Africa: The Uberization of Mozambique's Heroin Trade

Photo: Pixabay
(File photo).

This research was partly funded and facilitated by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, as background for their paper "The Heroin Coast: The political economy of heroin trafficking along the eastern African seaboard", by Simone Haysom, Peter Gastrow and Mark Shaw. Thanks to Global Initiative for permission to publish the more detailed background paper here.

Abstract: Mozambique is a significant heroin transit centre and the trade has increased to 40 tonnes or more per year, making it a major export which contributes up to $100 mn per year to the local economy. For 25 years the trade has been controlled by a few local trading families and tightly regulated by senior officials of Frelimo, the ruling party, and has been largely ignored by the international community which wanted to see Mozambique as a model pupil. But the position is changing and Mozambique may be coming under more donor pressure. Meanwhile the global move toward the gig economy and the broader corruption of Mozambican police and civil service makes it easier to organise alternative channels, with local people hired by mobile telephone for specific tasks. Mozambique is part of a complex chain which forms the east African heroin network. Heroin goes from Afghanistan to the Makran coast of Pakistan, and is taken by dhow to northern Mozambique. There, the Mozambican traffickers take it off the dhows and move it more than 3000 km by road to Johannesburg, and from there others ship it to Europe.

Download the full working paper

Heroin has been one of Mozambique's largest exports for two decades and the trade is increasing. Heroin is produced in Afghanistan and shipped through Pakistan, then moved by sea to east Africa and particularly northern Mozambique. 1 From there it is taken by road to Johannesburg, from which it is sent to Europe. This basic route has remained unchanged for 25 years. Estimates vary from 10 to 40 tonnes or much more of heroin moving through Mozambique each year. With an export value of $20 million per tonne2, heroin is probably the country's largest or second largest export (after coal).3 It is estimated that more than $2 mn per tonne says in Mozambique, as profits, bribes, and payments to senior Mozambicans.

Heroin arrives on dhows 20-100 km off the coast. The Mozambican role is to take it from the dhows, move it by small boat to the coast and then by road to warehouses, and finally take it by road 3000 km to Johannesburg, South Africa. The 10-40 t/y estimate is from dhows only, and further significant amounts of heroin also arrive in containers of other imports, particularly at the northern port of Nacala.

Until recently, the trade was carried out by south-Asian-origin families based in the north of Mozambique and was tightly regulated by the most senior figures in Frelimo. The trade has been well known since 2001 when an article was published in Metical, and it said heroin was then Mozambique's largest export.4 Frelimo regulation means there have been no drug wars between the trading families, and little heroin remains in Mozambique.5 With one exception (the United States in 2009-10), the international community has chosen to ignore the regulated heroin trade - other issues ranging from natural gas to corruption have been seen as more important.

Heroin production is increasing in Afghanistan. But tighter control of transit through eastern Europe is moving the trade to southern routes, and more controls in Kenya and Tanzania has moved sea landings south to northern Mozambique. The trade appears to be increasing significantly. This, in turn, led to an investigation by the Geneva-based Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, just published: "The Heroin Coast: The political economy of heroin trafficking along the eastern African seaboard", by Simone Haysom, Peter Gastrow and Mark Shaw.6 The report argues that the heroin trade has "political protection" and that "in Mozambique, we find a tight integration between ruling party figures and traffickers." The report continues: "individuals in Frelimo have become implicated in criminal activities, and … the party’s own system for generating funds relies on a lack of the rule of law."

Despite the heroin trade being well known to embassies, it was only on 1 June 2010 that US President Barack Obama designated Mohamed Bachir Suleman (MBS) as a "drugs kingpin", making it illegal for US citizens, US companies, and businesses which operate in the US to conduct financial or commercial transactions with him or three of his businesses. MBS is a major businessman and trader, and he works with at least three other south-Asian origin trading families. They use their own facilities and staff and mix illegal and legal commerce. MBS is believed to still control a large part of the heroin trade through Mozambique, but his position and that of linked families may have diminished.

On the other hand, there is a move in East Africa which reflects the global trend of Uber and Airbnb, away from using established business networks and warehouses, to a looser system of freelance workers controlled via WhatsApp and BlackBerry. Meanwhile petty corruption within Mozambique has become so endemic that the heroin trade can run on bribes and no longer needs political patrons. This leads to what one of my sources7 described as a move to "disorganised crime", which appears to be handling much of the new increase in heroin trade.

This working paper is based on the background paper on Mozambique written for Global Initiative by Joseph Hanlon.8 This working paper has five sections. The first section looks at MBS, the biggest heroin trader, medium-size traders, and at political patronage. The second section is about the national and international politics of Mozambique's regulated heroin trade. The third section sets out what is known about the physical heroin trade and movements within Mozambique. The final sections look at the recent growth of a parallel unregulated trade in Mozambique and at the global context of a criminal gig economy.

Mozambique's own drug baron

President Joaquim Chissano was the guest of honour at the wedding of the second son of Mohamed Bachir Suleman (MBS) on 19 April 2001. An article in the biggest weekly newspaper, Savana (27 April 2001), described the wedding was as "sumptuous" and said there were 10,000 guests from all over the world.

For a country less than a decade out of war, this was massive and ostentatious spending. MBS was also known as a major contributor to Frelimo. He is one of Mozambique’s most prominent and wealthiest businessmen and his wealth did not come only from importing refrigerators and washing machines for his Kayum Centre. Also in 2001, I was briefed by an international drugs control official that his business, Grupo MBS, was the main heroin trader in Mozambique.

Links to MBS were passed on to Armando Guebuza when he was elected President in 2004. He twice publicly visited MBS's Maputo Shopping Centre (22 June 2006 and for the official opening 8 May 2007). The $32 mn complex was then the largest in Mozambique, and Guebuza praised it a model of private investment.9 MBS was reported to have made a $1 million contribution to President Armando Guebuza's 2009 electoral campaign.10 But those links may have been through Guebuza's children.

In 16 November 2009 and 25 January 2010 cables, Todd Chapman, Chargé d'Affaires at the US Embassy in Maputo, alleged that MBS "has direct ties to President Guebuza and former President Chissano" and that MBS is the coordinator of heroin going through Mozambique and perhaps southern Tanzania.

Then on 1 June 2010, US President Barack Obama designated MBS as a "drugs kingpin", making it illegal for US citizens, US companies, and businesses which operate in the US to conduct financial or commercial transactions with him or three of his businesses, Grupo MBS, Kayum Centre and Maputo Shopping Centre. The US Department of the Treasury stated that "Mohamed Bachir Suleman is a large-scale narcotics trafficker in Mozambique, and his network contributes to the growing trend of narcotics trafficking and related money laundering across southern Africa. … Suleman leads a well-financed narcotics trafficking and money laundering network in Mozambique."11 In the next section we point out that this was a unique intervention, even though the international community knows about the heroin trade.

The close link between MBS and Chissano is said to reflect a complex relationship. The heroin trade was regulated at the highest level. Chissano is said to have regularly met personally with MBS, and probably with the heads of the other heroin trading families. MBS was publically identified as a major donor to Frelimo. It has been widely assumed that there was an agreement to regulate the trade. There have never been drug wars between the heroin families and no convictions - and in the past two decades, no arrests - of senior figures in the heroin and hashish trades, and no seizures of heroin passing through the regulated trade. The Ministry of Interior, police and customs receive their commissions and assist the trade. Frelimo receives a substantial amount of money for operating costs and election expenses, and one assumes some members of the Frelimo leadership personally receive a part. Chissano had been Frelimo head of security since 1966, and he had the personal contacts needed to organise and regulate the trade.

There is no direct evidence of high level regulation, and any witnesses to such meetings are unlikely to speak out. It is speculated that part of the deal is that the heroin is intended for international transit and the traders agree that little stays in Mozambique. In the early 2000s, the military housing zone in central Maputo became known as "Columbia" because drugs were so readily available, and some the children of the elite because heroin users. This was widely publicised and then suddenly heroin became less available. Did Chissano tell MBS to stop selling locally? Clearly something happened, because cocaine and particularly crack are still readily available, suggesting lack of regulation of the cocaine trade.

Other players

Although MBS is a big man in Mozambique, he is part of a chain running from the Indian sub-continent. Under MBS, Global Initiative identifies three linked families with businesses in Nacala and Nampula. Gulam Rassul Moti and the Ayoob family were also named Todd Chapman, Chargé d'Affaires at the US Embassy in Maputo, in a 16 November 2009 cable. Although he cannot be trusted on names or detail, 12 Chapman sent reports to Washington later released as part of WikiLeaks, and on heroin they seem broadly correct.13

Gulam Rassul Moti14 is owner of Moti Commercial and Moti Rent a Car and has kept a low profile, but he seems to have been one of the early entrants into the trade. In August 1997, 12 tonnes of hashish was seized in Quisanga, Cabo Delgado, and Gulam Rassul Moti was arrested in connection with this case. This was his second arrest in connection with drugs – he had earlier been named in connection with the smuggling of hashish to the US and Europe from the port of Nacala in containers disguised as tea. He was acquitted.

Political parties have the right to import goods for their own use duty free. In 2012 and 2013 Rassul Trading imported for Frelimo 3000 motorcycles, 7000 freezers and 5000 tyres. But the Centro de Integridade Pública (CIP, Public Integrity Centre) found that most were being sold in Rassul Trading shops.15 It was a mark of the close links with Frelimo. A fire in a Rassul Trading warehouse in Nacala in February 2014 allegedly destroyed 50 containers with 5000 motorbikes.16 Global Initiative mentions claims that heroin had been important in the fuel tanks of some of the motorbikes.17

The second group is the Ayoob family. Momed Khalid Ayoob owned hotels, tourist installations and car companies as well as Modas Niza and Real Câmbios. In October 2008 Zambeze18 reported that Khalid Ayoob had been arrested in Portugal in 1987 for possession of heroin, but managed to escape two years later, and that his brother Macsud was jailed in Portugal for drug trafficking in 1990. Zambeze also said the family had invested tens of millions of dollars in Maputo hotels.

Macsud Ayoob was detained in 2002 at Maputo airport, in possession of over $1 million in banknotes being taken to Dubai. Brother Momed Khalid Ayoob was arrested on 1 December 2010 by the Swazi Police in possession of Rand 18 million ($2.6 mn) in banknotes. He was taking the money from Mozambique to Dubai, in violation of both Mozambican and Swazi exchange legislation. Momed was shot and killed in Maputo on 20 April 2012. His widow Reyma Ayoob was kidnapped in 2014 and released after 22 days after her family paid a ransom.



See What Everyone is Watching

More From: Mozambique News Reports And Clippings

Don't Miss

AllAfrica publishes around 700 reports a day from more than 140 news organizations and over 500 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.