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Brazil Arrests Point to Southern Africa Cocaine Trade

For the second time in a month, Sao Paulo police arrested a large group allegedly trying to smuggle cocaine to Angola, in a sign of southern Africa's importance as transit hub and market for the drug trade.

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Police at Sao Paulo airport stopped 24 people trying to board a flight to Luanda, capital of Angola, on Monday. The men were all carrying Nigerian passports, though police suspect some may be fake, and had apparently swallowed capsules of cocaine. They were arrested and taken to a city hospital to expel the drugs from their bodies.

This was the biggest group to be caught in Brazil transporting drugs in this way, according to police, but the men are part of a larger pattern. Less than a month before, 23 Nigerians were stopped at the same airport with cocaine capsules in their stomachs and a suitcase with eight kilos of the drug, also trying to board a flight to Luanda. They join hundreds of other mules, often African, charged with trying to smuggle drugs from Brazil to southern Africa.

Brazil does not produce cocaine, but its extensive land borders include permeable frontiers with Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, the world’s principal cocaine producers, as well as with various transit countries, such as Paraguay and Venezuela.

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The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported as far back as 2005 that Brazilian criminal groups were increasingly developing trafficking links with southern Africa, where Angola is located. In the years since then, the amount of South American cocaine passing through Brazil has increased exponentially. The number of seizures of cocaine that could be traced back to Brazil went up 10-fold between 2005 and 2009. In 2010, Sao Paulo's international airport seized a record quantity of cocaine, confiscating some 1.8 tons over the course of the year.

As InSight Crime has previously reported, there has been evidence in recent years of the growing presence of drug gangs in North and West Africa, particularly in nations like Nigeria and Guinea-Bissau. The increased importance of Brazil as a transit point for cocaine may be driven in part by the country having easier access to the African continent than anywhere else in South America.

Much of the cocaine that passes through West and southern Africa is in transit to Europe, which has become a much larger cocaine market in the last decade. As the map, left, indicates, Europe’s rising demand has been fed by a proliferation of trafficking routes, with the emergence of a Brazil-southern Africa-Europe route, some of which passes through West Africa, in the decade between 1998 and 2008.

Some of the cocaine heading to southern Africa is intended for consumption in the region’s richest country, South Africa. Some 60 percent of cocaine trafficked into South Africa in 2009 went to the domestic market, according to government figures quoted by the UN. Much of the rest of it goes north to Europe, on direct flights or via West Africa. Angola does not have a significant domestic demand for cocaine, and much of the drug passes straight through the country, heading north to Nigeria and Europe, often entering the continent through Portugal. (Angola is Portugese-speaking, making it easier for local criminal groups to deal with Brazilian and Portuguese traffickers.)

An indication of the amounts trafficked through Angola is given by the fact that, according to local media, police seized 74 kilos of cocaine at Luanda’s main airport in 2010.

Most of the cocaine going from Brazil to southern Africa is transported by individuals traveling on commercial flights who conceal it on their persons. Local newspaper the Jornal de Angola reported in April that, according to a police source, more than 90 percent of the drug that reaches the country by air is brought from Brazil, mostly transported by mules from Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. It said that these mules are mostly Africans, often from Nigeria, Senegal, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mali, as well as Angola. As the newspaper details, these individuals often say they were unaware of the cargo they would be transporting until they arrived in Brazil, having been promised large sums of money if they traveled to the South American country to perform licit business errands. One South African campaign group said in 2009 that around 30 South African citizens are arrested on suspicion of drug smuggling in Brazil every month, and that the figure had shot up in the previous two years. UN figures from 2005 said that just under 35 percent of drug couriers caught in Brazil were Africans.

It seems that Africans may also be increasingly involved in the higher echelons of the business. One UNDOC official stated in June that increasingly sophisticated African groups are taking control of the drug trade in their region, displacing South American trafficking organizations.

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