On July 19, Argentine customs officials seized more than half a ton of cocaine hidden amongst dredging equipment due to be flown out of Buenos Aires international airport. The stated recipient, officials said, was a non-existent oil company in Lagos, Nigeria. This was meant to served as a front for the narcotics to be sent to Europe, where they would have fetched up to $25 million on the street, reported the Associated Press.
The West African trafficking route has been well used by Latin American gangs over the last decade. Two days after the Buenos Aires discovery, a New York Times article outlined how the US is increasing its focus on the West African drug trade, due to the region's growing importance as a transit point for South American cocaine. According to the report, the US has begun training an "elite unit of counter narcotics police in Ghana and [is] planning similar units in Nigeria and Kenya." Jeffrey Breeden, chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA's) Europe, Asia and Africa division, told the newspaper, "We see Africa as the new frontier in terms of ... counternarcotics issues. It's a place that we need to get ahead of ... we need to catch up."
This fear is reflected in the spike in US counternarcotics assistance to West Africa over the last two years. In 2009 aid stood at $7.5 million, growing more than six-fold to nearly $50 million in both 2010 and 2011.
The United States is indeed late to the game. Latin American gangs have a well-established base in West Africa, having cultivated ties with local traffickers, who themselves are far from newcomers to the drug trade. The plan to provide financial assistance to create elite anti-narcotics units will not do much against the institutional corruption in the region, which has hindered past efforts.
West Africa now constitutes an important transit hub, with as much as 13 percent of global cocaine flows passing through the region, according to some US officials, (see UN map, below, for global cocaine flows). The region had a history of narcotics trafficking even before the influx of South American cocaine over the last decade, making it an attractive place for Latin American gangs to set up operations.
According to an essay by Stephen Ellis, an expert on African history at Amsterdam's VU University, drug traffickers have been active in West Africa since the 1950s, when Lebanese smugglers used it as a transshipment point for heroin going to the US. In the following decades, homegrown traffickers from Ghana and Nigeria began to emerge, becoming active players in the marijuana trade to Europe. As the essay notes, these historical roots in the drug trade mean Latin American traffickers can find "local partners with well-established networks who provide them with safe houses, banking, storage space, and a host of other facilities."
The political and economic instability in certain West African states has also made the area an ideal place for cocaine to move through, particularly with the mounting pressure on traditional routes from South America directly to Europe. Guinea-Bissau is a case in point. One of the poorest countries in the world, Guinea-Bissau has long-been plagued by corruption, which has debilitated its government to the point of impotence. A 2007 report by Time magazine found Colombian traffickers to be exploiting this to the full, even basing themselves in Guinea-Bissau in order to better coordinate their shipments. Many had rented plush mansions as a base for operations, and were believed to have coopted elements of the military. In a country that struggles to pay the wages of state employees on a month-by-month basis, luring officials into trafficking networks is relatively easy. Former President Joao Bernado Vieira's son, a man suspected of being involved in cocaine deals, publicly admitted to having "Colombian friends," which was widely interpreted as being a reference to the drug trade.
Of course, Guinea-Bissau's crumbling state is not the rule in West Africa. Other countries, notably Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone, have made significant strides in recent years in achieving a measure of political stability and strengthening democratic institutions. Guinea-Bissau is, however, indicative of the wider problems of corruption and poverty that plague the region and make it fertile ground for Latin American gangs to set up shop. What's more, certain countries are vulnerable to political turmoil, as evidenced by the outbreak of violence after Ivory Coast's contested elections in 2010 and, more recently, the military coup in Mali.
Since the ultimate destination for cocaine transiting West Africa is Europe, the European Union (EU) and its member states have been increasing their interdiction efforts in the region. In one EU-funded operation dubbed "Operation COCAIR III" conducted late last year, anti-drug officials seized what was heralded as "substantial amounts of illicit drugs and capital," between 30 international airports in Western and Central Africa, and Brazil. However, the 24 kilos of cocaine seized represent only a drop in the bucket of the estimated 50 tons of the drug that move through West Africa each year (see UN map, below, for West African cocaine seizures between 2005 and January 2011).
European countries have also been taking individual measures, though not always with great success. A US diplomatic cable from 2009, released by WikiLeaks, underscored the problems governments face in the region when trying to install cooperative counternarcotics efforts, relaying how the United Kingdom had encountered serious obstacles in the form of corruption, with their Ghanaian counterparts sabotaging interdiction efforts and diverting drug traffickers to help them avoid arrest.
Europe's demand for cocaine has made the continent the second biggest market in the world, after the United States. While in 1998 the US market was some four times larger than Europe's, according to UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov, Europe is now only $4 billion behind, worth $33 billion per year in cocaine alone. What's more, unlike the US market, it is still growing.
Simply upping interdiction efforts in West Africa will likely do little to stem the flow of cocaine to Europe. Drug traffickers follow the path of least resistance and will find a way to ship their product to the old world, one of their most vital markets. This has played out historically in Latin America. When pressure increased on trafficking corridors running through the Caribbean to the US in the 1980s, drug gangs simply migrated to Central America, making it their principal route. There is a fear that the route may now even be switching back to the Caribbean due to counternarcotics efforts in the isthmus.
West Africa may be a vital transhipment point for now, but this could easily change as drug gangs migrate away from the spotlight.