West Africa is at the heart of an illegal drug trade transporting massive amounts of narcotics from South America to Europe, the United Nations chief on drugs and crime said today, warning of the danger the scourge poses to the region.
At least 50 tonnes of cocaine from Andean countries pass through West Africa every year, heading mostly to the streets of France, Spain and the United Kingdom, where they are worth some $2 billion.
“This is probably the tip of the cocaine iceberg,” said the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Antonio Maria Costa, at a high-level conference in the Cape Verde capital, Praia.
Cocaine seizures have doubled every year for the past three years, with the 2007 total amounting to 6,458 kilogrammes, and major seizures this year include a 600 kilogramme cocaine bust at the airport in Freetown, Sierra Leone, this summer, according to a report launched by UNODC at the Praia meeting.
Most large containers of cocaine entering Africa from South America make landfall around Guinea-Bissau in the north and Ghana in the south, and are shipped to Europe by drug mules on commercial flights.
“West Africa is at risk of becoming the epicentre for drugs trafficking and the crime and corruption associated with it,” Mr. Costa warned the Ministers of the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) attending the meeting.
Mr. Costa told the participants that narco-trafficking, through a vulnerable region that has never previously faced a drug problem, is perverting weak economies, corrupting senior officials and poisoning the youth by spreading addiction and criminality.
“Youth in particular suffer the damage,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a message to the meeting.
“We must keep them from turning to crime, and protect them from becoming victims of drug abuse and addiction,” he added in the statement, which was read out by his Special Representative for West Africa, Said Djinnit.
According to drug seizure data, the majority of air couriers come from Guinea, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal and the cocaine is distributed by powerful West African criminal networks upon arrival in Europe.
“Prosecutors and judges lack the evidence or the will to bring to justice powerful criminals with powerful friends,” said Mr. Costa, highlighting that local police are ill-equipped to deal with the threat.
At the Praia meeting, the Ministers of ECOWAS agreed to a political pact to fight drug trafficking and organized crime in West Africa, as well as to devise a regional response plan.
At the same time, Mr. Costa underlined the importance of promoting development and strengthening the rule of law in reducing the vulnerability to drugs and crime in the region.
He called on West African governments to “stop the corruption that is enabling criminals to infiltrate your countries,” and urged the international community to provide assistance to countries exposed to the influx of drugs to control their coasts and airspace, as well as train specialised police forces to investigate organized crime and drug trafficking.