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AFRICA-US: Growing Drug Trade Linked to Terror Groups

Danielle Kurtzleben

WASHINGTON, Jun 1 2009 (IPS) - Drug trafficking was once thought to be a largely Latin American problem, but the international community increasingly finds itself fighting this phenomenon in Africa.

Africa, and, most notably, West Africa, has become a major centre of the international drug trade in recent years, leaving U.S. and international organisations scrambling to deal with the problem, said a panel of experts on the subject at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars.

Conservative estimates say that 40 to 50 metric tonnes of cocaine pass through Africa each year. However, such figures are by nature uncertain and based on drug seizure rates, which are themselves also imprecise.

"The worldwide cocaine seizure rate is around 50 percent; I think in West Africa it is closer to 2 percent," says Antonio Mazzitelli of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

Because of this uncertainty, many estimate that far more cocaine passes through Africa every year. Peter Burgess, a counter-narcotics project officer for the U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM), believes that over 240 metric tonnes of cocaine travel through Africa every year.

Even using lower estimates, however, the annual export of 40 to 50 metric tonnes of cocaine per year (roughly 1.8 billion dollars worth) would make it the second-leading export from West Africa, according to Mazzitelli.

Candace Ross of the AFRICOM’s Counter Narcotics Office also notes that West Africa’s illicit drug trade is disproportionately large in comparison to its economic activity. For example, Guinea-Bissau's GDP in 2006 was about 384 million dollars, or the equivalent of the street value of just six tonnes of cocaine.

One major reason for Africa’s growing role in the global drug trade is its geographic location, especially its proximity to Europe, where cocaine demand has skyrocketed in recent years. There were an estimated 3.5 million cocaine users in Europe in 2006, a number that increased to 4.5 million in 2007 and again to 5.5 million in 2008.

Africa’s location makes it a crossroads for cocaine from Colombia and Venezuela as well as heroin and opiates from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Thailand, and other Asian countries. This central location, combined with lack of security and infrastructure, makes for a very convenient area for drug-running.

Michael Braun, a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) chief of operations, calls West Africa in particular "a ‘springboard’ to the rest of the continent."

Several West African nations are without naval forces or coast guards, leaving their shores open to cartels bringing in drugs by boat from Latin America. According to the U.N., most of the South American cocaine arriving in Africa does so via the hubs of Guinea-Bissau and Ghana.

Borders are also notably insecure, making it easy for heroin arriving from Southeast Asia to travel through Africa by way of major transportation hubs in the Middle East, Kenya, and Rwanda. In addition, small airplanes can land easily without airports or landing strips in flat, open areas of land, thus avoiding security questions.

Concerns over drugs in Africa extend far beyond questions of public health and addiction. Also at stake is regional and global security.

"The environment promotes the continued evolution of the ‘hybrid terrorist organisation,’" says Braun, describing it as a combination of a foreign terrorist group and drug trafficking cartel.

Such a linkage could be both convenient and mutually beneficial. Both types of organisations thrive in what Braun calls "ungoverned space" and "permissive environments" – areas like the weak or failed states of western Africa.

Furthermore, terrorist organisations need massive amounts of money to support themselves, and drug trafficking is highly lucrative – the U.N. estimates that 322 billion dollars are spent globally per year on illicit drugs. Likewise, drug trafficking operatives can benefit from the security that association with a terrorist organisation can provide.

The question of how to fight drug trafficking in Africa is currently a major concern of Europe – the recipient of many of the drugs traveling through the African continent – and the U.S., which is concerned with the security risks posed by the growing drug trade and these hybrid terrorist organisations.

On a larger scale, the drug trade is creating "narco-states", in which trafficking fuels corruption in government and police forces, instability, coups, and poverty. Some observers blame Colombian drug trade for the March coup in Guinea-Bissau, in which the president and army chief were killed and the military took power.

Still, AFRICOM’s Burgess says that attention on a local level is key to successfully fighting the drug trade. New community policing programmes encourage citizens to take an active role in their own security and also promote intelligence- and information-sharing between civilians and authorities.

Bruce Bagley, chair of the Department of International Studies at the University of Miami (Florida), adds that the policing and judiciary system must be functioning properly on every level to resist drug problems.

He says that to be effective in fighting drug trafficking, a state needs a non-corrupt police force, as well as a functioning judiciary and secure, well-administered prisons in which the drug trade cannot flourish.

Still, many African countries lack the resources to fight the drug trade on their own. "What we’re trying to get them to is that first step," says Ross of U.S. efforts on the continent. "A lot of these places – if they have naval capacity, they don’t have boats. If they have boats, they don’t have fuel."

The fight against drugs is a major concern of AFRICOM, the Pentagon’s new German-based military command unveiled in 2008 to deal exclusively with Africa. These developments dovetail conveniently with U.S. interests in Africa – West Africa is also projected to provide up to 25 percent of U.S. oil by 2020.

Some experts attribute Africa’s drug trafficking problems to poverty. Many of the countries in which trafficking is expanding are also among the poorest countries in the world. The World Bank estimates Cape Verde’s 2008 gross domestic product (GDP) at only 1.7 billion dollars (ranked 153rd of 179 countries listed) and Guinea-Bissau at a mere 461 million dollars (175th).

Ross says of West Africa: "This is a culture in which participation in illicit activities is increasingly seen as an easy and acceptable escape from poverty."

There is, however, disagreement about whether poverty is really the central cause of the drug trafficking boom in Africa, and especially West Africa. Bagley believes that drug demand and a permissive environment are the two key components that combine to create a drug-trafficking region, and that poverty is not really a major contributing factor.

Whatever the cause, there seems to be consensus among those concerned that this problem cannot wait for international help. "Either way, we can’t hold out for the healing of poverty before dealing with the problem of drug trafficking," says Bagley.

There is also the very real possibility that the problem could worsen drastically as demand continues to rise. Furthermore, coca is a hardy plant that can survive in even harsh climes. Thus, it may only be a matter of time before West Africa’s drug trafficking problem becomes a drug production problem.

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