A LITTLE black book, tapped phone lines and witnesses who are now in witness protection helped to bring down four businessmen and a former restaurateur linked to Chinese syndicates and organised crime in South Africa supplying, storing and exporting perlemoen.
The five were found guilty of racketeering on Friday after what Port Elizabeth High Court Judge Dayalin Chetty referred to as "sterling efforts in combating the scourge of abalone poaching in the Eastern Cape”.
Port Elizabeth businessman Peter Roberts, his wife and former restaurateur Carolina Roberts, Jonathan Nel, Bruce Burnstein and John Nell were all convicted of being involved in a syndicate that supplied the Chinese mafia with perlemoen in Johannesburg.
The court heard that the months-long investigation culminated in the arrest of two of the syndicate’s drivers at the Lebombo border post between South Africa and Mozambique by the now defunct Scorpions in January 2010.
The driver and his son, Marthinus Janse van Rensburg snr and Marthinus "Boetman” Janse van Rensburg jnr, had 658kg of perlemoen in their truck.
Shortly afterwards, Nel and Burnstein were stopped at a roadblock and arrested.
Peter Roberts was arrested in Nelspruit the next day, while Carolina and Nell were arrested in Port Elizabeth a few days later.
The arrests were the result of a special project, code-named Operation May, initiated by the Scorpions with a special focus on Roberts as one of the persons suspected of being a kingpin in the syndicate.
As part of the operation, the Scorpions had permission to tap Roberts’s and his wife’s phones.
Former Scorpions investigator Johan Jooste explained in papers before court that their investigation was triggered by findings that a number of Chinese cartels were operating in South Africa under a blanket of quasi-legitimate businesses in which non-existent addresses, false identification documents and non-traceable partners played a big role.
Most of these cartels were based in Johannesburg with storage facilities and routes around the country.
Jooste said the suspected cartel members lived in areas where surveillance was almost impossible because of the exceptional security.
"During surveillance operations on Chinese individuals it was evident that the drivers of the abalone vehicles were well trained in counter- surveillance actions, eliminating surveillance teams’ vehicles within 10 minutes. The evasion tactics used were extremely efficient,” he said.
Jooste further explained that despite operations to search the homes, storage facilities and businesses they could never find anything.
He said they received information that the Chinese syndicates would smuggle perlemoen from the coast inland and across the borders to the Far East via road, railway and aircraft.
An informant identified several individuals linked to Chinese syndicates involved and provided a secret "little black book” of cellphone numbers used by the South Africans.
Several witnesses, whom Roberts offered jobs when they were desperate, turned state witness. The five will be sentenced at a date still to be determined.