Africa: the new Mexico?


Drug use and trafficking is on the increase in Africa. This, however, is not what not should be emphasised. Instead, the damage produced by the drug laws is what needs to be scrutinised.


Reports indicate that the amount of heroin in Africa is increasing dramatically. Seizures of the drug increased from 159kg in 2009 to 234kg in 2010 in Egypt, 8.5kg to 35kg in Kenya, and 104kg to 202kg in Nigeria. The presence of smuggled heroin in Africa is mirrored with the drugs increased use, particularly in Mauritius, Tanzania and the Seychelles.


Seizures of cocaine also increased, with the levels in East Africa increasing four-fold between 2005 & 2010. Although the data are scarce, it is anticipated that this had lead to an increase in use of the drug, particularly in countries where the economy is on the up.


Why did hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin start to arrive in Africa in the first place? The most likely explanation is that when policing on usual drug trafficking routes became too heavy, smugglers discovered the alternative method of taking the drugs through Africa. These drugs were of course destined for Europe: a continent with a near insatiable desire for both heroin and cocaine. The adoption of new trafficking routes has created what is described as 'spill over markets', with countries not deemed as the final destination for a drug starting to create demand for it themselves.


However, the drugs are not what should be emphasised. The main concern with this increased trafficking and use is that parts of Africa will start to resemble Mexico; that is to say, turn into war-torn areas with cartels fighting for dominance over smuggling routes; pump millions into the pockets of criminals; and have local and national laws undermined by the lure of corruption and the power of avaricious politicians.


Mexico became the centre of cocaine trafficking only relatively recently. Before that, drugs were smuggled directly from Colombia to Florida. Once this became heavily policed the US's hunger for cocaine obviously didn't cease, so traffickers kept up supply by finding alternative routes, the main being the Mexico/US border. Once cocaine was travelling through the country, not all of it made it to its customers in the US, creating the aforementioned 'spill over markets'. As criminal gangs saw the financial potential in controlling the flow of drugs through their country, highly organized cartels emerged: bribing officials, murdering rivals and even pushing to control production of the drugs. An estimated 45,000 people have died as a result of the violence in the past five years, many of these being innocents caught in the cross fire. Civilians live in fear, as the beheaded bodies of whistle-blowers hang from bridges, and naked, dismembered torsos are chucked onto the side of the road.


These consequences are effects of the way that drugs are controlled as opposed to the drugs themselves. The attempt to quell the supply of cocaine in the US and subsequent lack of dip in demand caused the alternative routes to be developed once the originals had been constricted, and the drugs' illegality perpetuated the crime and violence that surrounds them. All signs indicate that a similar situation will arise in areas of Africa, with traffickers continuing to push heroin and cocaine into Europe.


Three options are available: dramatically reduce, if not extinguish, Europe's demand for cocaine and heroin; focus policing efforts on these new trafficking routes; or take the control of the drugs out of the hands of criminals via a form of legalisation and regulation.


The first option is not plausible, or at least cannot be addressed here. Humans have taken drugs for thousands of years, and it seems that they will continue to do so. 250million people took an illicit substance last year, continuing the steady year-by-year increase.


Focusing law enforcement on these new routes seems futile. Traffickers are intelligent, resourceful and most importantly adaptive. In a similar vein to the 'balloon effect'; the phenomenon of when pressure is put on drug production in one area, it expands in another, pressure on one trafficking route will simply send more drugs through another.


It is only the final option that seems to show any promise. In fact, this is the one that many South and Central American countries are now calling for. It is predicted that allowing the state to control the production and sale of drugs would dramatically decrease the violent side effects of keeping such substances in a state of illegality. If customers could get their product from a trusted and reliable source, they would have no need to purchase it from criminals. Indeed, who buys illegal moonshine when you can buy a reputable brand?


It is crucial that our drug laws do not create another Mexico, whether it be in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria, Egypt, Morocco; or all of these. The results would shatter Africa, perhaps in an even worse fashion than that of Mexico. Just as the continent is starting to boom economically, a crisis like this will reverse its nations' development.