R400m cocaine-in-a-boat accused used encryption app to communicate

State says it has a strong case against the accused.

24 August 2021 - 15:01 By shonisani tshikalange
Some of the cocaine recovered from the hull of the boat. File photo.
Some of the cocaine recovered from the hull of the boat. File photo.
Image: Hawks

Suspects implicated in a huge drug bust in which 800kg of cocaine was found in a boat being towed on a Gauteng freeway used encrypted devices — similar to those used by criminal syndicates abroad — to communicate.

This was revealed in the Pretoria magistrate’s court by an investigating officer during the ongoing bail application of five of the suspects charged with allegedly dealing in drugs worth R400m.

The officer, who requested not to be identified, said the five had been positively identified through their use of Anom.

This type of modified cellphone-based app is widely used by syndicates abroad, allowing users to send messages and photos with end-to-end encryption, according to the New York Times.

Niel Pieter van Zyl, 38, Michael Norman, Rashied Baderoen, 48, Rafiek Baderoen, 44, and Jaco de Kock, 48, continued their bail application on Tuesday. They told the court they intended to plead not guilty. Co-accused Valdas Tenikaitis earlier said he would abandon his bid for bail.

The case is linked to a huge drug bust in June in which a stash of compressed, pure cocaine was found inside a boat being towed on a freeway.

“All accused but accused two [Tenikaitis] had the devices. They also avoided meeting each other in person. They were identified through GPS locations and surveillance,” said the investigating officer.

The devices, he said, were used solely to conceal identities.

“These devices are only used by people participating in criminal activities. The device comes with a username where identity is not exposed. The device automatically deletes messages to a third party.”

He told the court the devices became active in SA only in late May 2021.

The devices can only be used by people participating in criminal activities.
Investigating officer testifying in court

The investigating officer said if released on bail, the suspects would likely try to dispose of evidence.

“There is evidence out there. There are exhibits out there that we are tracking and some of the accused have knowledge of where the evidence is. The first thing they would do is to dispose of that.”

Investigations were ongoing and at a sensitive stage, he said.

The investigating officer told the court bail conditions would not make a difference as bail money meant nothing to the suspects.

“It will not be in the interests of justice to grant the accused bail.”

It also emerged in court that Norman was allegedly part of the management of a syndicate.

“It was determined he is part of the management structures of the syndicate. He together with accused four [Rashied Baderoen], were in Gauteng and were monitoring the load that was being moved. We identified them when they were going to meet their lawyer, who was also in possession of an encrypted device,” he said.

He told the court the state had a strong case and said the evidence against Rashied was overwhelming.

The bail application continues.

During the court proceedings on Tuesday, the investigating officer gave the court background on how the suspects were linked to the cocaine bust and subsequently arrested. 

He said the five men were linked through the encrypted cellphones, created by the FBI to monitor criminal syndicates.

“I received the information together with the information received from Australian federal police (AFP). The information was related to a syndicate operating internationally as well as in SA in relation to drugs, in particular cocaine.

“The syndicate members would make use of encrypted devices known as Anom. The FBI in 2018 created these devices with the assistance of criminals they had arrested. These criminals assisted the FBI in creating a platform as well as a platform for these devices to operate from or through.  From 2018 the FBI was listening to encrypted conversations and communications from criminals across the world,” he said.

He said they were able to use the Anom devices' GPS and physical surveillance to link the accused to the devices. 

“The accused were communicating at some stage,” he said.

There were communications about a meeting between Norman, Rashied and De Kock to discuss what went wrong after the drug bust and how information was leaked. There were communications where it was specifically mentioned that they must change their operation style as they might get caught.”

The investigating officer said De Kock was in constant communication with members of the syndicates.

The investigating officer said a normal person cannot buy such a device from a shop.

“The accused have gone to great lengths to conceal their identities. A typical cost for a device like this would range from R15,000 to R25,000. The device comes with a handle name so you will not have to expose your identity,” he said.

He said on June 2 from the information received from a source, surveillance was conducted at a premises in Kyalami, Gauteng, that Van Zyl was renting.

He said Van Zyl left the property in a bakkie towing a ski boat. 

Van Zyl was later arrested on the N1 near Pretoria on 2 June after being found in possession of a large quantity of cocaine.

“He had four cellphones in the vehicle, of which I suspect one is the Anom device. This will be verified by the FBI.”

He said it was extremely difficult to arrest the suspects and it was a timely process.

The investigating officer said if released on bail, the suspects would likely try to dispose of evidence.

“There is evidence out there. There are exhibits out there that we are tracking and some of the accused know where the evidence is.”

He said no bail conditions would be a deterrent to the accused as they have access to funds and the means to relocate.

“For them to disappear is very easy. This is definitely part of a syndicate with involvement in Europe and in Australia there are other role players. It's an international matter. We have an extremely strong case against all accused in court,” he said.

The matter was postponed to October 15, 18 and 19 for continuation of the bail applications.