Drug Smugglers Exploit West African Weakness

Colombia will assist West African countries with law-enforcement training to combat organized crime — especially money laundering and drug trafficking.

Colombian and African officials met Mar. 27-31 in Bogotá at a seminar on transnational organized crime. Opening the event, Colombia’s minister of foreign affairs, María Angela Holguín, said “it is impossible for one country, with its technical and financial resources, to undertake a strategy against organized crime and even common crime without the support of other partners.”

The seminar comes as the impoverished nations of West Africa are becoming an increasingly prominent transit point for illicit drugs on their way from South American producers to European consumers. In a February 2012 report, the International Narcotics Control Board said West Africa had turned itself into a “logistical bridge” for cocaine trafficked into Europe.

Likewise, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that 13 percent of the 217 tons of cocaine exported from South America and destined for Europe last year went via West Africa. Among states being used as transit points: Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Mali, Niger and Guinea-Bissau.

Cartels behind dramatic growth in drug shipments

UN anti-drug officials say trafficking is getting increasingly sophisticated, with South American cartels possibly using submarines to ship narcotics. They also accuse cartels of sending large mother ships carrying tons of cocaine to dock off the poorly patrolled West African coast, then ferrying the drugs via smaller boats to various destinations and storage points.

The South Americans also use aircraft. In 2009, officials in Mali found an abandoned Boeing 727 that had been used to transport cocaine.

Despite a decline in West African drug seizures, actual volume and loads may be on the rise, warned UNODC’s regional head, Alexandre Schmidt. He estimates the annual value of South American shipments to Africa at $900 million, up from UNODC’s figure of $800 million for 2009.

Schmidt also pointed to the establishment of West African drug cartels. At a conference in Dakar, Senegal, he said seizures of Europe-bound cocaine in West Africa had dropped from 47 to 35 tons between 2008 and 2009, but that “there has been a repositioning of the drug routes,” and that traffickers “have much more sophisticated means” these days.

Local drug consumption is also growing rapidly in the region, with UNODC estimating about 2.5 million drug users in West Africa. Of the 35 tons of cocaine thought to have reached West Africa in 2009, about 21 tons continued on to Europe — with the remainder consumed locally.

UNODC: Smugglers exploit West African weaknesses

UNODC Director Yuri Fedotov argues that Latin American crime syndicates take advantage of African poverty, poor border controls and lax law enforcement.

“The West African transit route feeds a European cocaine market, which in recent years grew four-fold, reaching an amount almost equal to the U.S. market,” he told the UN Security Council at a Feb. 21 conference.

Trafficking ties between West Africa and South America have strengthened rapidly in the past few years, with Colombian criminals and Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel leading the way. Porous borders and under-resourced law enforcement have created for the cartels what experts say is a permissive environment.

West Africa’s proximity to the lucrative markets of Europe is another attraction, as are Brazil’s ties with the Portuguese-speaking nations of Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé e Principe — which in some cases have led to the development of underworld connections.

New program links Brazil, 7 airports in West Africa

Earlier this year, the World Customs Organization joined UNODC and Interpol in a $3.2 million project to improve communication between police and airports in seven West African countries and Brazil. The project, known as Aircop, involves the exchange of intelligence among Brazil and the international airports of Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo; Guinea and Morocco may join later on.

Europe isn’t the only destination for South American drugs passing through the region. Philippine airport officials have increased their vigilance of passengers arriving from West African airports after several arrests of drug mules.

On March 13, two Ghanaians were caught carrying narcotics, mainly methamphetamine hydrochloride (known as “ice”). In all, eight West African mules were apprehended at Philippine airports in March, said government spokeswoman Maria Antonette Mangrobang. “We have instructed airport authorities to look more closely at arriving West Africans and to ask more questions,” she said.

During the past 12 months, 38 alleged members of African drug gangs have been arrested in the Philippines.

Trafficking undermines African society

Global alarm over West Africa’s role in the drug trade took off in 2007, when the UN published a groundbreaking report on the subject. It warned that unless more resources were mobilized to confront drug smugglers, trafficking could destabilize the region.

Independent analysts added to the alarm. Kwesi Aning, a scholar at the Kofi Annan Peace Keeping Center in Ghana, said narcotrafficking is undermining West Africa’s fragile states “because the increasing flow of drugs is weakening institutions, local communities and the social fabric.”

In February, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that a rise in transnational organized crime, drug trafficking and piracy threatens peace and stability across West Africa and the Sahel.

Meanwhile, the UN is setting up and training transnational crime units in Guinea-Bissau, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Several European states including France, Great Britain and Spain have also given West African governments advice and funding to help combat transnational crime.

Such efforts are apparently beginning to pay off. Last year, Liberian police seized a cocaine shipment worth $100 million.