WEST AFRICA: Drug seizures tip of “cocaine iceberg” – UN

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has warned West African government ministers of the corruptive power of drug trafficking, saying it “pervert[s] weak economies” and compromises political elites.

UNODC Executive Director Antonio Costa told participants at a ministerial conference in Cape Verde, closing on 29 October, that drug trafficking threatens public health and security.

In a report on drug trafficking and security in West Africa released on 28 October, UN authors wrote: “[C]ocaine trafficking adds spark to an already highly flammable tinder, and the security implications are real.”

Based on data from the France-based international police organisation, Interpol, the UN estimates that about 50 tons of cocaine worth US$1.8 billion is trafficked through West Africa to Europe annually.

UNODC links this traffic to an increase in violence, smuggling of small arms, and a steady growth in crime and perception of corruption in affected West African countries.

Most of the drugs entered West Africa since 2004 through Guinea-Bissau or near Ghana by sea, or were seized in Senegal, Nigeria, Mali and Guinea on commercial flights, according to the UN report, “Drug Trafficking as a Security Threat in West Africa”.

Dirty money

In recent years foreign money has poured in to cash-strapped countries, its source suspected to be the drug trade, according to the West African anti-money laundering group, GIABA.

Guinea-Bissau had $42 million in foreign investments in 2006, totalling one-sixth of its total budget, according to the UN. In six years, foreign investment to neighbouring Guinea increased tenfold. Both countries have been identified as drug hubs by Interpol and the UN.

In addition to possible money laundering, the head of Interpol’s drug investigations unit, Stephen Brown, told IRIN there is a legitimate parallel economy that has sprung up to support trafficking.

“This very legal economy feeds traffickers’ demands,” he said. “Duct tape manufacturers for endless drug-packing needs. People in these industries who see their incomes climb will once again be broke if we are successful and shut down trafficking operations. We have seen these people turn to illegal activities to maintain their drug-inflated incomes.”

Cape Verde

Experts say the conference host, Cape Verde, is increasingly showing signs of trafficking’s destructive effects, despite an increase in government efforts over the past four years to fight back.

European Union ambassador to Cape Verde, Josep Coll, told IRIN the country is at risk of slipping from its good governance perch if trafficking continues unfettered: “Cape Verde is facing a difficult situation because drug traffickers are already affecting the fundamental forces of good governance and the state’s ability to develop sustainably.”

The new UN report says most of the couriers -- drug "mules" who either swallowed drugs or hid them on their bodies and luggage -- arrested in former colonial power Portugal in 2007 were Cape Verdean.

Cape Verde’s Minister of Justice Marisa Morais told IRIN the government is acting as quickly as possible to contain the threat. “Fighting money laundering is the best way the government can cut off traffickers’ money flow,” she told IRIN.

But Interpol’s Brown told IRIN legal reforms are often too slow to control the damage from trafficking: “Drug trafficking is like an army of ants. Once you set up the barricade, it’s too late.”

But he said governments must react, nevertheless, or be faced with drug barons gaining undue power. “No, we cannot end trafficking. But we can disrupt it. Yes it will happen elsewhere eventually, but that is no reason to give up. Even if preventing one murder won’t stop all murders, that is still one life we are saving.”