If you think cocaine is strictly an American drug — produced in South and consumed in North — think again. A big part of Latin America’s illegal coke trade has relocated to West Africa in a bid to supply Europe’s growing appetite for yayo.
In 2004, the amount of cocaine transiting through West Africa was just three tons.
Today, it’s about 30 tons of cocaine a year. That’s the weight of four large male African elephants.
“[The criminal networks] are permanently shifting their smuggling routes based on risk,” says Pierre Lapaque, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in West Africa. “As soon as there was less maritime interception, they came back to West Africa, either by ship or, more and more, by plane.”
Over the past decade, countries like Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Nigeria and Senegal have become dangerous playgrounds for infamous crime organizations like Colombia’s FARC and the Mexican Zetas, whose power struggles with other drug rings have turned part of northeastern Mexico into a war zone.
West Africa’s geographical profile makes it an ideal transit point: It’s close to Europe and the world’s largest cocaine producers — Peru, Colombia and Bolivia. Criminal organizations are also attracted by the region’s mix of political instability, corruption, weak law enforcement and porous borders.
While serving as a drug hub is certainly lucrative, the economic incentive is significantly offset by the dire political and social consequences. Drug barons undermine governance in the region by infiltrating public institutions and bribing government and law enforcement officials — perhaps best illustrated by Guinea-Bissau, known as “Africa’s first narco-state” where cartels have co-opted key political and military leaders.
International efforts to quash drug trafficking often succeed in merely shifting the routes. Colombia’s crackdown on illegal coca plantations, for example, shifted production toward Peru.
Since 2008, the Economic Community of West African States has been following a Regional Action Plan with the support of the United Nations to try and tackle the problem. In recent years, the U.S. has begun training elite counter-narcotics units in Ghana and Nigeria and, last year, the European Union launched an anti-money-laundering initiative to support law enforcement agencies fighting drug trafficking in Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Cape Verde.
But curbing the international drug trade is extremely complex, especially as cartels and local criminals start to collaborate and diversify away from cocaine, adding heroin and a growing local production of methamphetamines.
For now, the drug trade continues to compromise the development of West Africa and threatens to send the region down the same path as Latin America, where cartels have left a grisly trail of bodies and destruction.
Why you should care
Because being an international trade hub is not always good news.