West Africa, despite international efforts to combat global drug trafficking, is a hot spot for smuggling cocaine and other narcotics into Europe from Latin America.
Whether Senegal, Liberia or Guinea-Bissau, West Africa has become the preferred route for international drug cartels to smuggle narcotics into Europe. It is estimated that the drug barons rake in some 680 million euros ($880 million) a year with their illegal activities, according to Yuri Fedotov, who heads the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Drug trafficking through West Africa is the shortest and most cost-effective route to Europe, the UNODC says.
The UNODC's West Africa representative, Aisser Al-Hafedh, said that the amount of cocaine confiscated in the region between 2006 and 2009 actually dropped, but that that did not mean the total amount of cocaine smuggled had also dropped.
In 2009, police in West Africa confiscated 21 tons of cocaine enroute to Europe, Two years earlier, that figure was 47 tons. But, in reality, crime networks had "changed their tactics", Al-Hafedh said, and the affected countries in West Africa still had to respond to these changes.
The drug cartels have developed highly sophisticated transport mechanisms. The narcotics are shipped by planes, cargo ships and even submarines to destinations off the West African coast; for example, the Cape Verde Islands. The shipments are then divided into smaller units, repackaged, and sent on their way to Europe.
The unstable political situation in the region and understaffed border crossings make smuggling easy through countries like Sierra Leone, Senegal, or Liberia.
Narcotics hub Guinea-Bissau
Another key transit point is Guinea-Bissau. Due to the many islands dotting the Atlantic Ocean off the coast and the country's ongoing political crisis, Guinea-Bissau has evolved into a hot spot for drug trafficking to Europe. The fact that government institutions, like the navy, customs office and the army are notoriously unreliable has made the situation even worse.
It is an open secret that they, too, are making money off the drug trade, says Priska Hauser-Scherer, who works for the anti-drug and alcohol organization IOGT in Guinea-Bissau. "The drug trade has massively destabilized the situation because it is dangerous. You cannot confront a drug dealer without fearing for your life," she says.
The situation in Senegal is similar. In the southern province of Casamance, government troops have been fighting a local insurgency since the 1980s. "Drug smuggling is on the rise, due in particular to the ongoing economic crisis and the bad security situation in the region," explains Fatoumata Sy Gueye, the director of the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation in the capital, Dakar. "In other regions of Senegal, the drug trade is also gaining importance because, for many, it is the only way to earn any money," says Gueye.
Jobs instead of drugs
Weak border controls make it hard to stop the flow
Although Senegal is one of the most advanced countries in West Africa, it is struggling with major economic problems. Food prices are high and nearly half the population is unemployed. Fatoumata Sy Gueye believes that, more than anything else, the country's young people need jobs in order to have any prospects for the future. Senegal must find other ways for its people to earn an income and meet their daily needs, Gueye noted.
A further problem in the region is the fact that because of the drug smuggling to Europe, more and more narcotics are finding their way into the local market. According to the UNODC, drug traffickers in West Africa are often paid with drugs by the South American dealers. As a result, a considerable portion of the drug traffic is staying in the region.
In its latest drug report, the UNODC noted that 21 tons of cocaine made its way to Europe via West Africa in 2009, but another 13 tons remained in the region and was consumed locally.
Author: Claudia Zeisel /gb
Editor: Rob Mudge