Heroin Seizures Off East Africa Coast Highlight Shift in Trafficking Routes

Seized narcotics laid out on a navy ship off the Kenyan coast. Source: Combined Maritime Forces

Recent seizures of heroin by maritime forces in the Indian Ocean reveal the increasing importance of East Africa as a transit point for Afghan heroin.

In the six weeks from May 10, the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) -- a 30-nation naval force patrolling waters off the coast of East Africa -- seized 1.5 tonnes of heroin, reported the AFP.

If CMF seizures of the drug continue at this rate, 2015 looks set to outstrip the amount of heroin interdicted in the previous two years; 3.4 tonnes were seized in 2014, a 66 percent increase on 2013, according to Reuters.

This uptick suggests that traffickers are increasingly utilizing this route, moving Afghan-produced heroin through East Africa into local and European markets. As The Economist noted in January, this route has been in use for the past three decades, though has been relatively minor compared to more popular paths such as the Balkan Route moving through Iran, Turkey and Eastern Europe. This could be changing, however.

Reasons behind this apparent beginning of a shift are, of course, manifold. For one, as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) noted in its 2014 World Drug Report, Western Europe's heroin use has fallen with the the number of estimated users dropping from 1.6 million in 2003 to 1.13 million in 2012. In conjunction with this, there has been a reported rise in heroin use in East and Southern Africa in recent years, in particular in Kenya, Tanzania, and Mauritius.

Law enforcement successes along the Balkan Route may have also contributed to a decline in trafficking activity through these countries, forcing traffickers to seek a path of lesser resistance through East Africa where law enforcement agencies are less well-equipped to counter the drug trade.

This provides a key example of the so-called "Balloon Effect" in action whereby pressure on one route simply shifts activity to another; or, to use the analogy, "squeezing a balloon in one place makes it expand in another."

The Balloon Effect can be observed in numerous other cases throughout history, both in relation to the production and supply of illicit narcotics. For instance, during the 1980s, around 80-90 percent of US-bound cocaine passed through the Caribbean; however, because pressure from law enforcement increased, routes shifted to Central America where now some 90 percent of cocaine heading to the US moves through.

Indeed, with increased attention on Central America over the past decade from counter narcotics bodies, there’s evidence of a shift back to Caribbean.

While the Balkan Route remains the primary way for traffickers moving Europe-bound heroin, it would be perhaps unsurprising to see its importance diminish as more smugglers utilize East Africa, feeding an apparently growing market and exploring the unpreparedness of local police and counter narcotics forces in the region.