Two incidents involving the trafficking of drugs to Europe have highlighted concerns about links between Islamist militants and drug-trafficking militants in Latin America.
A little-noticed smoldering plane wreckage with traces of cocaine in a remote area of the West African state of Mali in which an Al Qaeda affiliate and nomadic rebels are active has focused attention on the emergence of the region as a major hub for the trafficking of drugs to Europe. So has the arrest of three al Qaeda operatives in Ghana, who were charged with narco-terrrorism in New York after being handed over to the US Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA) and transported to the United States.
The two incidents raise the specter of increased cooperation between Islamic militants and drug trafficking Latin American militants and, according to US law enforcement officials, al Qae'da's evolvement into a global criminal organization.
US, European and African anti-drug and counter-terrorism officials fear that Islamist cooperation with groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) could significantly fill the coffers of rebels operating across a crucial swathe of land that includes Algeria, Morocco, Mauretania, Mali, Chad and Niger, rich in uranium as well as oil and gas. Enhanced cash flow could enable the rebels to further undermine already weak, authoritarian regimes that face widespread discontent, restive nomadic populations, extreme poverty and an influx of Islamist thinking via satellite television and militant missionaries.
The wreckage of the Boeing 727 was discovered in the Mali desert in November, 200 kilometers (124 miles) north of Gao. Investigators believe the plane was carrying up to 10 tons of cocaine, the largest Europe-bound Latin American drugs transit shipment via the Sahel so far known to authorities. Vehicle tracks in the sand have led the investigators to the conclusion that traffickers unloaded the plane's cargo at a makeshift airstrip before burning it. While they have not ruled out that the plane may have crashed, the investigators hope that three Mali nationals arrested while dismantling the wreckage and transported to the Mali capital of Bamako may shed light on what happened to the aircraft.
Venezuela turning a blind eye
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has been turning a blind eye to drug-trafficking operations
Alexandre Schmidt, spokesman for the Vienna-based UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) told journalists in November the mysterious flight had originated in Venezuela, fuelling allegations that Venezuela supports terrorism and drugs trafficking. Venezuelan officials question the assertion. But critics of President Hugo Chavez, pointing to his support of the FARC, charge that widespread corruption reaching into the highest echelons of government facilitates Venezuelan involvement in drugs trafficking. "Chavez may not be involved, but he certainly looks the other way. None of his aides have been removed from office," Ariel Segal, a Lima-based expert on Venezuela, told Deutsche Welle.
The arrest in of the three operatives of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the al Qaeda affiliate in West Africa, further heightens concern about the Islamists' links to Latin American traffickers. The three Mali nationals arrived in New York on December 18 after being arrested by authorities in Ghana as a result of a four-month long sting operation in which two paid DEA informants posed as FARC representatives. The three men appeared in court on the day of their arrival to be charged with narco-terrorism conspiracy and conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.
They are the first al Qaeda operatives to have been captured by the US in a drug trafficking plot in Africa. They told the undercover DEA informants, according to court documents, that they could protect major Latin American shipments of cocaine in the Sahel and transport the drugs by truck through the desert and finally to Spain. They said they would charge up to 7,000 euros ($10,000) per kilogram.
Read more about al Qaeda's growing influence in West Africa