W Africa transit point for drugs

2010-07-09 11:41

Paris - West Africa, beset by poor security, corruption, lawlessness and home to sprawling and remote desert, has become a key transit point for drugs smuggled from Latin America and destined for Europe.

The contraband is smuggled in on cargo planes and ships, fishing vessels and yachts by traffickers drawn by the almost non-existent policing in large parts of the coastline and poor air control in others.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a 2009 report that about 250 tons of drugs, worth about $11bn, was transported on the "A-10" - the name given by experts to the region which falls on the 10th longitude.

Phillip Heyl, chief of air and maritime security in the US Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany, described West Africa as a "black hole".

"The entire West Africa is a transit area. There is no maritime security in Africa, period. And no serious radar capabilities.

"It's ungoverned places. A black hole," he said, adding: "There is not very much maritime domaine awareness, no control over aircraft that fly in and out.

Heyl, whose career spans more than three decades, said Colombian drug cartels - notorious for their ability to adapt to new challenges - started using the region when increased air and maritime security in the Caribbean made it too hot for them to handle.

They had used the Caribbean to sneak in drugs to the United States.

Weak governments

The UNODC said many traffickers turned to the sea, especially to islands off Africa's western coast.

"Most of the cocaine transiting the region appears to cross the Atlantic in large 'mother-ships', specially modified to carry multi-tonne consignments of the drugs," it said.

"This cargo is then offloaded to smaller vessels along the West African coast," it added.

The United States late June urged Guinea Bissau - an impoverished former Portuguese colony - to "root out" powerful military and civilian officials who its says facilitate drug trafficking.

"The United States continues to be alarmed by indications that senior members of the armed forces as well as the civilian government are involved in narcotics trafficking," said a statement from the US embassy in Dakar.

With weak government institutions, extreme poverty and an Atlantic coastline, the West African country has become a major transit point for South American cocaine headed for Europe.

In early May, the US Treasury Department froze the assets of the country's naval and airforce chiefs due to what it said was their "significant role" in drug trafficking.

In June, more than two tons of cocaine were seized from a little island off the coast of Gambia from a dilapidated hotel run by a Dutchman, who heads a fishing company with Venezuelan personnel.

In the Sahara or Sahel it is fairly easy to land a plane undetected. In November 2009, the charred carcass of a Boeing 727 flown in from Venezuela was found in the Malian desert.

Recently, shady South American businessmen have bought over hotels, warehouses, fishing companies, trading as well as transport firms in the region.

French expert Alain Labrousse, whose books notably include "The Geopolitics of Drugs", said the region's ports were porous and underscored it was "impossible to control transshipments".

Global intervention

When there is increased international pressure on countries such as Gambia and Guinea Bissau to clean up their act, the "cartels adapt quickly and find new routes", in "neighbouring countries to serve as entry points", he added.

However, there has been stepped up global intervention. Last month, an information-sharing centre opened in Cape Verde pooling European and US resources.

"We paid two million (dollars) for it," an official at the US Africa Command said, referring to the Counter-Narcotics and Maritime Security Interagency Fusion Centre.

"Nobody as enough money to do what has to be done in Africa: so we have to put the most of what we can together," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.