Cocaine Finds Africa

By Antonio Maria Costa
Tuesday, July 29, 2008

West Africa is under attack. The region has become a hub for cocaine smuggling from Latin America to Europe. States that we seldom hear about, such as Guinea-Bissau and neighboring Guinea, are at risk of being captured by drug cartels in collusion with corrupt forces in government and the military.

With the exception of cannabis in Morocco, Africa never used to have a drug problem. That has changed, however, in the past five years. Around 50 tons of cocaine are being shipped from the Andean countries to Europe via West Africa every year -- and that is a conservative estimate. Actual amounts could be at least five times higher. The volume seized is rising sharply: from 266 kilograms in 2003, to 3,161 in 2006, to 6,458 in 2007. This steep increase will no doubt continue. This month alone, more than 600 kilos were seized in a plane with fake Red Cross markings at the airport in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and at the international airport in Bissau, several hundred boxes were unloaded from a jet.

The profiteers in this illicit trade -- mostly but not only Latinos -- stand out on the streets of West African towns. They drive luxury cars, buy up the best hotels and are building haciendas and other opulent examples of "narcotecture."

Law enforcement has been helpless against this onslaught. Drug planes don't have to fly below the radar, because in most cases there is no radar (or electricity). Soldiers sometimes help smugglers by closing airports and unloading the cargo. Police cars run out of gas when giving chase or are left in the dust by smugglers' all-terrain vehicles. There are no local navies to intercept the ships coming from Latin America or to chase the 2,000-horsepower boats that speed drugs up the coast to Europe. Traffickers are seldom brought to trial; in some cases, there are no prisons to put them in. Even when they are charged, they are usually released because evidence is not collected or needed laws are not in place.

Drugs have become a security issue. Drug money is perverting the weak economies of the region. In some cases, the value of the drugs being trafficked is greater than a country's national income. The influence that this buys is rotting these fragile states; traffickers are buying favors and protection from candidates in elections.

Quick intervention by the international community five years ago prevented a crisis in Cape Verde, but the cartels merely shifted their operations to Guinea-Bissau. Now Guinea is under threat; Guinea's neighbor Sierra Leone could be next. Without a regional response, the problem will move from country to country.

Containing this threat will not be easy. Poverty is the biggest problem. These countries are the worst performers on the human development index -- their populations at the bottom of the "bottom billion." Unemployed and desperate youths are vulnerable to being recruited as foot soldiers for criminal groups. West African countries must take control of their coasts and airspace. This requires hardware (boats, planes and radar), know-how (investigative techniques and container security) and counter-narcotics intelligence. Some of these capabilities can be developed nationally, but some assistance will have to come from abroad.

Cooperation among customs officials, border guards, the police and counter-narcotics agents -- at ports and airports, for example -- has made Cape Verde a less attractive transit point for drug traffickers. The same approach should be adopted elsewhere.

Because the drug trade defies borders, regional cooperation is vital, particularly intelligence-sharing. Stronger legal cooperation among West African nations would enable more effective extradition, mutual legal assistance and confiscation of the proceeds of crime. Working contacts must also be strengthened between countries of origin and destination, in South America and Europe, respectively.

In some cases, mechanisms for intelligence-sharing are under construction. But measures, and even laws, to fight organized crime and corruption will be meaningless without the political will and capacity to implement them. Too often, drugs that are seized disappear instead of being destroyed. Judges, police and witnesses are intimidated. Security forces turn a blind eye or lend a hand to smuggling.

The highest authorities must recognize the stakes. Their failure to act is a sign of helplessness or complicity. Political will would be strengthened if regional leaders were rewarded for their integrity and punished for corruption. At the moment, the honest ones feel abandoned and the crooked ones act with impunity. We must reduce vulnerability to drugs and crime with greater development. And greater justice would build faith in the rule of law.

West Africa's drug trafficking problem is still relatively small compared with that of West Asia, the Caribbean or Latin America. But it is growing exponentially and threatens to turn the region into a center of lawlessness. Such instability is the last thing Africa needs. The affected countries and the international community must act before the situation spirals out of control.

The writer is executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company