Could West Africa follow Mexico's path into drugs and gang-fuelled violence? The question sounds alarmist, but has concerned international law-enforcement agencies in recent years, as countries such as Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Ghana, Benin and Nigeria have emerged as major transhipment points for the global trade in cocaine and heroin.

Could West Africa follow Mexico’s path into drugs and gang-fuelled violence? The question sounds alarmist, but has concerned international law-enforcement agencies in recent years, as countries such as Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Ghana, Benin and Nigeria have emerged as major transhipment points for the global trade in cocaine and heroin. With the business increasingly a destabilising force in West Africa, G8 ministers meeting in Deauville next week will discuss a new initiative to tackle it.

The volume of narcotics flowing through West Africa has been growing since the late 1990s, when customs agencies and police began interdicting an increasing percentage of the drugs traffic from Latin America to Europe, thus creating demand for new routes. Traffickers needed more secure and effective ways into a rapidly expanding European market; and weak governance, corruption and poverty made several West African countries ideal candidates.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warned in 2008 that: ‘The former Gold Coast is turning into the Coke Coast.’ Today the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the European Union (EU) and the US African Command (AFRICOM) also consider the region an important narcotics hub. Cocaine and other drugs come to West Africa from South America to be shipped on mainly towards Europe. The bulk of opiates from Afghanistan and Pakistan, arriving via East Africa, are cut and packaged in the region before being sent to the United States. Criminal groups have sprung up to participate in this trade, and the funds from it are rumoured to finance insurgent groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Hizbollah in Lebanon.

The UNODC estimates that at least 50 tonnes of cocaine passes through West Africa a year, but almost any type of illegal drug can be found in the region, including cannabis, heroin and locally produced amphetamines and methamphetamines. Cutting agents are widely available; it is estimated that the purity of Colombian and Venezuelan cocaine deteriorates from 80% to 12% while it transits through countries such as Ghana, Benin or Nigeria. Afghan and Pakistani heroin goes from 90% purity on arrival to 16% on departure.

Fertile ground

Porous borders and a lack of communication between different countries’ police and customs services make the entire region attractive to drugs traffickers, but conditions in several individual countries have proved particularly inviting.

Guinea Bissau, West Africa’s first narco-state, is one of the world’s poorest, its legitimate economy relying on the export of cashew nuts and a few other agricultural products. The country is particularly appealing to drugs smugglers because of the unpatrolled archipelago of islands off its coast that makes detection of shipping difficult. Lebanese involvement in the Latin American–African drugs trade and a strong Lebanese presence in the capital, Bissau have led to the presumption that the trade is a source of funds for Hizbollah. However, criminals are involved in other illicit activities across the region, from the production of methamphetamines through bogus pharmaceutical companies to diamond smuggling in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and oil theft in Nigeria.

The 2009 assassination of Guinea Bissau’s President Joao Bernardo Vieira may or may not have been drugs related, but he was thought deeply involved in the cocaine trade and drug-enforcement agencies had complained about his failure to crack down on narco-trafficking. The 2010 reappointment of Admiral Jose Bubu Na Tchuto as the country’s naval chief was criticised by the EU and the US, which had earlier designated him a drug ‘kingpin’ and frozen his assets.

Until 2008, when President Lansana Conté died, neighbouring Guinea was also described as a narco-state. The late president’s eldest son had long been at the centre of a drug-trafficking ring and confessed to as much on state television in 2009. The situation has now improved, as most South Americans involved in the drugs trade have moved to Burkina Faso and Benin. Yet, Guinea remains an attractive drugs hub as one of the most corrupt West African countries.

In places such as Ivory Coast a mixture of political chaos, badly resourced and trained law-enforcement officials, high unemployment and other social issues has meant an increase in the number of those who see drugs as a viable source of income as well as those who have fallen into the trap of addiction. This convenient combination has been exploited by Latin American traffickers who are now seen in greater numbers in the country.

Mauritania is another convenient transit point, with direct flights to Latin America and easy routes into Morocco and Algeria, along which both Mauritanian-grown cannabis and Latin American cocaine travel towards Europe. An extensive network of drug-fuelled corruption among the judiciary and law enforcement facilitates this process. Mauritania is infamous for human trafficking and some of these victims are used by gangs for the distribution of drugs.

Elsewhere, containers of narcotics from Latin America have reportedly travelled unchecked through Ghanaian ports to Burkina Faso, where they were again overlooked by local custom officials, who assumed the consignment had already undergone controls when it had first reached African shores. Radar off Africa’s Atlantic coast is patchy, and at least ten aircraft suspected of ferrying drugs were found in the Sahara Desert between 2006 and 2009. The UNODC said a burnt-out Boeing 727 discovered in Mali in 2009 had been carrying drugs from Venezuela.

Stuffed pineapples and front companies

Drugs normally arrive in West Africa in bulk shipments and are stored in warehouses before being shipped onwards in smaller consignments (100-200 kilograms at most) by lorry, bus, car, motorcycle or even bicycle. Galician fishermen are usually involved in facilitating the transit into Europe. The use of human mules is also widespread, as is the practice of concealing drugs in African crafts, cosmetics and even pineapples.

The notion that West African narcotics networks are less sophisticated than their counterparts in Latin America is becoming less true as criminal groups have evolved, especially in Nigeria, Senegal and Guinea. Often they use legitimate businesses as both a source of seed capital and cover for illicit trade. The groups are non-hierarchical, lacking a formal centre or head, making it hard for law-enforcement agencies to eradicate them. Networks include semi-independent business units, often relying on family ties rather than on tribal links.

Such criminal gangs have rapidly expanded the scope of their business, becoming traders in their own right rather than simply acting as couriers. This shift was made possible by their accepting drugs rather than money as payment for services – perhaps up to a third of the total volumes they received. This enabled them to view West Africa not simply as a transit point but also as a consumer market; local law-enforcement officials on the ground have told the IISS that this is already producing a growing number of addicts. The networks have also looked beyond the region. Nigerian groups were the first to begin managing their own share of the trade and now have members operating in countries as far afield as Germany, Britain, the Philippines, Turkey, the US and Australia. They are regarded as the prototype of a West African model of criminal network, which favours one-off transaction-based joint ventures rather than long-standing relations – in contrast to, say, the Italian mafia and Japanese Yakuza.

Another Mexico?

If the problem is not tackled effectively, international law-enforcement officials based in the region fear that West Africa could become another Mexico within three to five years. Mexico, like West Africa, became a conduit for drugs after other routes were effectively closed off by interdiction, and other parallels can be drawn. Both regions have areas in which the central government has little or no control and where the police do not venture. Two examples in West Africa are Accra’s slums and – even before the recent civil war – northern regions of Ivory Coast; these are ideal areas for traffickers and other criminals to operate and hide, where they can amass considerable local power and influence. Drug barons are often able to provide local communities with services that the state cannot supply, for instance building infrastructure and churches and providing support for the poor. As in Mexico, many West African law-enforcement agencies and judicial systems are inherently weak and open to corruption.

Gang rivalries have become more evident as more drugs have been shipped through West Africa. After Mexican officials visited Ghana in 2009 with gruesome pictures of drug-cartel violence in their country, Accra was concerned enough to begin cooperating more closely with international law-enforcement agencies.

However, the region has not yet seen the levels of drug-related violence experienced in Mexico, and two things may ultimately prevent West Africa from going that way. Firstly, its gang culture is different. West African gangs tend to come together for merely opportunistic reasons, whereas membership in Mexico is much more tied into a broader social identity. Secondly, there is still time to act before West African gangs feel the need to resort to violence to protect their turf. Most traffickers are still unarmed; even in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, the two Nigerian gangs controlling the city’s trade have not taken up arms to fight each other.

Stemming the flow

On 9 May, G8 interior ministers launched a new initiative to slow the transatlantic cocaine trade, which will particularly focus on West African routes. Police in Europe will establish links with regional intelligence hubs in Ghana and Senegal and may set up similar connections in Latin America. Alongside French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal for a new global fund to fight the drugs trade, this will be put to the G8 summit in Deauville on 26–27 May.

The G8 plan is the latest of several law-enforcement initiatives intended to restrict the volumes of drugs trafficked through West Africa. Some £100 million worth of drugs has been seized since at Kotoka International Airport in Accra since the UK–Ghanaian Operation Westbridge was set up there in late 2006.

The multilateral West Africa Coast Initiative (WACI) – involving UNODC, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the UN Department of Peacekeeping and other partners – is designed to support the ECOWAS regional action plan on drug trafficking, through capacity building, law-enforcement cooperation and the strengthening of the criminal justice system starting from four key countries: Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea- Bissau, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The UNODC has also developed the Airport Communication Project (AIRCOP), in cooperation with Interpol and the World Customs Organisation. Funded by Canada and the European Commission, and also in line with the ECOWAS regional action plan, this is intended to strengthen communication and encourage intelligence sharing at airport and police level between Brazil and seven West African states, namely Nigeria, Togo, Cape Verde, Ghana, Mali, Ivory Coast and Senegal. From the moment it was launched in late 2010 there were plans to widen it to other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

To succeed, such initiatives need the active involvement of local West African agencies and require that international partners cooperate with, rather than direct, their local counterparts. However, many such drugs crackdowns are undermined by corrupt officials. Although Ghana is often described as a West African success story, a 2009 American Embassy cable revealed by Wikileaks claimed that Ghana’s president, John Atta Mills, was aware that ‘elements of his government’ were ‘already compromised’ and that officials at Kotoka airport tipped off drug traffickers about Operation Westbridge.

Some of these law-enforcement initiatives have also created what is known in counternarcotics circles as a ‘balloon effect’, in which the problem is simply displaced (i.e. as one area is squeezed, the problem expands into another). Pouring significant resources into countries such as Ghana has improved local law-enforcement capacity and, arguably, boosted local political willingness to combat trafficking and corruption. Ghana is the West African country where cocaine is least available and most expensive; here a kilo costs approximately €22,000 as opposed to €7,000–8,000 in Guinea Bissau. However, neighbouring Burkina Faso and Togo have seen an increase in the traffic and abuse of illicit drugs over the past five years. According to Togolese counternarcotics officials, an estimated 30% of drugs transiting the region go through Togo. Burkina Faso’s customs agency destroys more than 100 tonnes of cocaine every year, but this is believed to represent only a small fraction of the drugs circulating the country.

Potential for destabilisation

West Africa’s drug problem should not be exaggerated. The region is not a homogeneous block, which complicates any attempt to compare it to Mexico. Drugs have arguably worsened security problems in the region, rather than giving rise to them. However, the drugs trade has the potential to further destabilise fragile countries which are prone to corruption and are in many cases still in the midst of post-conflict transition.

So far, most international support has been directed to improving law enforcement training and equipment, as well as border control. An important part of dealing with the problem, however, lies in education, rehabilitation and helping governments to foster alternative livelihoods for their people. As a senior counternarcotics official in the Ghanaian National Police recently put it to the IISS: ‘Law enforcement is needed to fight trafficking, but it ought to be complemented by awareness campaigns to ensure that fewer people become addicted to drugs.’

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Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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