NEW YORK // Traces of cocaine found amid the burnt-out wreckage of a Boeing 727 recently discovered in the Sahara desert have pointed officials to the worrying scale of a new drug trade stretching across the African sands.
According to the UN's anti-drugs agency, the twisted remains of the jet found last month in a barren stretch of Mali highlight an increasingly sophisticated network of drug trafficking across the landlocked nation and nearby Chad and Niger. Antonio Maria Costa, the chief of the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said the discovery pointed to West Africa's emerging role in the global drugs trade and warned that "terrorists and anti-government forces" were financing their operations with narcotics cash.
For Princeton Lyman, an Africa expert at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, adding drugs to the "relatively benign smuggling" practised by generations of Sahel tribespeople poses a major threat to regional security. "A lot of these countries have very weak governments and the potential of turning them into narco-states is very scary. There is already a lot of drug money along the coast of West Africa - lots of the fancy homes in Dakar are now owned by drug lords," he said.
"These countries are very poor and you could create criminal governments which would be very dangerous for the security of the region. That's the way the drugs business works: you corrupt the government and build addiction in countries so you have a ready market and source of mules." UNODC estimates the wrecked aircraft was carrying as much as 10 tonnes of cocaine from Venezuela to Mali, part of the 50 to 60 tonnes of the stimulant that is trafficked through West Africa each year, much of it bound for the European market.
Vehicle tyre tracks in the sand and a makeshift runway indicate the plane landed before traffickers fetched the lucrative cargo of drugs and other contraband before torching the aircraft to cover their tracks. With investigations still underway, Mr Costa said the use of aircraft demonstrates how drug trafficking "is taking on a whole new dimension" in the region. The willingness to burn an aircraft points to the scale of drug-smuggling profits.
"In the past, trade across the Sahara was by caravans. Today it is larger in size, faster at delivery, and more hi-tech, as evidenced by the debris of a Boeing 727 found on November 2 in the Gao region of Mali - an area affected by insurgency and terrorism," he said. "It is scary that this new example of the links between drugs, crime and terrorism was discovered by chance." Other recent discoveries of seven narcotics laboratories in Guinea and seizures of drugmaking chemicals indicated that West African gangs were now producing high-grade cocaine along with amphetamines and ecstasy.
While cocaine comes in to the west, some 35 tonnes of Afghan heroin is trafficked into east Africa every year, much of it entering through lawless Somalia, fuelling a "dramatic increase in drug addiction" and spreading HIV through needle-sharing, added Mr Costa. These "two streams of illicit drugs" converge in the Sahara, where rebels and militants exploit the trade to raise cash, said Mr Costa, adding that heroin and cocaine parcels have become "a sort of new currency" that is readily traded on the Saharan black market.
"Drugs not only enrich organised crime," he said. "Like in the Andes and in West Asia, terrorists and anti-government forces in the Sahel extract resources from the drug trade to fund their operations, purchase equipment and pay foot-soldiers." While finding no evidence that Darfuri rebels profited from trading drugs, Younes Abouyoub, from the UN Security Council's group of experts on Sudan, said lax security alongside neighbouring Chad meant "it was easy to smuggle almost anything across the border".
Those suspected of profiting from the desert trade include rebels of a nomadic Berber people, called Tuaregs, and the al Qa'eda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a Salafist group that seeks to overthrow Algeria's government. In September, army envoys from Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger worked out a plan for jointly tackling terrorism and cross-border crime, but Mr Costa called for enhanced efforts through a trans-Saharan crime monitoring network in which members could share evidence and track suspicious activity.
Mr Lyman, a former US ambassador to both South Africa and Nigeria, warned that a heavy-handed approach by African officials would probably exacerbate the problem and threaten the desert region's delicate security balance. "Taking on the smuggling problem presents the danger of driving these tribal groups into the arms of AQIM because they resent a government presence that impinges on their smuggling activities, so it's a delicate area how you increase in security" he said.
"You've got to build greater trust between Tuaregs and their home governments, and that requires more development and maybe even closing their eyes to some of the more benign smuggling activity that's taking place. It's not an easy task at all." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org