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West Africa drug trade:
New transit hub for cocaine trafficking fuels corruption, threatens security

The Guatemalan Congress votes in favour of a legal reform proposed by the International Commission Against Impunity. The Commission has proposed reforms including changes to the law on immunity and to laws on criminal procedures and organized crime. 2008. Photo/CICIG
Guinea Bissau. Drug-trafficking is having a destabilizing impact
on security and development in West Africa.
2007. UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)

International drug networks have long relied on distribution centres in Latin America to smuggle cocaine out to the rest of the world. But a less publicized, highly lucrative cocaine trade has been quietly making its way to West Africa, turning the region into a key transit hub for drug shipments en route to Europe. Operating largely with impunity, this booming cocaine trade is breeding corruption and threatening security across the region.

The Story

Drawn to West Africa’s porous borders and weak state and security institutions, drug traffickers have created new distribution routes, resulting in an influx of cocaine into the region. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), sounding the first alarm on the crisis, has warned an exploding cocaine trade in West Africa is perverting weak economies and corrupting broad sectors of the population – from youth to police, military officers, and senior government officials. The lure of lucrative cocaine profits is posing a grave threat to security and public health in an impoverished region that until now has never faced a serious drug problem.

Today cocaine is being smuggled through every country in the region, according to a UNODC report released in October 2008. The report revealed at least 50 tons of cocaine from Latin America are entering West Africa every year, en route to Europe where the drug sells for almost US$ 2 billion on the streets. The corrupting influence of such profits – which exceed the national budgets of most West African countries – is threatening to create Africa’s first “narco-states,” where corruption infiltrates the highest levels of government and the economy depends largely on drug profits.

“The threat is spreading rapidly throughout the region, turning West Africa’s Gold Coast into the Coke Coast,” warns Antonio Maria Costa, UNODC’s Executive Director. “This is more than a drug problem – it is a threat to public health and security.”

Among the most gravely affected countries is Guinea-Bissau, one of the world’s poorest nations where the cocaine trade is swamping a tiny export economy. In 2006, Guinea-Bissau’s gross domestic product (GDP) of US$ 304 million equalled the wholesale value of six tons of cocaine in Europe. Prized by drug traffickers for its unguarded coastline, Guinea-Bissau is saddled with high-level corruption and a near-total absence of the rule of law, allowing cocaine gangs to operate with impunity.

Most of the cocaine is entering Africa through Guinea-Bissau and Ghana and is then smuggled to Europe by boat or commercial flights destined for France, the United Kingdom and Spain, the main entry point of cocaine into Europe, according to seizure data. Upon arrival, the cocaine is distributed predominantly by West African criminal networks throughout Europe.

The UN is spearheading efforts to strengthen crime information networks among countries of origin, transit and destination, and improve communications among West African airports to combat drug trafficking. UNODC is working closely with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has adopted a regional plan to take aggressive action against cocaine trafficking.

Cocaine seizures in the region have doubled every year for the past three years, from 1,323 kilos in 2005 to 6,548 kilos in 2007, according to UNODC.  But seizures are beginning to drop as a result of disruptions in the supply route achieved by UN, national and regional efforts. The UN has appealed for continued international assistance to bolster police forces and provide the expertise and equipment to fight criminal networks, prevent money laundering and bring drug traffickers to justice.


The Context



United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC):
Mr. Flemming Quist, Senior Law Enforcement Adviser
UNODC Regional Office for West and Central Africa, Dakar, Senegal



United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)

UNODC’s World Drug Report 2008

Article: “West Africa under attack”

Article: “Organized Crime Plundering West Africa, Says UNODC Report”

United Nations Office for West Africa (UNOWA)

UN News Centre