Anne Marie Mergier Proceso (2-13-2013)
Translated by un vato for Borderland Beat
The radical Islamist groups who operate in the Sahara, the Sahel* and in the West Africa regions finance their military activities with money from drug trafficking. They have negotiated agreements with Latin American cartels to transport drugs through the areas they control intended for the European market. With their focus on attacking Islamic terrorism, the governments of the European Union have neglected the drug trafficking phenomenon in the African Continent. Experts warn that narcos, jihadists and corrupt politicians could consolidate into an "explosive coalition" in the region.
(*Note: The Sahel region lies in parts of Senegal, Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan. -- un vato)
PARIS (proceso).-- "The struggle against Islamic terrorism has so absorbed the attention of Western leaders that their battle against drug trafficking has moved to a secondary plane. It's a pity. Perhaps the chaos that took Mali to the edge of collapse and provoked French military intervention, as well as the ever more devastating role that drug trafficking plays in the Sahel and West Africa regions will make them rethink their priorities," declares Alain Rodier.
A former officer with French intelligence services, Rodier carried out several missions in Afghanistan in the 1980's and since then, he follows closely the evolution of Al Quaeda. An expert in transnational organized crime and Islamic terrorism, author of a book on Chinese Triads, another on Iran and two more on Al Quaeda, Rodier is chief of research with the French Center of Intelligence Research (CF2R: Centre Francais de Recherche sur le Renseignement).
He explains to the reporter: "During the last decade, Latin American cartels created new routes in Africa to transport cocaine and synthetic drugs to Europe and, to a lesser degree, to the United States. All of the continent is affected by drug trafficking, from South Africa to the Magreb countries. Independent research centers --like the CF2R and specialized institutions within the UN or in the European Union -- tried to alert the politicians. They weren't successful.
"It didn't take long to see the results. The drug trafficking gangrene infected the majority of the West Africa governments and established contact with radical Islamic groups. Today, we are faced with a new, very explosive phenomenon; "narco jihadists."
[at left] Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, former special representative of the UN Secretary General in West Africa, Somalia and Burundi, and who for two years has presided over the Center for Security Strategies in the Sahel and the Sahara -- a private organization with headquarters in Mauritania--, shares Rodier's concerns.
In an interview on February 3 last year with Christophe Champin, a Radio France International specialist on drug trafficking in Africa, Abdallah stated: "I think that by focusing so much on the problem of terrorism, there is a risk of underestimating the gravity of the drug trafficking problem. What surprises me is that Western intelligence services are aware of everything, but they seem to be interested only in terrorism."
The African trampoline
Jihadist combatants are not the only ones talking with Latin American drug traffickers in Africa, and above all in the Sahel-Sahara and West Africa zones. This is shown by reports from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and specific reports from institutions like the Research and Information Group for Peace and Security (GRIP, Groupe de Recherche et d'Information sur la Paix et la Securite, an independent center based in Brussels), or the Carnegie International Foundation.
Experts realize that, while cocaine consumption has stabilized in the United States, it is growing exponentially in Europe. According to their calculations, in 1998, demand in the United States was four times greater than in Europe, but in 2009, both were almost the same, with 157 tons in the U.S. and 123 (tons) in Europe.
They also point out that, while most of the cocaine continues to "travel" directly by boat from Latin America to Europe, since the start of this century drug traffickers are increasingly using the African continent to warehouse and redistribute the drug.
Georges Berghezan, GRIP researcher, explains in the introduction to his report "Panorama of Cocaine Trafficking in West Africa," published last June:
"During the course of this last decade, cocaine trafficking established itself as an extremely important illegal activity in Africa. The crises that are shaking Mali and Guinea-Bissau demonstrate its potential to destabilize. The impact is due to the involvement of the security forces' high commands, of members of the ruling elite, of armed groups that pursue military or simply criminal objectives. All these actors are connected directly or indirectly with an army of professional drug traffickers disguised as "economic operators."
He specifies: "After arriving by boat or by air from Latin America, the largest share of the cocaine quickly leaves West Africa on its way to Europe. Drug traffickers multiply the itineraries and the modes of transportation. Up until 2009, transporting cocaine was the "specialty" of the countries on the Atlantic coast.
"But after the year 2000, it was concentrated on the countries of the Sahel, like Mali, where there are immense deserts difficult to patrol, weak and corrupt central governments and a myriad of small armed groups looking for revenues to control ever larger territories.
"In that context, it is the traffickers who benefit from the disintegration of the Libyan State. They obtain cheap weapons and take advantage of a lack of border controls," emphasizes Berghezan, then he launches into a case by case analysis of the impact of Latin American drug trafficking on the 15 countries of the Economic Community of West African States.
It is devastating
He starts with Nigeria, the most populated country in Africa (162 million inhabitants). In 2006, authorities in that country confiscated 14 tons of cocaine in the port of Lagos that came from Peru hidden in sacks of cement. Four years later, in July 2010, 450 kilos of cocaine were confiscated, also in Lagos. They arrested a Nigerian customs official and two Chinese businessmen. The boat had left Chile and made stops in Peru and Belgium. Last year, the Nigerian National Drug Law enforcement Agency -- advised by the DEA -- seized 110 kilos of cocaine from a boat that came from South America.
But the zones of influence of the Nigerian cartels, who negotiate detailed agreements with their Latin American counterparts -- the reports consulted by the reporter never mention the names of these mafias -- reach beyond the borders of their own country.
Berghezan emphasizes: "The two principal poles for the arrival of cocaine in West Africa are the Gulf of Benin and the maritime zones along the coasts of Guinea and Guinea-Bissau. In these two areas, it is the Nigerian cartels who rule and who collect the major share of the three billion dollars ($3,000,000,000.00) generated by drug trafficking in all of Africa."
Not all drug traffickers come out unharmed from their activities. On of them, Nigerian Chigbo Peter Umeh, was arrested in Liberia in the middle of negotiations to send several tons of cocaine to the United States. He was extradited to that country, were he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Also, Berghezan points out that the Nigerians are particularly active in Italy, where they have agreements with the Calabrese mafia, the 'Ndrangheta.
The seizure of large quantities of drugs in Benin shows that that country, like the others in the region, has been infected with the drug trafficking gangrene. The numbers are eloquent: 100 kilos of cocaine seized at the home of a former Minister of Finance and Economics in 2006; 350 kilos confiscated from a drug trafficker from Ghana in 2007; 200 kilos seized from a Pakistani cargo ship in the port of Cotonu and 400 kilos a few weeks later in the same port.
Togo is not far behind: In October, 2008, 500 kilos of cocaine were seized near the port of Lome and eight Colombians were arrested and extradited to the United States.
It worries the GRIP researcher that high ranking officers in the Togo armed services, including relatives of President Faure Gnassingbe are involved in drug trafficking. At least, that's what WikiLeaks documents show.
The same problem affects Ghana, whose inertia in the face of drug trafficking was also revealed by confidential communications leaked by WikiLeaks. Little is known about what is happening in Senegal. Alassane Ouattara (who came to power in April of 2011 with the support of France and UN forces) seems determined to combat the local consumption of drugs. In August, 2012, he announced the seizure and incineration of two tons of cocaine, without providing more details.
Sierra Leone also seems to attract Latin American drug traffickers, as shown by the 2007 seizure -- by Venezuelan authorities -- of 2.5 tons of cocaine hidden in a private aircraft that made an unauthorized landing at the Lungi airport. The network of drug traffickers arrested included six Colombians, a Cuban with a Togo passport and a Mexican. Three Colombians, the Cuban and the Mexican were extradited to the United States.
The airplane carried Venezuelan Red Cross registry and had taken off from the Colombia-Venezuela border.
Guinea is a special case. In December, 2008, after the death of President Lansama Conte, who was overthrown by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, the scope of the complicity between the former president, his family, high ranking police, armed forces and customs officials and drug trafficking was revealed to the public.
However, in February, 2008, the French Navy and the DEA intercepted a Panamanian cargo ship, El Junior, when its crew -- made up of Greek, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau sailors-- was throwing more than three tons of cocaine packed into107 boxes into the sea. The operation was carried out thanks to the cooperation between the French intelligence services, the DEA and Greek authorities. The Greek shipper of the El Junior, Nikolaus Karnilakis, was given a life sentence in Greece.
Often described as the first African "narco-state" or as a mafioso State, Guinea-Bissau is a poor country whose swampy coasts shelter a multitude of small islands in the Bissagos Archipelago. Since 2005, it is obvious that Latin American and Nigerian drug traffickers are taking advantage of that country's decadence to establish bases of operation there.
A not very exhaustive list of the quantities of cocaine seized gives an idea of the true scope of the trafficking: 700 kilos in 2005; 600 kilos, then two tons more in 2007; 500 kilos in 2008...
In 2007, while the DEA was reporting that each night between 800 and a thousand kilos of cocaine enter Guinea-Bissau exclusively by air, it became known that that country's authorities had leased port facilities, airports and several islands to drug traffickers.
That same year, a UN report brought the incident before the Security Council. It was analyzed for seven minutes then forgotten. On March 2, 2009, President Joao Bernardo Vieira was hacked to death with a machete. Everything seems to indicate, according to Berghezan, that drug traffickers caused his death.
The situations in Gambia, Cabo Verde, Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso are also worrisome, as is the involvement of the Frente Polisario in drug trafficking. [The Frente Polisario is an African national liberation group.--un vato]
But Mali breaks records. The airport in Bamako is full of "mules" controlled by Nigerian cartels. In addition, the annals in Africa will always memorialize the case of the half-incinerated Boeing 737 found in 2009 near the city of Gao. The aircraft had left Venezuela and made a clandestine landing in Mali. It is estimated that it could have transported about seven tons of cocaine, which disappeared before the airplane went up in flames.
The UNODC mentions two other "strange" flights: The case of the Beechcraft BE 300, also from Venezuela, which landed on the frontier between Mali and Mauritania at the end of January, 2010. That same day, the arrival of a second airplane carrying cocaine was detected near the city of Timbuktu.
Afterwards, there was talk about a third airplane that had transported four tons of cocaine in the Kaynes region on the border with Guinea, and of a last aircraft that landed close to the frontier with Niger. In these latter two cases, regional public officials had received the aircraft.
At the close of this edition, Rodier informed the reporter that on Monday, (February) 4, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) police arrested seven drug traffickers who were transporting synthetic drugs and cocaine from Brazil via the following route: From airports in Punta Negra and Maya Maya (Congo-Brazzaville) to Johannesburg (South Africa), then to the (airports) in Kinshasa and Luano (DRC). The criminals were arrested along with their alleged accomplices: immigration and police officials.
All the cases mentioned in our reports are merely the visible parts of an immense iceberg," concludes Rodier. "There's an urgent need to gauge the problem adequately and to prevent the consolidation of that explosive coalition between drug traffickers, jihadists and corrupt politicians in Africa. The future of that continent and the security of Europe are at risk."