In West Africa, Threat of Narco-States

July 10, 2007
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Eighteen months ago, fishermen in the West African state of Guinea-Bissau hauled up packages of a mysterious white powder (Telegraph) in their nets. Some reportedly sprinkled it on their crops, killing them, while others—once they discovered the powder was cocaine—sold it and used the windfall to start businesses. When you live in the fifth-poorest country in the world, it’s hard not to look at drug trafficking as a business opportunity, and Guinea-Bissau’s drug business is booming. Western officials estimate $150 million of cocaine flows into Guinea-Bissau per month from Latin America, equal to the country’s annual gross domestic product.

Drug traffickers couldn’t have designed a better transit hub (Economist). Guinea-Bissau’s coastline has at least fifty uninhabited islands, some with long-abandoned, Portuguese-built airstrips. The country lacks the resources to pay its police or equip them to bust sophisticated drug smuggling operations. The military (TIME), for its part, has been linked to drug trafficking operations.

Guinea-Bissau stands out as a dramatic case-study, but a profitable drug trade is burgeoning across West Africa. The United Nations’ special representative to the region lists Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Niger as other major hubs (VOA). Soaring demand for narcotics among Europeans underpins this business. Cocaine use has roughly tripled in Europe over the past decade, and European cocaine retails for about double the price of American cocaine. Thomas Pietschmann, a research expert at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), says high levels of corruption in Africa make it very easy to use the continent’s ports and airports for trafficking. A recent UNODC report notes a sevenfold increase (PDF) in African cocaine seizures—fourteen tons, up from two tons—between 2005 and 2006.

This spike in illicit activities is not limited to the drug trade. West Africa is also a growing source of illegal migrants. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than thirty thousand (IRIN) West Africans attempted the treacherous trip from Senegal to Spain’s Canary Islands in 2006. “They assume that even the worst life in Europe is better than the best life in Africa,” Geoff Porter of the Eurasia Group tells CNN. Migrants are not just fleeing Africa, they are often chasing jobs. Europe faces an impending labor shortage, as this new Backgrounder explains, but disagreement among EU states has prevented the adoption of a common EU policy on immigration from Africa.

While traffickers use the same land and sea routes from West Africa to Europe, there is little evidence linking groups that transport humans with those that transport drugs. Human “mules” (VOA) are sometimes used in West Africa to carry drugs to Europe, but this is just one of many tactics. In terms of stemming the drug flow, American and EU officials are pondering different tacks. The European Union is considering sending investigators (Deutsche Welle) to West Africa to stem the flow of drugs, while the United States has reopened a diplomatic office in Guinea-Bissau in July after a decade-long absence, hoping a more active diplomatic presence will allow greater U.S. regional influence (Reuters). But as this Backgrounder on the U.S. drug war explains, attempts to cripple the narcotics trade have often just caused it to relocate. As long as there is demand, experts say, traffickers will find a way to supply it.

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