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.




Los Zetas — Most Powerful Crime Group in Guatemala

Los Zetas has been on an arms-buying spree and a recruitment drive in Guatemala and is now the most powerful crime group operating in the Central American country.

According to the Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla, no indigenous crime organization can now compete with the Mexican cartel and Los Zetas, which first moved into the country four years ago, is recruiting from the ranks of Guatemalan gangs and “have extended their operating power.”

The minister acknowledges that Los Zetas has been helped inadvertently with its expansion as an indirect consequence of law-enforcement success against Guatemalan crime groups. “The capture of key Guatemalan drug traffickers has allowed the Mexican cartel Los Zetas to strengthen and expand its operations throughout the country, to stand as the largest criminal group in the country,” says López Bonilla.

Los Zetas hasn’t been shy in flaunting its sway. In a move that Guatemalan officials say is meant to intimidate rivals and attract recruits, the cartel has been using a marketing tool they and other Mexican crime groups employ in Mexico – namely, displaying narco-mantas (drug banners) containing clear messages, from threats to appeals.

Last month, narco-mantas purportedly placed by Los Zetas appeared in Guatemala City and in San Benito, a town in Petén , the largest province in Guatemala and which borders Mexico. The banners in San Benito were thought to have been placed as a response by Los Zetas to the March 19 arrest of Gustavo Adolfo Colindres Arreaga, nicknamed “El Rochoy”, a Guatemalan who oversaw some operations for Los Zetas.  Rochoy was captured in the nearby town of town of Poptun after a 15-day joint military-police operation and he was seized along with three other alleged Los Zetas members. Handguns and ammunition were impounded in the raid.

The San Benito banners threatened Los Zetas retaliation, if Guatemalan authorities continue to pursue the cartel.

The banner read: “To all civil and military authorities and the population in general stop persecution of the race or we will start killing. We will throw grenades into discos and shopping centers in Petén … because this is ‘Z’ territory we don’t want a war against the government this is a warning. Z200.”

Petén Governor Henry Amezquita said at a press conference that he believed the banner was placed to intimidate and to “destabilize,” Prensa Libre newspaper reported.

Last May, Los Zetas massacred and beheaded 27 migrant farm workers in a village near San Benito. Three children and two women were among the victims of the attack, which was carried out by about 40 armed men. Authorities believe that the main target of the assault was the farm owner, who was away at the time.

“After the murder of the campesinos no one here is taking their threat lightly,” says local hospital worker Jose Miguel Monterroso. “The banner caused panic,” he adds.

The banners in Guatemala were less menacing and congratulated mockingly President Otto Pérez Molina for his recent raising of the issue of possible policy alternatives to the war on drugs, including decriminalization of narcotics, as a way to deprive the cartels of their profits. The banners urged also the government to pursue street gangs such as the Maras.

One of the Guatemala City banners read: “Pérez and (Vice President Roxana) Baldetti, go through with legalizing drugs, and we support fighting the maras … Zeta 200” and “A thousand thanks general Otto Pérez and Roxana Baldetti for legalizing drugs … Zeta 200.”

The push by Los Zetas into Guatemala is prompting rising alarm across the region. Los Zetas are seeking to stamp total control on lucrative trafficking corridors through northern Guatemala and have seized farms to use as staging posts for drugs and weapons. A spike in violence last December prompted the Guatemalan government to declare a month-long “state of siege” in the northern department of Alta Verapaz.

Expansion and diversification has led not only Los Zetas but also the Sinaloa Federation, to establish operations in the countries of the northern isthmus of Central America. “The ‘northern triangle’ of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador has become greatly destabilized, and appears to be undergoing a rapid transformation into the new frontier for dangerous Mexican cartels,” Lauren Mathae concluded in a paper for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs published last October.

Last year, the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) highlighted in its annual report the incursion of Mexican cartels into Central America, too, noting that as the expansion continues apace the cartels are forming alliances with indigenous crime groups, in a bid to exploit Central and Latin American markets for drug sales.

And they are using also Central America as a transit point for supplying more narcotics to Europe and Australia via Africa, the INCB reported.

The expanded cocaine supply chains entails greater risk of loss along the extended supply routes, but the potential profits are great, too.

Los Zetas has been in recent months seeking to secure more weaponry, say Guatemalan and Mexican officials. Mexican police have arrested Guatemalans smuggling guns into Mexico through the border with its southern neighbor.

According to a report from the commanders of Mexico’s 4th Military Region which covers the states of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas and San Luis Potosi, Los Zetas has been purchasing heavy weapons in Central America, especially in Guatemala. The weapons they have been able to purchase have included leftovers from armed conflicts in the region in the 1980s and are available on the black market.

Mexican analysts say that Los Zetas needs to replenish their arsenals because of weapons seizures in Mexico and because they need more guns to fend off challenges from rivals, including the Sinaloa Federation. But they need more weapons to help expand as well. “Los Zetas are arming themselves because they are growing their market and penetrating other territories, specially in the states of Yucatán and Jalisco where they now have a foothold,” says security expert Alberto Islas, a former adviser in the Zedillo administration.

Last December, Guatemalan security forces seized 150 AK-47 assault rifles in Alta Verapaz as well as four armor-plated vehicles along with 10 alleged Los Zetas members.

In recent weeks, the Guatemalan authorities have scored some success in their efforts to combat Los Zetas. The biggest development came on April 3 with the capture of Overdick Horst Walter Mejia, alias “El Tigre”, a key figure for the Mexican cartel in Guatemala. At a press conference in Guatemala City, deputy interior minister Julio Claveria announced the arrest of Overdick Mejia, who was seized in the western province of Sacatepequez. Guatemalan officials say his ties with Los Zetas go back to 2008 and that he was crucial for the Mexican cartel’s expansion into the country.

A wealthy landowner from the northern province of Alta Verapaz, Overdick Mejia was arrested in 2004 on charges of cocaine trafficking, but he avoided jail. There have been accusations that he managed to bribe the judges.

His wife, Mercedes Barrios, and son were arrested in November 2008 in Alta Verapaz on suspicion of drug smuggling. A court freed them later because of lack of evidence.  The United States is seeking to extradite Overdick Mejia on trafficking charges. On April 5 a court in Guatemala City started to hear the extradition request. Amongst the evidence presented were videos showing the Guatemalan with known Los Zetas gunmen at a fiesta on July 12, 2011 at the Finca Santa Marta, in Ixcán, Quiché.