West Africa: The New 'Drug Triangle'

A few weeks ago, Spanish authorities intercepted a rusty trawler, registered in Ghana, off the West African island nation of Cape Verde. Aboard, they seized 3,000 kilos of high-grade Colombian cocaine and arrested its largely Ghanaian crew. In December, Spanish patrols also stopped a Togo-flagged ship carrying 4.5 tons of the powder.

What was unusual about these busts was not so much their size (huge) but their provenance. Colombian cocaine making its way by ship from the west coast of Africa? According to European drug-enforcement officials, such stuff customarily finds its way to the Continent via air or boat, direct from its source in South America. The implication of the recent high-seas seizures is clear, they say: with South American routes drawing increasing scrutiny, Colombian drug cartels have adopted a new alternative: West Africa.

It isn't hard to see why. When it comes to penetrating Europe's southern underbelly, says Thomas Pietschmann at the U.N. office of drug control, "You look for the weakest point. That's West Africa." Governments in the region are too weak, too corrupt or too consumed by their own problems to enforce drug laws or adequately monitor their coastlines and airports. Add to that tens of millions of poor potential "mules," and the picture becomes all too clear.

Last year, Spanish authorities picked up 10 boats carrying some 20 tons of cocaine in what they're calling the new "drug triangle" between Cape Verde, the Canary Islands and Madeira. Austrian authorities arrested 1,171 Nigerians for drug offenses in 2004, nearly double of any other foreign group and more than three times as many as in 2001. In Switzerland, four of the five main nationalities for drug offenses last year came from West Africa, according to the U.N. drug office. In Germany, West Africans accounted for nearly one third of all drug-related detentions between late 2002 and early 2005. And in the Spanish Basque country, authorities detained 557 people for trafficking in 2003, 200 of them from tiny Guinea-Bissau. "We are seeing a growth in dominance of West African crime groups on the streets of Europe," says U.N. drug analyst Ted Leggett.

Governments are struggling to respond. European experts are training Senegalese authorities in anti-drug search techniques. Cape Verde has committed $6 million to bolster resources for air and maritime security. The West African Joint Operations Initiative, a regional enforcement project set up by the American and Nigeria, led to seizures totaling 1,390 kilos of cocaine in Benin, Ghana, Togo and Cape Verde last year. That's a start--but a drop in the bucket. "Even in the U.S. and Europe, where there are plenty of resources, they can't control it," says an American anti-drug official in West Africa. "I can see this trend getting worse before it gets better."