29 March 2014

Zimbabwe: Smugglers On Two Wheels

Forget the infamous tunnels of the Mexico-US border that move huge amounts of drugs literally under the noses of authorities; or those used to get arms to Palestinian fighters opposed to Israeli occupation.

Forget all the clever ways of hiding contraband in containers and the other sophistry associated with smuggling syndicates.

The humble bicycle has become the latest mode of smuggling goods from South Africa into Zimbabwe.

And before you laugh consider this: goods worth tens of thousands of US dollars are illicitly finding their way into Zimbabwe across the Limpopo River on bicycles.

Investigations by The Herald show that close to 40 cyclists access the border post daily and carry across undeclared goods - especially shoes - with a tax value of up to US$8 000 in total.

Most of them cross the border at least three times daily, translating to US$24 000 in taxes lost through the cyclists at Beitbridge Border Post.

Under customs regulations, a person is allowed to import only four pairs of shoes duty-free, and pay US$5 per kg for the rest of the footwear.

A cyclist smuggler can have as much as 40kg of shoes, meaning Zimra loses US$200 per trip.

On average, each cyclist makes three trips daily.

Investigations by The Herald also revealed that the crafty smugglers smuggle banned goods such as genetically modified foods and alcohol.

The smugglers say they pay anything between R50 and R100 to security officers manning the border post, depending with the type of goods they will be carrying, for passage.

They say most of the items they bring in are destined for flea markets.

"The flea market wares belong to various clients from across the country especially Bulawayo, Beitbridge and Harare. We are hired by cross-border traders and we charge them depending with the goods they want transported," said one of the cyclists who - naturally - preferred anonymity.

Zimra's director of corporate and legal affairs, Ms Florence Jambwa, said they were increasingly intercepting cyclist smugglers, some who even had potatoes, tomatoes, eggs and chicken cuts.

"On March 1, 2014 we held a workshop with cyclists to educate them on the requirements for crossing the border with or without goods and we are very hopeful that this plan will pay dividends.

"Smuggling is an underground activity and, therefore, it is not possible to ascertain how much revenue is lost due to smuggling activities," she said.

The police Officer Commanding Beitbridge District, Chief Superintendent Patrick Majuta, said they had set up a team targeted at these smugglers.

"We are worried at the sudden increase of people accessing the border post on bicycles. Generally, the bicycles are deemed not to carry a lot of goods but what we are seeing on the ground is a different story.

"I want to warn those who are involved in such activities that we will arrest anyone found breaking the law. Actually their days are numbered," said Chief Supt Majuta.

Zimra's regional manager for Beitbridge, Mr Adrian Suarez, told students from the National Defence College during a tour of the border post last year that smuggling was rampant across the Limpopo River.

He said that on the export side cigarettes were the main contraband, while genetically modified foodstuffs were coming in.

"We also have a problem of smuggling of other items which were outside the travellers' rebate such as clothing items, blankets and electrical gadgets such as refrigerators and stoves," he said.

Smuggling of cigarettes is reportedly increasing, especially to countries outside the Southern African Customs Union as they are levied higher excise duty when compared to members Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland.

The cigarettes are repackaged in South Africa and then taken to Asia and Europe, where tobacco is relatively expensive.

Mr Suarez said they now had mobile scanners to intercept such contraband, and a dog unit also helped to sniff out smugglers.

"We have our own anti-smuggling squad which is working with other security agents and the judiciary so that we reduce these intrusive leakages," he said.

Mr Suarez said they hold periodic meetings with security agents from Zimbabwe and South Africa to exchange notes on how to reduce smuggling.

"We have also engaged public transporters over the issue and this has started paying dividends. In the event their drivers are caught, we seize both the vehicle and contraband.

"The vehicles' owners will have to make representations. If they are successful they pay a fine of US$5 000 before we release the vehicles."

Tonnes of seized chickens and potatoes are destroyed every fortnight.

Zimra says it collects an average US$50 million monthly at Beitbridge, which accounts for 70 percent of the tax collector's total revenue and 30 percent of Government inflows.

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