Tracing the invisible footprints in a smuggler’s life

“FIRST OF all, my real name is not to be disclosed in your story,” with a stern look and speaking in a heavy Kinyarwanda accent mixed with some French and Swahili, those were the first words of a ‘middle man’ in the trade of smuggling along Rwanda’s porous borders.  I met the well built man in Gisenyi on Saturday evening as he sipped on expensive liquor.  Dressed in a brown Polo shirt and a blue pair of jeans, he completed the look with a golden chain around his neck and an expensive Bulvgari watch on his wrist.  
Long haul trucks are some of the transportation methods used by smugglers. Net photo
Long haul trucks are some of the transportation methods used by smugglers. Net photo

“FIRST OF all, my real name is not to be disclosed in your story,” with a stern look and speaking in a heavy Kinyarwanda accent mixed with some French and Swahili, those were the first words of a ‘middle man’ in the trade of smuggling along Rwanda’s porous borders.  I met the well built man in Gisenyi on Saturday evening as he sipped on expensive liquor. 

Dressed in a brown Polo shirt and a blue pair of jeans, he completed the look with a golden chain around his neck and an expensive Bulvgari watch on his wrist.  

The smell of the scent from his designer clothes was not ordinary, probably he uses some of those exotic perfumes.  He looked relaxed as we sat at the popular Tam Tam beach located in Gisenyi a popular spot for these smugglers of goods across the Rwanda-DR Congo border.  What  he revealed about his ‘occupation’ was shocking, to say the least. 

Born in Rubavu, but now living in the Democratic Republic of Congo (albeit with temporary residence in Rubavu), Musafiri (not real name) is the ‘middleman’ for smuggling goods into Rubavu en route to Musanze and Kigali city. According to some people who have worked with him, he is responsible for a lot of smuggled products that enter the country.

It comes as no shock that he was tight-lipped about his impending consignments, but he did reveal that, following the tight security measures on the Rwandan side, he is thinking of how to start smuggling goods on Lake Kivu. 

“It is becoming tight but this is the life I’ve known and lived for long. So, I constantly have to think of ways to up my game,” he said as he  sipped on a glass of Johnnie Walker that I assumed must have been smuggled too.  

Before he became a ‘professional’ smuggler, Musafiri was a business man in DR Congo until mid 2000 when there was civil unrest and his business collapsed. With the help of a friend, he was introduced to the smuggling business and after one assignment involving 20 boxes of whisky and liquor earned that him more than $ 2,000 (About Rwf1.4m), he never looked back. Since then, he has built a chain of distributors, retailers and clients along the smuggling chain. 

Musafiri’s role is to create  safe passage for smuggling and arrange deliveries to various agents. He has other trusted transporters who distribute to his clients. He has built a network that enables him to ensure the goods’ safe passage to the point of delivery.

On reaching their destination, the transporters hand over products to ‘ground agents’ who pick up the merchandise from different points and then arrange for it to reach retail level/clients. 

How does the  network operate? 

The ‘middleman’ reveals that smuggling products, especially whiskey, wine and hard liquor, have links with big retail shops in Quartier Matues in Kigali city. Money generated from smuggled goods is re-invested in the smuggling business.  But at times he borrows from other people in the same ring. If the delivery is large, the smuggler seeks out the middleman, if not he arranges transporters himself but that is usually very risky. Smugglers, mostly Congolese and a few Rwandans, can be found in Kigali, but most of them operate in a very discreet manner. 

However, if a smuggled consignment is seized by the anti smuggling authorities, the entire loss is borne by the smuggler. It is thus essential for him to have deep pockets to keep in business even after making such a loss. “It’s a complicated network in which the role of every player is clearly defined and immense caution and secrecy is maintained,” said a smuggler (let’s call him Claude) who had sat quietly with us sipping on coffee as a cold breeze blew over Tam Tam Beach. 

“The transporter, for instance, knows no one connected with the operation except the person who hands over to him the necessary requirements for the journey. Sometimes, even the middleman does not know who the real smuggler is,” Claude added. Such precautions are necessary so that even if a transporter is caught, the network cannot be busted.

Why smuggling is seen as a gold mine

How much do middlemen, transporters and the bosses earn? “The prices of most of our commodities don’t fluctuate a lot. What changes is the size of the package. If I want five boxes of wine, I will consider the price a box costs across the border, give money to the facilitator and he takes care of the rest. He gets his full payment upon delivery which also includes payment for the transporter. If I have borrowed some money, I refund with interest. The good thing is that even though I add all expenses incurred on the price of the product, I still make a good profit and sell at a low price. Imagine, at my shop I sell a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label at Rwf 200,000 whereas it is expensive in other places,” said Claude. 

It is at this point that Claude told me about some people who have made a killing out of smuggling goods. “I have friends who own a number of houses and operate legitimate businesses which they use to hide the illegitimate ones. For example, one owns a retail store, a supermarket and a motel – that is enough for him to justify any questions regarding the accumulation of his wealth.”

I later learnt that some people have investments in Gisenyi but not under their real names. This is done to protect their property in the event they are caught and prosecuted. Some people will even get a bank loan which they don’t need urgently but just to reflect in their banks records, just in case they are investigated about the source of their income.  

Transportation

The profile of transporters has gone through many changes because of several arrests. Women are some of the new entrants into the business.  “A pregnant woman driving across the border with children is not the usual profile of a transporter you would expect,” says middle man Musafiri. Transporters who are smart are said to be on high demand. With many transporters being arrested or suspected to be under the watchful eye of authorities, smugglers are now taking to crafty deals by using locals who are well versed with various porous entry points.  

“For instance, there are short-cut routes that go in and out of Congo. We use locals especially those that deal in cross border trade. We usually stage our agents at locations where they can pick them up. The other means of transport is using crippled people in wheel chairs,” he added.

The new favourites are young men from the area, often village residents. If they happen to use them, they prefer the youth who are mostly aged between 18 and 25 years, and usually school dropouts. They are given strict instructions on how to conduct themselves - they are prohibited, for instance, on using the same route frequently and from drinking alcohol before they hand over the products.

Cargo trucks also provide good transportation but they are risky since they are always checked by traffic police along the way. However, private cars are good cover for transportation especially over the weekend when most people are driving back to Kigali after the weekend at the beach. 

Other tax evasion methods

A deeper look into the smuggling empire shows a picture of  sophisticated techniques that smugglers are employing as they try to outsmart authorities. Musafiri said, “Sometimes it becomes difficult to evade authorities hence we keep changing our strategies to beat the law enforcers. 

Commonly smuggled products

The most smuggled goods include liquors and wines of which most of it is from the DRC. Others include powdered milk, women clothes such as the Kitenge (African print fabric) and accessories, and pharmaceutical drugs.  Rubavu is notoriously known for drug trafficking from DRC. 

What do the authorities say? 

When contacted, Emmy Mbera -  Acting Commissioner, Revenue Protection Department said they are aware of the problem and everything possible is being done to stamp out the vice. 

“We are aware of the problem but we are working hard to combat it. We have managed to apprehend some suspects although there are still people who manage to smuggle products into the country. Smuggling in Rwanda is not at an alarming rate nonetheless we have personnel at all borders working tirelessly to stop this act.”