It was the kind of tip-off that happens only once in a career.
When they received the information on 26 June, the customs chiefs at the port of Dakar burst into action. They had just learned that a large quantity of cocaine was hidden in Renault Kwid vehicles that had arrived 48 hours earlier on board the Grande Africa, a “ro-ro” (roll-on roll-off) ferry operated by the Italian Grimaldi company from Paranagua, southern Brazil.
The informant was a “parts courier”, an intermediary whose job it is to facilitate the endless import-export procedures. The man, nicknamed “Old Diop”, told a customs officer he had been hired to get mobile phones out of the port.
But when he noticed that the bags hidden in the trunks of the cars contained bricks of white powder he was afraid and decided to tell the authorities.
A tonne seized in four days
A team was dispatched to Pier 1 of the terminal, where Renault vehicles from the Grande Africa were parked. Of the 20 new vehicles in transit to Luanda, four were “infected”: in their trunks, customs officers discovered eight sports bags filled with cocaine. They contained 238kg of the drug. “There were traces in a fifth vehicle, but the goods had disappeared,” says a customs source. The haul was still important. Especially since it was to lead to a second seizure, three days later, which would take the investigation to another dimension.
The next day, all ships from South America and their cargo manifests were listed.
Soon, a name emerged: the Grande Nigeria, another ship from the Grimaldi company. She also departed from Paranagua with a cargo of Renault Kwids, destined for the same Angolan company as those in the Grande Africa. The Grande Nigeria was still at sea, scheduled to arrive in Dakar on 29 June.
On D-Day, as the sun plunged into the ocean, the bow of the huge white and yellow “ro-ro” appeared from behind Gorée Island.
A customs patrol was waiting on the dock. The first five Renault cars were unloaded. Nothing. Three customs officers were then ordered aboard to check the other vehicles. In a safe, they found two bags full of cocaine. They called for reinforcements to help them inspect all the vehicles.
It’s the same network, with the same drugs, the same packaging and the same modus operandi
They discovered white powder in about 15 of them.
This time, the haul was unprecedented in size: 798kg. “It’s the same network, with the same drugs, the same packaging and the same modus operandi,” explains a police source. In total, more than a tonne was seized in four days with an estimated street value of between $80m and $130m. This was the largest drugs haul ever made at the port of Dakar.
Chain of responsibility
Very quickly, police officers from the Office Central de Répression du Trafic Illicite des Stupéfiants (OCRTIS) were on the scene.
Several people were taken off for questioning, including freight forwarders, port workers, the Italian captain of the Grande Nigeria, a crew member and a couple of young Germans travelling on board.
Based on these interviews and numbers from phones they had used, OCRTIS agents identified the three men they believe head up the network in Senegal: Amadou Gueye (the name has been changed), Ismaïla Ousmane Ba and Ibrahima Thiam, known as “Toubey”.
All three were present near the port on the evening of the first seizure. The first, a Senegalese living in Italy, took a plane the next day and is on a wanted list. The second, a French-Senegalese man who imports and exports between the two countries, was picked on 20 August in the Yoff district of Dakar after one of his minions was followed.
The sheer amount of cocaine seized leaves no doubt that it was destined for the European market
The third man, already known to the police for his involvement in trafficking stolen cars, gave himself up a few days later after absconding to Gambia and Guinea-Bissau.
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The seizure leads to a vast international cocaine trafficking network that stretches from Senegal to Europe via Brazil. Alerted by Interpol, which sent a mission to Dakar at the end of July, police in several countries are now working on the case.
“The sheer amount of cocaine seized leaves no doubt that it was destined for the European market, probably going up the various Sahel roads,” the police source continues. “Though a small part could also be destined for the Senegalese or West African market.”
West African consumption increasing
The days when West Africa was just a hub are over. Cocaine consumption in the region has increased sharply in a decade, although demand remains much lower than in European countries.
Sometimes sold pure, it is more often found in the cheaper form of “crack” in the suburbs of Dakar, Abidjan and Lagos. “The North American and European markets are reaching saturation point. Latin American producers and traffickers are therefore looking for new markets. And Africa is obviously one of them,” says a UN expert.
Several record seizures in the region in recent months suggest this narcotic is circulating widely on the West African coast. At the end of 2018, 1.2 tonnes of cocaine hidden in construction machinery destined for Abidjan was discovered in the hold of a ship in Santos, Brazil. At the end of January 2019, 9.5 tonnes was found in a Panamanian ship in Praia, Cabo Verde. More recently, in September, the Guinea-Bissau police announced the two-part seizure of 1.8 tonnes.
At every link in the chain people take their cut, in cash or in kind
According to the latest annual report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), global cocaine production has never been so high: nearly 2,000 tonnes in 2017, a 25% increase over 2016; 70% of this cocaine is produced in Colombia. The rest comes from Peru and Bolivia.
In the case of the Dakar seizure, investigators believe that the powder is Bolivian and that it arrived in Paranagua through Paraguay. “At every link in the chain people take their cut, in cash or in kind,” says the UN expert. “Once it gets to Brazil, cocaine is managed by highly structured and specialised criminal trafficking networks, who take charge of transporting it to the next stage.”
Crossing the Atlantic is one of the main challenges for these drug entrepreneurs. In addition to air routes using “mules”, there is the “mothership” system: a large boat that anchors off the coast in international waters, from which small fishing, tourist or pirogue boats come to obtain supplies.
Pleasure yachts, on which several hundred kilos can be loaded, are also used. Another technique uses divers to fix the cocaine against the hulls of boats in watertight containers, which are recovered by other divers at the port of arrival. This is rarely used for Atlantic crossings, however.
In the main, they favour container ships, which have the triple advantage of quantity, speed and safety. These sea monsters are capable of transporting up to 20,000 containers and reaching Senegal from Brazil in about 10 days.
Our staff have been slightly increased, but overall we only have our torches, our heads and luck
Traffickers hide the powder in the goods loaded on board or use the “rip off” technique, which consists of fraudulently opening a container to deposit their packages. “The challenge of controlling the flow of goods by sea is immense,” says a marine transport specialist. “The ships are getting bigger and bigger and more and more numerous. Checks are random and only cover a tiny minority of containers. Everything else goes through.”
“We only control what goes down to Dakar, unless we have information on a suspicious commodity, as was the case with Grande Nigeria,” says a Senegalese customs officer.
Faced with this mass of containers that arrive at their ports every day, customs officers and police are doing their best.
By targeting ships through extensive documentary work carried out upstream – port of departure, sea route, flag, goods transported – but also by carrying out human, canine or technical inspections whenever possible. “Our staff have been slightly increased but, overall, we only have our torches, our heads and luck,” says a Senegalese customs officer, who complains about the lack of mobile scanners at the port of Dakar.
Corruption is another major problem, and one of the best weapons for traffickers. “All they have to do is drop a few thousand euros and customs officers turn a blind eye to this or that container,” says a specialist in the fight against the drug trade. “When you know the money they’re making, it’s peanuts for them.”
African drug law enforcement services have few resources to counter this scourge. In recent years, the DEA, the powerful American anti-drug agency, has been putting the staff it trains in Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal through a polygraph test. “It has results and helps to clean up corruption. Some people confess everything before they’re even connected,” says one Western trainer.
In addition, in most West African capitals there are no judicial divisions specialised in organised crime. These are crucial for combating mafia networks effectively.
Despite these many challenges, most observers welcome the efforts made by West African governments to combat drug trafficking. Through strengthening specialised units, better mastery of investigative techniques and increased police and judicial cooperation between countries in the region significant progress has been made.
“Recent seizures show that the response capabilities are there. Every tonne of cocaine intercepted is a punch in the face for the traffickers, costing them tens of millions of euros,” says a senior UNODC source. Still, more than this will be needed to knock out the South American cartels.
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.
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