ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Cocaine trafficking in West Africa is being fuelled by local consumption while regional organised crime gangs are turning to methamphetamine because it is easy to make, a U.N. drug watchdog warned on Monday.
Policing of maritime routes had helped reduce the volume of cocaine transiting through the politically fragile states of West Africa in recent years en route from South America to consumers in Europe.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated the volume of smuggled cocaine slumped from a peak of 47 tonnes in 2007 to around 18 tonnes in 2010.
But Pierre Lapaque, head of the UNODC in West Africa, said criminal networks controlling the flow of cocaine from Peru, Bolivia and Colombia had established new routes, pushing the volume of cocaine arriving in the region back to between 30 and 35 tonnes last year.
"They are permanently shifting their smuggling routes based on risk," Lapaque told Reuters in an interview. "As soon as there was less maritime interception, they came back to West Africa, either by ship or, more and more, by plane."
While a few hundred Latin Americans still dominate the trade, West Africans - in particular Nigerian criminal gangs - are increasingly taking over, with dangerous consequences.
"You have a large part of this drug, which is now staying in the region for consumption," Lapaque said.
Intermediaries along West African smuggling routes are often paid in product. To turn expensive high-grade cocaine into a profit-making drug in one of the world's poorest regions, traffickers are transforming the white powder into crack cocaine, Lapaque said.
In some cities, a dose of the highly addictive drug - commonly produced by mixing cocaine with readily available baking soda - sells for as little as 200 CFA francs (26 pence).
"We estimate that (there are) between 1.5 and 2.5 million drug addicts in the region. A large part of them are drug addicts (addicted) to crack cocaine," he said.
While cocaine smuggling through the region has existed for a decade, destabilising weak governments and their faction-rife militaries from Guinea-Bissau to Democratic Republic of Congo, a new drug is on the rise.
Cheap and easy to produce using widely available chemicals, methamphetamine - or meth - is emerging as a preferred narcotic for West Africa-based international traffickers and local distributors.
"This is unfortunately the future of organised crime in the region because it's so easy to produce your own cooked methamphetamine at home," Lapaque said.
"There is poor control of precursor chemicals coming into the region ... When you have the recipe, you can pretty much prepare any kind of synthetic drug."
An estimated 3,000 methamphetamine couriers travelled from West Africa to Asia in 2010, carrying with them drugs parcels worth about $360 million (237 million pounds), he said.
In the two years that followed, two meth labs were discovered in Nigeria. The region is also a supplier of methamphetamine to South Africa.
"There's such a big market in East Asia - Japan, Malaysia, Thailand - that when you see that the profit (increases) 10 times when it's exported from here and lands on the streets of Tokyo, the criminal networks quickly identify that as a good criminal niche."
Editing by Daniel Flynn and Michael Roddy