x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Latino drug lords find African allies

An upcoming UN report will shed light on criminal gangs in West Africa that work with South American drug cartels in a murky alliance that threatens stability in the region.

Packs of cocaine are burnt by officials and members of United Nation Mission in Liberia in Monrovia.
Packs of cocaine are burnt by officials and members of United Nation Mission in Liberia in Monrovia.

FREETOWN // An upcoming UN report will shed light on criminal gangs in West Africa that work with South American drug cartels in a murky alliance that threatens stability in the region. "Besides foreigners there is a growing phenomenon of local criminal groups," said Antonio Mazzitelli of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). "This certainly creates obstacles to democracy, to good governance, to development."

The UN estimates that US$2 billion (Dh7.3bn) worth of cocaine enters West Africa each year before being smuggled into Europe. Previous research focused on the role of South American cocaine cartels, which began operating heavily in the region about four years ago. "We often talk about the Latinos, but what about the Africans involved? There are over 1,600 West Africans all over the world convicted for drug trafficking," Mr Mazzitelli said in a telephone interview from his office in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.

The new report will look at local criminal networks, which facilitate the passage of drugs through airports and organised human couriers to smuggle cocaine into Europe via commercial flights. These gangs take in about $450 million each year, according to Mr Mazzitelli. Antonio Costa, who heads the UNODC, will unveil the report at a three-day anti-drug trafficking conference that starts today in the island nation of Cape Verde, which has emerged as one of the main transit points for drug smugglers. The conference is being held by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).

The title of the conference, Drug Trafficking as a Security Threat to West Africa, shows that West African countries now recognise drug trafficking as a serious danger to their stability, Mr Mazzitelli said. Previously, Ecowas members considered the cocaine trade a problem primarily for governments in South America, the source of supply, and Europe, where the demand lies. "This overall attitude has characterised the issue," he said. But the thinking changed as West African countries watched cartels infiltrate their security forces and other state institutions.

"It can cause destabilisation for the government," said Francis Munu, the head of crime and intelligence in the Sierra Leone police. In July, Sierra Leone police seized an aircraft loaded with 700 kilograms of cocaine, which landed at the country's international airport after taking off from Venezuela. Kemoh Sessay, the transportation and aviation minister, was dismissed from his post and is now under investigation. Mr Munu said suspects also included airport officials, police officers and business people.

"They are individuals, but when you put the whole scenario together you find that it's organised crime," he said. Police also arrested three Colombians, a Venezuelan, a Mexican and a US citizen, he said. The case illustrates some of the challenges West African authorities face in fighting traffickers. So far, suspects have been charged with relatively minor offences, but not with drug smuggling. In fact, it was only after the arrests that the government pushed through legislation dealing specifically with cocaine trafficking.

Previously, anti-drug laws carried a maximum 20-year sentence. Only softer drugs, such as cannabis, are mentioned in the law, reflecting the state of drug use when the laws were enacted. Under the new laws, traffickers can face life imprisonment. Mr Munu said police plan to charge the suspects using the new laws. But Cristin Edwards, a defence lawyer for suspects including the Venezuelan George Arisabella, said the Sierra Leone constitution stipulates laws could not be applied retroactively.

Mr Mazzitelli said international law also forbade countries from charging criminals retroactively, but he added that the suspects could be charged with other serious offences that carry stiff penalties, such as money laundering. Mr Edwards said he was hopeful his clients would go free. He accused police of carrying out a sloppy investigation, which saw more than 60 suspects arrested within a couple of days.

"You can get someone off on a technicality," he said. Mr Munu scoffed at the suggestion. "Somebody brings in a plane that is full of coke - no technicality can deny those facts. Perhaps he is making a bluff." But Mr Munu admitted that authorities in Sierra Leone were ill equipped to fight international criminal networks that have access to hundreds of millions of dollars. "Our police systems here are very weak," he said, calling on European countries to support West African agencies on the front lines in the battle against cocaine trafficking. "It's a global menace, therefore it deserves a global response."

At the Ecowas conference in Cape Verde, member states will make the same argument. Ministers will sign off on a political declaration and a plan of action to fight cocaine trafficking in the region, Mr Mazzitelli said. The plan will include initiatives aimed at reforming the security and justice systems, which are notoriously corrupt in many countries in the region. It will propose measures to fight money laundering and build up the capacity of police to collect data on the drug trade. The plan will also put a dollar figure on such initiatives, and it will set benchmarks and a timeline to accomplish certain goals.

Governments are now building anti-drug strategies into their budgets to prove to donors that they are serious about taking on the drug dealers, Mr Mazzitelli said. Countries must "take ownership" of the problem before asking for money from international donors, he said. "These are the new rules of the game." jferrie@thenational.ae