Zimra offices are ever busy with people making representations every day to get their seized items released. Zimra handles on average of 3 000 cases of smuggling mainly those by small importers per month. Currently, the state warehouses in Beitbridge are full to capacity with goods seized from customs defaulters.
He added that the illegal transportation of cigarettes through the border post had stopped since the introduction of sniffer dogs on the South African side of the border. Cigarettes were being smuggled in fuel tankers in most cases, and at some point Zimra recovered a smuggled car that was hidden in a refrigerated truck in 2006 destined for South Africa.
Last year, the South African Revenue Services destroyed over 1 500 boxes of cigarettes worth R1, 5 million that were intercepted on their way to that country.
Copper cables have become a hit with the criminals who always forge documents and try to ship it as scrap metal from either Zambia or DRC.
Last month, police intercepted a 40-tonne truck carrying 35 tonnes of copper cables worth US$532 million that were destined for South Africa.
A fortnight ago, they foiled another bid to smuggle 3, 3 tonnes of a similar consignment worth US$66 000 at the same border post. Six people have since been arrested in connection with these cases and are standing trail in the courts.
The selling of copper was banned in Zimbabwe in the last three years in a bid to thwart vandalism on telephone lines, railway and electricity lines. This has cost government US$58 million in repairing vandalised railway line cables.
In his recent visit to Beitbridge, Finance Minister Tendai Biti indicated that the Government would urgently review customs laws in light of the increase in smuggling cases at the country's major ports of entry.
He said the drastic increase in cases of smuggling was cause for concern hence the need to come up with deterrent penalties. Currently, smugglers are fined and have their goods forfeited to the state, but the car used in committing the offence cannot be seized if it belongs to a third party.
Furthermore, the courts have no power to forfeit foreign registered vehicles as compared to other countries like South Africa. Recently, the South African Revenue Authority put to auction three buses belonging to Chigubhu Brothers after they were intercepted with smuggled cigarettes in that country.
Minister Biti said most criminals were taking advantage of the lenient laws and the situation had adversely affected the state's revenue collection. Most of the intercepted smugglers are those who pretend to be carrying goods in transit whereas they would be destined for the local market.
Already reports abound that the practice is rife among retailers in Harare who claim their cargo will be in transit to Zambia, empty the containers in Harare before the empty haulage trucks exit the country through Chirundu just to have a record that they exited, before coming back into Zimbabwe.
Travellers believe the increase in smuggling is a result of restrictive customs duty and lack of knowledge among the importers which force people to evade duty payments.
They also believe that the lack of effective supervision of the customs officers, while some say the officers create a hostile situation for the importers and exporters which therefore creates room for smuggling.
"How do you expect one customs officer to clear over 3 000 people, who sacrifice to pay restrictive duties, with one slow computer? People end up leaving without paying. "We urge Zimra to make reforms and deploy more staff at the border post and also review duty rates if they want people to comply," said a traveller from Harare, Martin Zhou.
The police officer commanding operations in Beitbridge district, Superintendent Paul Muhoni said that police were making a breakthrough in terms of dealing with cases of smuggling. He said they had put in place a strong Ferret squad made up of Zimra, ZNA and the police, which was patrolling the border on a 24-hour basis.
"We are working on different strategies as we have realised that the criminals are now using other methods. "As police, we have positioned ourselves well and I want to warn the criminals that their days are numbered. We also believe that the deployment of more Zimra officers and the review of customs rate will help reduce this type of crime," he said.
He said their heavy presence had also reduced the number of cases as witnessed by the decline in people smuggling items using haulage trucks. Beitbridge district chairperson for the Shipping and Forwarding Agents' Association of Zimbabwe, Mr. Benford Lazalo said they were encouraging their members to be professional at all times when handling customs issues.
In most instances clearing agents have been linked to the smuggling rackets. "Smuggling is now in the blood of some people especially younger boys who think they are advanced in terms of technology and as SFAAZ, we discourage such unfaithful behaviour.
"We have made it a point to our members that anyone caught on the wrong side of the law will be suspended from the association and de-registered from dealing with Zimra," he said.
Thirty percent of the government's revenue comes from customs duty and of the 30 percent revenue, 70 percent of Zimra's money is collected at Beitbridge Border Post.
The laxity of the law would strongly affect revenue collection.