South Africa: The Heroin Connection

This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion
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The Cold War Comes to the Third World

After World War II, the Iron Curtain came down across Europe, leaving the continent – and the world – divided. The communists ran the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or Soviet Union for short. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) gave orders to the Soviet government, and also to other national communist parties, which had been installed by the Soviet Army in the Eastern European countries which were occupied by Soviet troops as Nazi Germany was defeated. Together, the Soviet Union and Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe were known as the Second World, in contrast to the First World countries of Western Europe, North America, and their allies.

Still under the rule of Josef Stalin, the Soviet Union was waging a cold war against the west, mainly in Europe (though briefly, there was a hot war that flared up on the Korean peninsula). However, when Stalin died, Nikita Khrushchev came to power, and Khrushchev sought to spread the Cold War to the Third World, which consisted of all the underdeveloped countries that were not part of the First World or the Second World.

But in the Third World, the Cold War was not cold; like Korea, it was a hot war. Pro-western countries found themselves under attack by terrorist and guerrilla forces united under the guise of “National Liberation Fronts.” All these terrorist and guerrilla groups were funded by the communist regime in the Soviet Union (except, of course, for those that were funded by the communist regime in China), and everybody knew it.

The Soviet Union Begins to Lose the Cold War

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in late 1979, sending in troops to prop up the friendly communist regime there. For centuries, Afghanistan had been a graveyard of foreign armies, and the people there, who were Muslim, declared a holy war against the Soviet Union. Receiving support from the rest of the Islamic world and from the west, the Islamic holy warriors sprung a trap on the powerful Soviet Army, which could neither win nor extricate itself from the war there.

Meanwhile in the United States, President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated, having defeated incumbent President Jimmy Carter in a landslide victory during the 1980 election. America’s military power had decayed during Carter’s watch in the wake of the Vietnam War and Reagan was determined to rebuild it to face the communist threat. At the same time, Reagan was also determined to rebuild America’s economy, cutting the taxes and regulations that had hurt Americans so badly during the Carter years.

Even more importantly, Reagan was now talking about a strategic defense initiative: the deployment of space-based defenses that would render the Soviet Union’s own nuclear forces obsolete.

Reagan understood the power of the principles of freedom upon which America was founded, and he realized we could have both a strong economy and a strong military. However, he also understood that the Soviet Union would struggle to have either an economy or a military that could compete with America; the Soviet Union would not be able to have both, and certainly not while it was engaged in a bitter war.

In the Soviet Union, the weaknesses of communism became apparent as America took the initiative both economically and militarily. Moreover, America took the initiative strategically and technologically; already having deployed cruise missiles before Reagan, America was now deploying stealth technology that made the Soviet Union’s air defenses obsolescent. Even more importantly, Reagan was now talking about a strategic defense initiative: the deployment of space-based defenses that would render the Soviet Union’s own nuclear forces obsolete.

Having spent years tightening its grip on the Third World, the CPSU now saw everything, even its power at home, beginning to slip through its fingers.

The Rise of Narcoterrorism

In response to the new situation, the CPSU chose a dynamic leader from a new generation to lead the Soviet Union – Mikhail Gorbachev. At first, Gorbachev encouraged people to speak openly about problems the Soviet Union faced, and this new policy of openness, called “glasnost” in Russian, was at odds with the way the communists had historically governed with censorship and heavy-handedness. Of course, discussing problems meant that problems had to be addressed and fixed, and this led to the new policy of restructuring, called “perestroika” in Russian. With restructuring the communist government and economy, the genie was out of the bottle.

This was the time of cocaine, and of the popular television show “Miami Vice,” that centered on police interdiction efforts against the trafficking of cocaine from Latin America.

Increasingly worried about what was going on at home and next door in Afghanistan, the Soviet leadership was beginning to neglect all its allies waging the wars of national liberation throughout the Third World—the funding from Moscow was drying up.

Meanwhile, trafficking of illegal drugs – narcotrafficking – was becoming big business. Drugs became widely used in the West during the 1960’s, and with the new economic prosperity of the Reagan years in the 1980’s, there was plenty of money for recreational drug use in America. This was the time of cocaine, and of the popular television show “Miami Vice,” that centered on police interdiction efforts against the trafficking of cocaine from Latin America.

In Latin America, Soviet-backed guerrilla groups had plenty of troops, but found themselves starving for money. Meanwhile, due to America’s new “War on Drugs,” drug-trafficking organizations (DTO’s, known as “cartels”) were facing well-funded, well-trained, well-equipped government drug interdiction forces with US backing; the cartels had plenty of drug money, but they badly needed troops. The match was made in Hell, and narcoterrorism was born.

Once terrorists became involved in illegal activities to make money, ideology became less important. Previously, it had been easy to distinguish a for-profit criminal organization from an ideology-driven national liberation front; now however, the lines are blurred, and the love of money overcame desires to liberate the oppressed masses of workers and peasants.

It wasn’t just in Latin America that this developed. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had been driven from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan because it was destabilizing its government. One stronghold was Lebanon, but Lebanon itself dissolved into a long civil war. Illegal drugs had been cultivated in Lebanon since Roman times, but in the chaos of Lebanon’s civil war, the PLO installed itself in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, taking control of its opium production. The PLO came to be known as the Poppy Lover’s Organization because of its ties to the heroin trade, and its leader, Yasser Arafat, died a billionaire.

Heroin Supports Holy War

Not only did the PLO become involved in drug trafficking, but the holy warriors in Afghanistan. As payback for years of fighting Soviet-backed guerrillas all over the world, including with her own troops in Vietnam, America was now supporting anti-communist guerrilla fighters in Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union was getting roasted over a fire that the Soviets themselves had kindled. President Reagan’s efforts to battle the communists were running into opposition among the Democrats in Congress. Alternative sources of funding were needed.

…black money for black ops…

Pakistan was helping the United States supply the holy warriors in Afghanistan to its north and along the Durand Line, which is the border between the two nations, poppies grow very well. People all over, from Afghanistan to Pakistan and all the way to the United States, saw an opportunity to excel: heroin could be produced and exported into the Soviet Union. It could be sold or traded for weapons; the heroin would destabilize the USSR from the inside, and the money and weapons would supply the holy war in Afghanistan – black money for black ops, all out of reach of Congress.

The Connection to South Africa

This same trend became evident in Africa’s bush wars. In South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) had been founded as a peaceful organization, but under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, it turned toward communism and toward violence. Mandela’s ANC established a military wing, the Umkhonto we Sizwe, which means Spear of the Nation. Known simply as the MK, this terrorist group announced its presence on December 16, 1961, with a string of bombings.

The bombings targeted civilian infrastructure, and it was for these terrorist attacks that ANC and MK leaders were arrested and imprisoned, and the ANC itself was banished from South Africa into exile under the protection of communist allies fighting in neighboring countries. As funding from Moscow dried up, these communist groups, including the ANC, also turned toward criminal activity to replace the lost income. And they never turned back.

South Africa and the Southern Route

Fast forward to 2019: most of the world’s heroin comes from Afghanistan. Previously, Afghanistan had produced the poppies, which were transported elsewhere to be refined. Now though, the poppies are refined into heroin right there in the region, and the heroin is extremely high quality. The heroin used to go to Europe or maybe into Russia, but with growing interdiction efforts blocking that, heroin is now often transported south to the coast of Iran or Pakistan and sent across the Indian Ocean along what is called the Southern Route. It comes ashore in Africa, and goes on to market in Europe, or maybe in North America, from there.

This also results in gang wars, as gangs fight over turf for retail distribution, and as transnational drug cartels fight for control of trafficking routes through the southern tip of Africa.

However, increasing interdiction efforts along the Indian Ocean coast of Africa, near the Horn of Africa for example, are driving more of the heroin farther south; increasingly, it finds its way into South Africa. South Africa has excellent commercial ties with the whole world, and this facilitates heroin trafficking. Furthermore, South Africa has the most developed economy in Africa, and is known for terrible corruption. Consequently, it is easy to use South Africa not only to tranship the heroin, but also to launder the drug money.

Of course, where the supply is great, the price comes down, and demand increases: South Africa has a growing heroin problem of its own. Known as “sugars” or “nyaope” or by some other name, heroin has flooded South African communities. This, in turn, results in greater street crime, as junkies seek money for a fix. This also results in gang wars, as gangs fight over turf for retail distribution, and as transnational drug cartels fight for control of trafficking routes through the southern tip of Africa.

And, then, this all results in an even greater problem with corruption. Some of that heroin finds its way to the United States. And much of the profits of that heroin find their way back to South Asia, where they help fund jihadi terrorists in their holy war against the Great Satan.

Heroin money funding jihad: another genie that has gotten out of the bottle, and another thing that ties the United States to South Africa.

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Mark Williamson

Mark Williamson

Mark Williamson is a writer for NRN and a high school math teacher. He's a former USAF Intelligence Applications Officer and graduate of USAF Weapons School.

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