August 18, 2008 / 11:01 AM / 11 years ago

Cocaine threatens stability in fragile West Africa

DAKAR (Reuters) - Cocaine smuggling is fanning political turbulence and undermining investment confidence in West Africa, where drugs experts say Latin American gangs threaten to transform small nations into “narco-states”.

Cocaine smuggling is fanning political turbulence and undermining investment confidence in West Africa, where drugs experts say Latin American gangs threaten to transform small nations into "narco-states". REUTERS/David Mercado

Unexpected seizures from Guinea-Bissau and Mauritania to Sierra Leone and Senegal illustrate a haphazard response to drugs syndicates that run rings around law enforcement agencies despite help from the United States and European countries.

The danger comes at a critical time for West Africa, where several states are rebuilding after civil wars and the region is of growing interest to the most adventurous frontier investors.

“It is a huge threat,” said Emmanuelle Bernard, West Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group think-tank. “The money from the drug trade is competing with the institution-building, which is what these countries need to be doing now.”

“When there are those in power who are involved in the drug trade, its hard to do this,” she added.

Nowhere better shows up the dangerous combination of drug money and a weak state than Guinea Bissau. Death threats against a minister fighting the drug trade were followed by a coup attempt and the arrest of the head of the navy.

“Cops and training are fine but we also need people to come up with things like guns, armoured cars and money for informants,” said Antonio Mazzitelli, the West Africa representative of the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime.

Guinea-Bissau’s justice minister says she will fight on. She survived a government reshuffle triggered by a constitutional crisis that forced President Joao Bernardo Vieira to dissolve parliament and appoint a new cabinet.

But her judicial police, with few weapons or vehicles and little ammunition or fuel, are no match for international criminal networks. Despite the support of U.S. FBI and DEA agents, they were blocked by the armed forces from searching a suspect jet that landed in Bissau last month.

When they were eventually given a green light, sniffer dogs confirmed cocaine had been on board, but the jet was empty.

Mazzitelli says this shows how busts must be the end, not the beginning of investigations. It also added weight to widespread reports that state officials are involved.

“Loyalties in the armed forces can be strengthened by the drug money,” said Bernard. “Some might fear that they will lose out while others might see it as an opportunity.”

The tiny West African nation, where there is no electricity but Porsche and Mercedes four wheel drive vehicles ferry some state officials down the potholed streets, may be the extreme but it is a microcosm of the region.


Traffickers take advantage of poorly protected borders and weak authority to ferry hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cocaine from Latin America to Europe, a short hop to the north.

Although they represent a fraction of the actual amount of cocaine passing through, the region has seen seizures jump from just 273kg in 2001 to 14.6 tonnes in 2006, according to the U.N.

West African seizures are increasing when the global trend is downwards. But more of a concern, say analysts, is the relative impact the drug money can have on these weak countries.

One haul last year of 600kg of cocaine found in the boot of a car in Guinea-Bissau had a street value equivalent to about 10 percent of the country’s GDP of $340 million.

The weakness of states recovering from wars is a particular advantage for the drug traffickers.

“It is in the interests of the criminal networks to maintain a limbo where things don’t really work but there is not complete chaos,” said Bernard of the International Crisis Group.

Sierra Leone has been commended for its post-war recovery but its transport minister is being investigated by police after his brother was arrested following the seizure last month of 700 kg of cocaine at the country’s main airport.

In January, a ship flying the flag of Liberia, another nation recovering from years of war, was seized off the coast with 2.5 tonnes of cocaine onboard, adding weight to U.N. concerns that it was also being targeted by traffickers.

But it is not only the recovering states that are caught up in the drug trade.

Ghana is seen as one of Africa’s most stable democracies and a darling of investors scrambling for assets on the continent, but has also become a big staging point for drugs — as the arrest of two British teenage girls for smuggling last year made clear.

The disappearance in 2006 of two tonnes of cocaine being held by police after a seizure aboard a ship led to an official investigation, accusations and recriminations that still reverberate among Ghana’s officials and security chiefs.

High commodity prices are attracting billions of dollars in investment to West Africa from companies seeking mines rich in everything from gold and bauxite to iron ore and diamonds.

Mazzitelli, from the U.N. drugs office, said the drugs trade was a significant threat to any sort of investment.

“Other than predatory investment, who will invest in a country where the rule of law does not exist?” he said.

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