The West Africa Connection: how drug cartels found new routes

The Times of London
Nairobi, Kenya

O.C. was untouchable. For years the stocky man with pockmarked skin and heavy-lidded eyes had run a cocaine-trafficking network on the coastal plains of northern Guinea. Planeloads of cocaine were flown into Boke airport from neighbouring Guinea-Bissau, the country that became known as Africa’s first narco-state.

It was said that O.C.’s operation was protected by a contingent of elite Red Berets he had commandeered from his father, the late President Conte. Like other drug smugglers, Ousmane Conte lived large. In Conakry, the steamy capital on the coast, those who knew Conte said that he liked to party and to sample his merchandise. He was a heavy drinker with a quick temper.

In the early hours of Tuesday the Army raided one of O.C.’s villas in Conakry, arresting the eldest son of Guinea’s former dictator and dragging him off to a military camp. He admitted involvement in drug trafficking but denied being the godfather of a smuggling ring linked to Colombian cartels.

Guinea, where even the First Family has been involved in the drug trade, is not an isolated case. Drug cartels from South America have moved into West Africa, establishing themselves all over the region and opening up a new route for transporting cocaine from the plantations of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia to the consumers of Europe, particularly Britain and Spain.

Five years ago the amount of cocaine shipped to Europe via West Africa was negligible. Today 50 tonnes a year worth £1.4 billion pass through the region. Interpol estimates as much as two thirds of the cocaine sold in Europe this year will reach the Continent via West Africa.

“We are seeing multi-tonne shipments transiting West Africa. We have recorded arrests of Latin Americans all over West Africa,” said Antonio Mazzitelli, at the regional office of the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime in Dakar, Senegal. “They are using ships, speedboats, small and large aeroplanes, 4WDs … There is really no limit to the imagination of traffickers.”

The cartels work with local criminal gangs and officials. Some consignments are headed for corrupt armies, Customs and police forces.

Plastic-wrapped cartons, each containing up to 50 1kg bars of cocaine, are divided up and distributed by gangs who use speedboats, trans-Sahara lorries, aircraft or human “mules”, who board commercial flights to traffic the drugs to Europe.

Spain is the usual entry point, according to Mr Mazzitelli, but he adds that there is evidence that Italy’s Calabrian mafia, Irish gangsters and Balkan mobsters are also involved.

The sheer value of drugs transported through West Africa – one of the world’s poorest regions – dwarfs entire economies and corrupts security forces and politicians. Guinea is just one of more than a dozen countries in the region in varying states of disarray and poverty, many only recently emerging from years of bloody civil war fought over control of “blood diamonds” and other resources.

Cocaine, experts warn, is another resource that the gangs consider worth fighting for. “What we’re seeing is the criminalisation of the state as a result of drug trafficking,” Corinne Dufka, a West Africa expert at Human Rights Watch, said. “The unlimited cash at the [gangs’] disposal risks toppling these desperately weak states.”

Cocaine use is on the increase worldwide. In Europe the number of users has tripled over the past decade: four million Europeans regularly take it, paying up to £50 a gram. Europe’s cocaine boom attracts the South American cartels that control the global trade.

In recent years effective patrolling of traditional trans-Caribbean and transatlantic smuggling routes has forced the cartels to seek out new paths, which is where West Africa comes in: the shortest line of latitude westwards from the ports and airstrips of South America reaches land in Guinea-Bissau.

This week’s arrest by Mexican and US drug enforcement agencies of 52 members of the Mexican Sinaloa cartel – making a total of 755 arrests in the latest campaign – contrasts starkly with the failure to prosecute traffickers who ferry drugs through Africa.

Mr Mazzitelli said that “80 to 90 per cent of the time” there is no conviction — even when traffickers are caught red-handed. The threat is not limited to West Africa. In its latest annual report, the International Narcotics Control Board called East Africa a “major conduit” for heroin from southwest Asia.

O.C.’s arrest was a bright spot in an otherwise bleak picture. “West Africa is now a transit area as Central America was 20 years ago,” Mr Mazzitelli said. “Now you have 6,000 people killed a year in Mexico because of drugs. This, or worse, might easily become the scenario for countries in West Africa.”