Traffickers use Western Africa to bring cocaine to Europe

The burned debris of a Boeing cargo plane has recently been discovered in Mali, West Africa. It is not clear the origins of the plane but Colombian and Venezuelan air traffic controllers reported “strange behaviour” from a similar Boeing cargo plane that eventually went missing in south west Venezuela. Traces of cocaine among the remains of the plane suggest that large aircrafts are increasingly being used to smuggle drugs and even weapons to the region from South America. The discovery of the aircraft occurred near an area where supposedly there was a clandestine airstrip.

In recent years, there has been a rapid increase in cocaine seizures particularly in Western Africa. The region has become an important transit area for cocaine trafficking between Latin American countries and Europe. The figures are surprisingly categorical: between 1998 and 2003, the annual cocaine seizures in Africa averaged about 0.6 tons which represents a tiny proportion of the global seizure of cocaine. However, since 2004 there has been an upward trend in African seizures with 2.5 tons. that year, almost five times more than before. In 2006 the figure was even bigger with 2.8 and in 2007 there was a dramatic increase to more than 5.7 tons of cocaine seized, with a street value in Western Europe of around US$ 480 millions. 99% of seizures were reported from Western African countries.

There is evidence of the connection between South American and Western African traffickers. In June 2007, the Venezuelan authorities seized 2.5 tons of cocaine on a private plane that was about to take off for Sierra Leone. The same month Spanish authorities seized 800 kg of cocaine on a plane that had taken off in the Sahara desert, close to Mauritania and the Western Sahara whereas a cocaine trafficking network was dismantled at Brussels airport after 18 months trafficking cocaine from Gambia and Sierra Leone.

Increase importance of Western Africa as a transit point for cocaine trafficking to Europe

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) there are three reasons that explain this trend: the first one is that law enforcement has been increased in the Caribbean and in Europe which may have played a part in the development of alternative routes for traffickers. Spain and the Netherlands are the traditional entry point for cocaine into Europe. The second reason is geographical, Venezuela and Brazil are relatively close to Western Africa around 10 degrees of latitude north and it is exactly where most cocaine seizures with a link to Africa have been made by the Spanish and British Navies. Finally, Western African countries are supposed to have a permissive working environment for drug traffickers due to widespread corruption and poor law enforcement structure. Many countries in the region face high degrees of corruption and difficulties to administer justice.

The case of Guinea Bissau

Guinea Bissau is an example of the consequences of the difficulties that weak states have to enforce the law. In September 2006, the authorities of Guinea-Bissau seized 670 kg of cocaine and arrested two Latin Americans. After freed, the drug consignment disappeared and the case was filed. Just one year later the investigation resumed because several high level officials of the Government of the former Primer Minister are allegedly involved in the disappearance of the drug. In April 2007, the police of Guinea Bissau seized another consignment of cocaine of 635 kg, but traffickers escaped with the remainder of a consignment believed to total around 2.5 tons of cocaine. Police has neither the manpower, nor vehicles to give chase.

Guinea Bissau is easily reached within three or four hours by means of light aircraft and/or tourist aircraft from Colombia or Venezuela. Guinea Bissau becomes a drug trafficking country and is promptly colonised by the drug traffickers, who then organise warehouses where the incoming drugs arrive, are stored and where the European buyers arrive the same day, buy the drugs and take it back with them to Europe either by means of light aircraft or small boats. Currently, all the process from the Colombian producer to the consumer in the European drum & bass disco just takes one week. The majority of this trade is controlled by criminal organisations linked to the Italian “Ndrangheta”.

Shipping the drug from Latin America

Traffickers have successfully managed to organise and set up direct flight connections with small planes between Latin America and Western Africa. On 1st May 2007, traffickers were caught unloading 630 kg of cocaine from a Cessna plane in a small coastal town in Mauritania near the Moroccan border. Several involved were arrested in connection with this case, including Mauritanians officials, two French and one Moroccan. The record of the on-board GPS instrument showed that the plan had left from a small airstrip in Venezuela.

In June 2007, a private aircraft bound to Sierra Leone was intercepted in Venezuela with 2.5 tons of cocaine on board. The same month, the Spanish authorities seized 800 kg of cocaine on a small aircraft stranded in the Canary Island. The plane had left from an unknown place in the Sahara region, close to Mauritania and the Western Sahara.

The transfer of the cocaine from Western Africa to Europe is less documented. Traffickers can make their trip unnoticed to Europe by boat amongst the heavy maritime traffic off the coasts of Western Africa. Recently, traffickers have been caught using go-fast boats to link Africa to Europe. On 30th December 2006, the Spanish Navy intercepted a go-fast boat off the coast of Galicia. The boat had left Casablanca, Morocco a few days earlier and rallied with a boat coming from Latin America. Around 3 tons of cocaine were transferred to the go-fast boat, but most of it was dumped into the sea when the boat was spotted by the Spanish authorities. The operation led to the seizure of 1.8 tons of cocaine and 28 persons were arrested in Galicia. The investigation established that Moroccan traffickers, specialised in smuggling by sea, were involved.

There are some documented cases of trafficking from Western African countries to Europe by air. This modus operandi is most used by Nigerians who send many couriers with small quantities, around 0.8 kg, in the same flight. As an example of this system, in December 2006, the Dutch authorities arrested 32 people, 28 from Nigeria, on the same plane at Amsterdam airport. The couriers had left Guinea Bissau to Casablanca, Morocco and landed at Schiphol airport in the Netherlands. Two of the couriers transported the drug in their luggage, the rest had ingested the drug. In July 2007, 16 couriers were arrested in the weekly flight between Gambia and the Netherlands, eight in Banjul airport before departing and eight other persons at Schiphol airport on arrival. The couriers were mostly Nigerians with residency in Europe.