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El Al worker sentenced for role in smuggling cocaine from SA to Israel

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Twelve years in prison was the sentence that a former senior executive of El Al’s security division received on Tuesday, 19 July, for his part in smuggling more than 50kg of cocaine from South Africa to Israel. Rami Yogev (57) was given an additional 24 months’ probation. Judge Mordechai Levy said it was one of the most serious drug incidents Israel has ever known.

Yogev and a former Shin Bet officer, Beno Shalom, were among several people arrested at the end of 2018 for their suspected roles in an international drug-smuggling network that used Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport as one of its transit routes. According to the indictments, the suspects took a total of 150kg of cocaine from South Africa to Israel on 10 occasions over a period of several months.

Yogev was charged in 2019, along with eight other suspects. According to the Times of Israel (TOI), he was convicted in a plea bargain, saying that while he hadn’t known what was in the suitcases carrying the smuggled drugs, he had “closed his eyes” to the possibility that they might be in there. According to the court, he allowed the transfer of the suitcases without proper inspection in exchange for $10 000 (about R170 000) per suitcase, reported The Jerusalem Post.

Yogev’s high-ranking position in El Al security lgave him access to restricted areas of Ben Gurion Airport, bypassing standard security checkpoints. The drugs were put in hand luggage and smuggled past security in Johannesburg before being carried by a courier onto flights to Israel. At Ben Gurion, the hand luggage was handed off to Yogev as soon as the plane doors were opened. He then took the bag past security into Israel.

The investigation began after drugs were found in the luggage of an Israeli citizen arriving on a flight from Johannesburg, according to Israeli media. Ynet reported that a warehouse was discovered in central Israel, which is alleged to have been used by the smuggling ring to store and manufacture weapons. TOI wrote that in one intercepted haul, police were said to have recovered 20kg of cocaine, with a street value of about NIS 8-million (about R39-million).

Prosecutors wrote of Yogev that he “blatantly and grossly violated the trust given to him as part of his job”. The main suspect, Hanania Knafo (a prisoner involved in the case), was sentenced to 10 years in prison, reported The Jerusalem Post. The original indictment says that the state witness in the case worked in the security division of El Al until he was replaced by Yogev in 2010.

An Israeli man, Shai Alon, was arrested in South Africa in April 2021 in connection with the cocaine smuggling ring. He was arrested after Israeli authorities asked their South African counterparts to extradite him. Ynet reported that it was alleged that Alon acted as a drug courier on three occasions and recruited someone else to carry the contraband.

Lieutenant Colonel Katlego Mogale from the South African Police Service told the SA Jewish Report at the time of the arrests that the drugs were believed to be from countries outside South Africa, probably in North America.

Mogale says the security measures at OR Tambo “are and have always been strict” .

“SAPS renders support as far as the protection of passengers at check-in counters and boarding gates. SARS [South African Revenue Services] customs and SAPS are responsible for the checks when there is intelligence that has been gathered relating to a specific flight.

“Law enforcement will in cases like this follow on intelligence gathered to ascertain the origin of the drugs, the modus operandi of the suspects, as well as the connection the suspects have to syndicates.”

She said there had been significant breakthroughs in arresting drug mules and traffickers, as well as in making sure that prison sentences were handed down.

El Al did not respond to questions from the SA Jewish Report this week. However, at the time of the arrests, it responded with the following statement: “El Al is assisting the legal authorities in their investigation [to] reach the truth, and regardless of the investigation, we emphasise that El Al has never compromised and will never compromise on security matters, and is acting on this matter in accordance with the guidelines set by official security authorities.”

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