The illicit trade of any commodity takes the path of least resistance. Criminal networks engaged in these activities are entrepreneurial; they take the cheapest, most efficient routes to get their goods to market. The drugs trade is no different. While cocaine flows through West Africa may have declined, the structures that facilitated trafficking are still in place and can be used to transport other commodities. There are growing reports that West Africa is becoming a production base for methamphetamines. Law enforcement strategies remain important. However, it is clear that ignoring the underlying factors that support drug trafficking and organized crime creates opportunities for new commodities.
When West Africa became a major conduit for cocaine being trafficked from Latin America to Europe in the early 2000s, a number of factors made the region conducive to illicit trade. Weak law enforcement and the lack of capacity to patrol airspace and coastal waters attracted organized crime networks to the region. Latin American cartels could land several tonnes of cocaine, split it into smaller shipments and transfer it to Europe, for the most part unnoticed. The frequently cited case of the Boeing 727 discovered burnt out in Mali in 2009 is a prime example.
The international community has been quick to respond to these gaps. Based on the ECOWAS Political Declaration on the Prevention of Drug Abuse, Illicit Drug Trafficking and Organized Crimes in West Africa, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime created the West Africa Coast Initiative which seeks to build the capacity of law enforcement in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau and Cote D’Ivoire. The European Union has also launched the Cocaine Route Programme focusing on law enforcement in Latin America and West Africa.
Other factors however, also encouraged organized crime to take hold and flourish in the region. In many West African countries, the division between the formal and informal economies, and legal and illegal practices is not always clear cut. For example, in Northern Mali, the reach of state institutions is weak and residents are necessarily entrepreneurial, seeking out opportunities to offset high unemployment rates and poverty.
The trade route across the Sahara has long been a conduit for illegally traded goods such as cigarettes. Locals were initially employed to guide the way, leading convoys to water and fuel dumps in the desert. The rise of cocaine trafficking made the Saharan trade route much more lucrative. Unemployed youth in particular have eagerly taken up opportunities to make the dangerous journey trafficking cocaine. This is not isolated to Mali. Across West Africa, a long line of young people are willing to risk trafficking small quantities of cocaine to Europe, with many couriers arrested in airports along the coast and in Europe.
The ability to make fast money from drug trafficking means it is often seen as a good thing by communities that benefit. This is particularly the case for cocaine, which comes from Latin America and on to Europe without exploiting local resources in the way that the illicit trade in timber, diamonds and oil does. But the revenues from drug trafficking are often captured by elites with drug couriers paid very little considering the risks they take.
In Guinea Bissau, drug trafficking organizations offered government officials US$700,000 - 1 million to protect drugs brought into the country and facilitate onward transportation. This gives criminal groups significant power and shifts government policy away from the needs of citizens to protect the interests of organized crime networks. It also forces governments into a downward spiral as they become reliant on criminal revenue, forcing individuals to seek out opportunities in the illicit economy and reinforcing the conditions that made the country conducive to organised crime.
Counternarcotics policies, however, rarely address these issues. Although law enforcement approaches have been recognized as ‘woefully inadequate’, as they merely respond to the problem rather than engage with the factors that encourage organized crime, they remains the fall back option.
Photo credit main picture: MINUSMA "Stigmates du conflit a Gao" / via flickr