West Africa’s cocaine coast

By Rose Skelton in Bissau

Posted on Tuesday, 24 August 2010 12:31

The volume of seizures is going down but drugs are now being produced in laboratories in West Africa.

For more on the battle against drugs in Guinea Bissau, read Basic to Basics.

The volume of drugs seized in West Africa may have decreased, but local and international law enforcement agencies agree that drug trafficking is as prevalent as ever. “All the reports talk of a drop in the cocaine trade,” says Cyriaque Sobtafo, deputy regional representative of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Dakar, “but we think the criminal organisations have changed their mode of operation.”?

Two events indicate this evolving sophistication in the drug trade. First, in 2009, laboratories and ‘precursor’ chemicals used to make ecstasy were found in Guinea Conakry. Sold on the streets of Europe, the drugs involved would fetch an estimated E125m. Secondly, a Boeing plane thought to have begun its voyage in Venezuela was found abandoned and burned in the Malian desert. Investigators think that that traffickers pay a ‘tax’ in exchange for protection to groups such as Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Tuareg rebels from Mali and Niger, in order to land planes on isolated airstrips and disperse their goods across the desert.

The key to the drugs trade in Guinea Bissau is the Bijagós archipelago of 88 islands. Only 21 are inhabited, mostly by fishermen and subsistence farmers, and there is no coast guard. Small landing strips hidden by acres of dense jungle make it easy for twin-propeller planes carrying Latin American cocaine to land. Small fishing canoes then transport the drugs to the mainland. Traffickers are protected by military leaders who have access to planes, weapons and boats.

In neighbouring Senegal, unofficial reports of Lebanese and EU nationals getting involved in the trade are on the increase. While the weaker states are used as an entry point for drugs, countries like Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire are used to launder the money.

This article was first published in the June-July edition of The Africa Report.

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