Drugs cartels open another front in a futile war

Misha Glenny – The Financial Times

Copyright The Financial Times
As west Africa slips slowly towards a mire of ungovernability, Burkina Faso has tabled a United Nations Security Council session in an attempt to focus attention on what is being called Africa’s new war. Over the past five years the coastal countries of west Africa have fallen like dominoes to an assault launched from distant Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico as some of the world’s most ruthless drugs cartels seek to bring these territories under their control.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has been warning that drugs traffickers have corrupted politicians and security officials up to ministerial level from Guinea-Bissau, dubbed the world’s first narco-state, to Ghana, long been regarded as the region’s model democracy. Now Burkina Faso and other African countries claim that this a genuine threat to security. They point to African criminal networks, spawned by the cocaine trade, which are linking up with terrorist and insurgents groups in the Sahel and Maghreb regions.
The problem for west Africa began in the 1990s when drugs groups decided to stimulate European demandfor cocaine and crack. The cartels had argued that the US, which consumes 40 per cent of the world’s cocaine, had reached supersaturation point. The rise of cocaine usage in Europe has been exceptional. South American exporters now use west Africa as a hub for drugs for Europe.
The amount of cocaine transiting west Africa has rocketed. In 2001, 273kg were seized off the coast, but by 2007 this had reached 14.5 tonnes. The UNODC estimates that the total trafficked through the region is 50 tonnes (rising every year) with an annual value of about $2bn (€1.35bn, £1.22bn).
The power of this money in a region of fragile states is overwhelming. The sub-region has been carved out by “narco-barons” into two hubs, with Guinea-Bissau servicing the north and Ghana the south. But the problem extends far beyond. Cape Verde, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Togo are all major ports of entry for the cocaine trade. This is hurting Sierra Leone and Liberia, both recovering from traumatic civil wars.
Having invested some military and political effort in bringing these conflicts to a close, the west is largely standing by as the Colombians take over. The US Drugs Enforcement Agency and Britain’s Serious Organised Crime Agency have courageous officers on the ground but the meagre resources in the region mean their impact is limited.
The situation in west Africa underlines the catastrophic implications of western drugs for its security policy in hotspots around the world. Barack Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan does not appear to have made reference to the fatal impact of the opium trade in the conflict. It is not just that the Taliban earns more than $100m a year from drugs, ensuring it has resources both to sustain an impressive war effort and compete with Nato in the hearts and minds game. It is that one of the primary drivers of corruption within the government is the opium trade.
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