The world’s poorest nations are becoming a main route for cocaine shipments to Europe – with illicit cash turning soldiers, police and politicians into willing accomplices
One sultry afternoon in September, the government of Guinea invited diplomats to witness the ceremonial burning of a seizure of cocaine. British, French and American envoys scuttled to the gendarmerie in Conakry, capital of the medium-sized west African republic. Later, suits would have to be dry cleaned. The drugs had vanished. In their place: sacks of rotting fish. “There was a big crowd of several hundred locals who followed the smell and then saw all these people arriving,” says one of the diplomats. “They were saying to me, ‘don’t be taken in: it has been stolen’.”
For the drug runners, the profits from this multi-billion dollar industry are huge. For millions of west Africans, the impact could be devastating. In Mexico, several thousand have been killed in drug-related murders this year alone.
In countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone, neighbours of Guinea that are only starting to emerge from even worse conflicts, the fear is that cocaine could fuel future civil wars.
Like globalisation’s evil twin, the trade has exploded just as Guinea as well as others in the region such as Ghana, Senegal, Mauritania and Mali have been attracting growing foreign investment in sectors from oil and mining to telecommunications and banking.
Some researchers even speak of a cocaine “resource curse”, where the illicit cash fuels the kind of poverty, coups and instability more commonly associated with sudden oil wealth.
The danger is that a new generation of “narco-states” will incubate a scourge of transnational crime right on Europe’s doorstep.
“We are talking about an amount of money created by organised crime from cocaine trafficking which is greater than national incomes,” says Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna. “There is the threat that this massive amount of money can destabilise countries.”
In the past decade, western law enforcement agents have focused on the traditional route for shipping cocaine produced in the foothills of the Andes to Europe: via the Caribbean. But then they noticed something strange happening along west Africa’s coconut-fringed coast.
In the past four years or so, west Africa has become this huge, pivotal zone for the distribution of coke
author of McMafia
In 2005, the quantities of cocaine being discovered on ships or in small aircraft began to leap off the graph. Seizures on the entire continent had until then generally totalled less than a tonne per year. UNODC data show 46 tonnes of cocaine have since been seized in west Africa alone. Loosely tracking the 10th parallel, this route earned the nickname “Highway Ten”.
“In the past four years or so, west Africa has become this huge, pivotal zone for the distribution of coke,” says Misha Glenny, author of McMafia, a book documenting global organised crime. “We’re talking about destabilisation in that area which will lead, if it is not checked, to thousands of deaths.”
The rise of Highway Ten is a simple matter of economics. Demand for cocaine is growing in many parts of Europe (and in Gulf states), while the US market is more mature. The euro’s strength against the dollar adds to the allure. More aggressive interdiction by the US and Europe has raised the risks in the Caribbean.
Lacking enough cars, fuel or even electricity to run an effective police force, the tiny state of Guinea-Bissau was the first beachhead for the drug runners.
They quickly fanned out north to Senegal and Mauritania and south-east to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Even Ghana, considered a haven of good governance, is showing signs of succumbing.
From the shore, the routes north to Europe’s street corners multiply like the tributaries of a river delta. Heavily armed convoys of four-wheel-drive vehicles zoom across the Sahara loaded with drugs for export via the Mediterranean. Some loads go by camel.
Customs officers at the airport in Accra, Ghana’s capital, have discovered cocaine hidden among tins of palm nut soup. Bedraggled illegal immigrants washing up in Spain’s Canary Islands sometimes carry a few grams of cocaine – an easier currency to conceal than cash.
“Every time we stumble across a trend, the trend changes,” says one law enforcement officer on secondment from a European country to west Africa. “It’s a three-dimensional game of chess.”
Volumes are growing. UNODC estimates that some 40 tonnes of cocaine are shipped via west Africa a year, representing 27 per cent of the cocaine consumed by Europeans, with a wholesale value of $1.8bn (€1.4bn, £1.1bn). Some agencies give much higher figures. As the white powder moves down the supply chain, meanwhile, its value rockets. For every border crossed, the risk premium rises. In Spain, for example, a kilogram might sell for an average wholesale price of about $40,000, while in Sweden it might fetch $70,000. The retail “street” value is higher still.
Ghana has provided perhaps the most clear-cut case of political involvement. A US court recently sentenced Eric Amoateng, an MP, to 10 years in jail for heroin trafficking. He was a prominent member of the ruling New Patriotic party, which many Ghanaians expect to win a general election next month. “The perception is that government itself is emasculated,” says one former senior security officer in Ghana. “Key suspects vanish. If you don’t check this, they will corrupt the whole system.”
The money involved can swamp national economies. The street value of a single seizure of 600kg of cocaine found in the boot of a car in Guinea-Bissau last year equalled at least 10 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. Legitimate importers suffer when drug money is laundered through imports of goods that are then sold at a discount. In addition, evidence of a “spillover” of local cocaine use is growing, raising the risk of addiction-fuelled crime. The Hummers bouncing over the cratered streets of west African cities may be a testament to faster economic growth – but to many locals they prove that crime pays.
The world mustered large UN peacekeeping forces to restabilise Sierra Leone and Liberia after wars funded by diamonds. The corrupting pull of cocaine creates new tensions. In the anything-for-a-price underworld, drug money can drive the trade in illicit goods from fake DVDs to AK-47 rifles.
In January, a ship flying a Liberian flag was found to have 2.5 tonnes of cocaine on board. In Sierra Leone in July, police seized a light aircraft containing 700kg of cocaine, then launched an overnight manhunt through the villages around Lungi airport. South Americans were among those caught in the dragnet. The aircraft bore Red Cross insignia. One investigator said the drugs were packed to look like Bibles.
The international response remains piecemeal. The UN Security Council has started to discuss the issue and foreign security agencies, including the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, are expanding their presence. The UK has deployed customs officers to help monitor Ghana’s airport. Last year, seven European Union countries set up a maritime co-ordination centre in Portugal so they can use their navies to intercept suspect ships.
If you don’t check the gangs, they will corrupt the whole system
former senior security officer in Ghana
Successful busts depend on intelligence. When police and their civilian masters are on drug gang payrolls, tip-offs may not be forthcoming. Vigilance in one area may simply push the cartels’ nomadic middle management further down the coast. Some west African officers are risking their lives to uphold the law but time is short.
Once, Colombians controlled the cocaine routes through Mexico to the US. One day, Mexicans seized control. West African gangs may try the same. Flush with drug money, criminal entrepreneurs will be tempted to expand their operations in Europe: prostitution, credit card fraud and human trafficking. The nastier side-effects of snorting cocaine are well-known. The rise of a cross-border empire run by ruthless tropical gangsters is in its own way at least as pernicious.