Woman tells of ordeal as drug-mule slave

MANDLA ZULU | 15 January, 2012 00:08

KWAZULU-Natal drug mule Nonhlanhla "Ndoni'' Ngwane was forced to swallow baby carrots to help widen her throat so she could ingest condoms filled with drugs.

In a brief, exclusive interview with the Sunday Times, Ngwane recounted her three-month nightmare in Brazil where she was held captive in a house with five other South African women - and where she was raped.

But Ngwane is one of the lucky ones. She managed to flee her captors at an airport in Brazil and escape to South Africa after seeking out security.

Now her case has triggered a massive, multi-agency manhunt for a syndicate involved in recruiting desperate women in need of jobs.

The syndicate places bogus job adverts in local and community newspapers, then abducts the applicants, arranges travel documents and uses them as couriers for illegal drugs.

A team of officers from the police are working with the Hawks in a countrywide case that has already seen several people arrested.

"It's an ongoing investigation, so we don't want to jeopardise [it]," said Hawks spokesman Colonel McIntosh Polela.

But the Sunday Times has established that several members of the syndicate in KwaZulu-Natal have been arrested since the probe started last month.

Police declined to say how many, but an investigator with the Hawks said: "Arrests have been made and more are imminent ... information is being closely guarded because of the sensitive nature of the case."

Ngwane has been placed in the witness protection programme and was briefly reunited with her emotional family in Umlazi, south of Durban, last month.

She left South Africa with a group of "successful job applicants" on a flight to Brazil in October last year.

Her return to Johannesburg on December 10 after her dramatic escape came just four days before another South African, Nolubabalo Nobanda, 23, was arrested at Bangkok's international airport with 1.5kg of cocaine in her braids.

She was detained after getting off a Qatar Airways flight from São Paulo. Police, however, said the two cases were not related.

An emotional Ngwane described how she and the other women were forced to courier drugs to cities in Thailand, India and China.

The women were separated and travelled with handlers. She said they were often warned that their families in South Africa would be killed if they tried to escape.

Ngwane said that during the initial job interviews they had been required to complete forms with details of their next of kin, addresses and telephone numbers.

The job advert she responded to had been placed in a Durban newspaper by a bogus import company. It sought women with a matric certificate or diploma who would be able to sell high-end imported shoes.

"When I arrived at the company's offices near the city centre, there were dozens of other women being interviewed," said Ngwane, who has a human resources diploma. "The interviews were being conducted by two men and one respectable-looking woman who spoke Zulu fluently."

Ngwane said she was asked if she had a passport. "I was lucky because I had just got one." The women were told their jobs would begin with training and travelling.

The following day Ngwane heard she had got the job and, several days later, she and several of the "successful" applicants were told their first trip was to Doha and Nepal.

"We boarded a flight to Johannesburg and we were booked at a Sandton hotel. We were all so excited because we had got employment," she said.

A day or two later the women boarded a flight for Brazil where their nightmare began.

Ngwane said she vomited blood when forced to swallow the carrots. She cried as she told of how she was often forced to sleep with four men in one night.

Last month, Ngwane and three other women were dropped at São Paulo airport, where they were to catch a flight to Bolivia.

Ngwane and the others gave their handlers the slip in the crowds and alerted airport security.


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