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20th Aug 2022

Europe's cocaine habit fuels West Africa instability

  • Less cocaine is being trafficked into Europe via West Africa, says the United Nations (Photo: US federal government)

The price and demand for cocaine in Europe remains high as shipments through West African transit countries to EU destinations has dropped.

A report released on Monday (25 February) by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says the cocaine tonnage arriving into Europe from West Africa has dropped to 18 in 2010, down from a 2007 peak of 47.

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“While this is good news, it does not take a lot of cocaine to cause trouble in a region with poverty and governance problems,” says the UNODC report.

The region is also a hotbed of weapons smuggling, methamphetamine production for crystal meth, fraudulent medicines, and maritime piracy.

But the cocaine traffic is driven by a lucrative EU market.

The white powder comes primarily from Colombia, Bolivia and Peru via West Africa before it reaches city streets in Europe where demand has more than doubled in the past two decades.

In Brazil’s largest port at Santos, Nigerian groups are said to organise up to 30 percent of the cocaine exports by ship or container, “up from negligible levels a few years earlier”, notes the UN.

The money generated exceeds the GDP of some of the transit countries.

Criminals use the extraordinary wealth to buy off the political elite that fuels corruption and in some cases topples governments. Assassinations are not uncommon.

The ‘narco-state’ of Guinea-Bissau saw its president, Joao Bernardo Vieira, shot dead by a rival military commander in 2009 over his alleged role in the lucrative cocaine trade with Columbian cartels.

Islamic armed rebels and cocaine

The flow of wealth extends beyond corrupt politicians and criminal networks.

Reports are emerging that insurgents in Mali fighting the French-backed government army is partly financed by the cocaine destined for European consumption.

“It remains possible that these funds contributed to the recent rebellion in Mali,” notes the report.

Armed Islamic groups in the region may also be benefiting from the illicit trade, “especially the various rebel forces in the Sahel and the terrorist group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” says the UN.

The apparent drop in traffic from the region may be illusory.

“There is debate as to whether the flow of cocaine decreased commensurably or whether the traffickers have simply found less detectable ways of moving the drug,” says the report.

For its part, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction revealed in January that some traffickers are finding ways to chemically incorporate cocaine into legitimate products like clothing or plastics.

Another theory for the drop is that the cartels are losing too much money and are working new or different routes.

Political turmoil after 2007 may have severed ties with the cartels. Authorities say the number of large cocaine seizures has since diminished. The number of detected couriers has also dropped.

The UNODC says greater international cooperation and information sharing among authorities is needed to stem the flow.

The European Commission, for its part, estimates around 1.5 million EU citizens consume cocaine. This amounts to around 140 tonnes each year. Spain and Portugal remain the primary entry points.

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