Crackdowns by South African customs officers have forced transnational smuggling networks to change their modus operandi in a bid to outwit the law.

Criminals are now focusing their attention on spiriting fewer but more high-value items across the country’s borders‚ particularly through airports‚ according to the South African Revenue Service (SARS).

Fewer goods were seized in the first six months of 2017 compared with first-half 2016.

However‚ the value of those goods increased from nearly R650m to more than R1bn.

In one recent big bust‚ customs officers seized R6m worth of rhino horn when they became suspicious of a bag belonging to a passenger bound for Hong Kong from OR Tambo International Airport.

The recovery‚ on Wednesday last week‚ was made four days after SARS officials discovered 10 rhino horns‚ valued at nearly R5m‚ hidden inside two bags at the airport.

The recoveries follow the previous week’s seizure of R1.4m worth of counterfeit designer clothes stored at the airport.

In May 20kg of rhino horns valued at R2.5m and 13kg of cocaine worth R3.6m were seized at OR Tambo International.

SARS spokesman Sandile Mamela said there had been a 17.2% decrease in the number of customs busts since a year ago.

However‚ the value of the goods seized had increased by 54%.

He said the decrease in the number of seizures could be attributed to the increase in SARS customs officials’ vigilance‚ capacity and training‚ "which has been able to halt the flow of illicit goods".

Mamela said there had been a decline in drug busts‚ especially dagga.

"But‚ while there has been a decline in narcotics busts‚ especially with cannabis and khat‚ what we have seen an increase in is cocaine [R17m increasing to R107m] and ecstasy [from R2.4m to R6.5m] seizures."

He said wildlife trade busts had declined‚ but the value of the animal and animal products recovered had increased by 271%.

"The increase can be put down in part to the seizure of rhino horn."

Mamela said other seizure value increases had been seen in the recovery of precious metals.

"Gold seizures declined by 50%‚ but the value of the metal seized increased from R7m to R8m."

The same could be seen in the amount and value of Viagra recovered by customs officials at border posts.

"The number of Viagra busts dropped from 147 to 99 but the value of the goods rose from R7.2m to R45m."

Mamela said the same could be seen in the amount of alcohol and counterfeit goods which were being seized.

He said the declines could be attributed to the number of shipments criminal syndicates were losing because of vigilant customs officials.

"SARS has increased its focus on goods control and improving risk identification‚ targeting capability and inspection strategies.

"What has also helped are tools like specialised cargo scanners‚ which halts the illicit movement of goods across our borders.

"This has resulted in smugglers having fewer options to facilitate the illicit movement of goods."

University of Cape Town criminology researcher Simon Howell said the busts and types of seizures indicated a diversification of product lines by major criminal players.

"The frequency and values of goods seized could point to either criminals becoming more brazen in thinking that they will get more goods through borders through corrupt practices or because customs officials are focusing more attention on the supply of contraband such as narcotics."

He said while customs officials had undertaken international training programmes and were better focused‚ they were still battling with corruption.

"It’s not known whether the improved training ties in with anticorruption programmes. What we are seeing, though, is a greater visibility at ports and border posts.

"The problem with this, though, is that it leads to smugglers diversifying their smuggling channels to include not only ports of entries but other areas, and leads to them using decoys so they can get bigger hauls through areas where law enforcement attention is not focused."

Howell said smuggling had become highly complicated‚ with syndicates turning to various means to carry out their actions‚ including Mother Nature.

"A couple of years ago there were numerous packets of cocaine which washed up on the beaches around Mossel Bay. What was discovered was that smugglers had put the drugs in waterproof bags‚ fitted with GPS locators‚ and dropped them in the ocean on the African east coast.

"The currents brought the bags to a specific point off SA‚ where fishing vessels were meant to collect them. A storm, however, washed several ashore.

"It’s therefore difficult to say whether customs officers’ vigilance is deterring smugglers or criminals are just diversifying how they operate and how much is really smuggled into the country."

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