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2 FEBRUARY 2013 LMDLeMonde diplomatique


Cocaine politics West Africa’s perfect global positioning between South America and Europe, and its endemic corruption, poverty and disorganisation, have made it the new drug hub. And drugs money is used to fund politics

ABoeing 727 from Venezuela carrying an estimated five to nine tonnes of cocaine landed at Tarkint, near the city of Gao in northeast Mali, in November 2009. It unloaded and made a failed take-off attempt, and then was set alight. The drugs were never recovered. An investigation revealed that a Lebanese family and a Mauritanian businessman who had made a fortune from Angolan diamonds were among the backers of the enterprise.

How could such a large plane carrying so much cocaine freely enter a region that, although desert, was neither uninhabited nor ungoverned? A French specialist who wishes to be anonymous claims that a government minister and highly placed people in the army and intelligence services with connections to the former president, Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), were involved, as were some members of parliament from the north of the country.

The source said: “It’s a sensitive subject. It goes to the heart of power. When ATT’s regime collapsed, high-ranking officers in the Malian army and intelligence who had links with the drugs trade found themselves totally delegitimised. That’s one reason why the enlisted men and the junior officers took part in the March 2012 coup. The higher ranks had a collection of cars that the entire military budget couldn’t have bought. Drug trafficking brought major benefits: it helped with elections and real estate deals were financed through money laundering operations… Many politicians came to arrangements with the traffickers. If an over-eager soldier stopped a convoy, he’d get a call from someone higher up telling him to let it through. It happened on the border with Guinea in the time of Ousmane Conté, the Guinean president’s son, who was arrested for drug trafficking. ATT turned a blind eye to it. He let things slide. The Malian regime was one of the most corrupt in West Africa.”

Simon Julien (1), a French specialist on the Sahel, has described the situation of competition in northern Mali before 2012, where some had access to drug money and others didn’t. The regime attempted to quell Tuareg rebellions by giving generous funding

Anne Frintz is a journalist based in Dakar, Senegal


from drug money to groups opposed to the Tuaregs of the N’Fughas mountains. This backfired. The resultant influx of arms from Libya and of Islamist fighters accelerated the partition of Mali. The part that drug money has played in the destabilisation of the whole subregion should not be underestimated.

In the Nigerian capital, Lagos, the first illegal lab for producing amphetamines and methamphetamine was dismantled in June 2011. In Cape Verde in October 2011, 1.5 tonnes of cocaine were seized on a beach on the island of Santiago. In June 2010, two tonnes of white powder were found in a prawn-fishing storage facility in Gambia. And in April 2011 in Cotonou, 202kg of heroine were found in a shipping container from Pakistan apparently bound for Nigeria. Cannabis, the only locally produced illegal drug, remains the most common, but it is for local consumption only. Synthetic drugs – cocaine and heroine – are for Europe, Japan or China.

Since 2004, West Africa has become a major hub for cocaine trafficking, storage and distribution. It caters for between 12% and 25% of European demand: 21 tonnes out of 129 in 2009, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The region offers international drug traffickers a range of competitive advantages: its strategic position  between producer and consumer countries; cheap logistics and labour; slack controls and weak law-enforcement; endemic and low-cost corruption; a general climate of impunity.

Midway between SouthAmerica and Europe, this new staging post receives products from the world’s top cocaine producers, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. It supplies Europe, the second-biggest cocaine market in the world, with a value estimated at $33bn in 2012 (just $4bn less than North America). Cocaine is the second most commonly used drug in Europe after cannabis, with over four million users in 2008, under 1% of the population.

This lucrative trade is considered by international organisations such as the UNODC and the International Narcotics Control Board as a major factor in West Africa’s instability. The economic crisis, and the policies imposed by the IMF and the World Bank, have eroded the legitimacy of most states in the region. Everything had its price even before the arrival of cocaine; but international criminals handling huge sums of money have made matters worse.

“Transnational organised criminals take a commercial approach: they look for the lowrisk, high-return option. Traffickers are after the best routes – where corruption, combined with their tactics, which range from death threats to murder, will give them freedom of movement,” says Pierre Lapaque, UNODC director in West Africa. The cocaine trade is comparable in value to oil or arms trafficking; it’s extremely profitable. In 2012 the UNODC in Dakar (Senegal) calculated that the sale of around 30 tonnes of cocaine generated $1.2bn profit, more than $500m of which was laundered and spent locally. By comparison, last year Guinea-Bissau (a major transit point for drugs) had a budget of just $237m.

The division in Mali hasn’t made the trade easier. ‘A weak state presents an opportunity for traffickers, but a completely disorganised territory is dangerous’

Cocaine is a high value-added product: it sells for $2,700-4,000 per kilo in its production zones, over $13,000 on the Atlantic coast, $16,000 in the capitals of the Sahel, $24,000-27,000 in the cities of North Africa, and between $40,000 and $60,000 in Europe, according to the anonymous expert quoted above. These are wholesale prices for a product whose purity diminishes along the supply chain.

For West African police, customs officers and judges, the battle against trafficking is almost impossible: the gulf between their resources and the traffickers’ is vast. The police in Guinea-Bissau sometimes cannot put petrol in their patrol vehicles. That crushes even the most enthusiastic determination, and criminals exploit ethnic and cultural networks, strong diasporas (of Nigerians, for example), language communities and other interests. Most often, a small group of individuals come together for a couple of “jobs”, then separate, link up again – or kill each other.

The networks of drug routes are as many and shifting as the exporters, importers, intermediaries, forwarding agents and helpers. All itineraries and all modes of operation are valid: they juxtapose and join up for greater  effectiveness and profit. It’s a chain. From South America to Africa and on to Europe, a single package of cocaine may travel by plane, car and ship. As sea transport is the most common form in the world, the transAtlantic cocaine trade makes considerable use of it. But “in the last two or three years, more and more twin-engine planes have been landing in West Africa on abandoned airstrips, or making low-altitude drops,” Lapaque says. “The loads are then picked up by teams on the ground. Trafficking by sea and using ‘mules’ hasn’t stopped. Between 2006 and 2008, fishing boats were more common. Now it’s containers.”

The shortest route from South America to Africa follows the 10th parallel of latitude; it’s used every day by thousands of freighters, fishing boats, sailing boats and cruise ships. European and US law enforcement have made large drugs seizures on “Highway 10”. Containers with cocaine concealed inside are mainly brought ashore in the international ports of Lagos or Lomé (Togo). Fishing boats offload their illegal cargo on to other smaller boats along quiet stretches of coastline, in mangrove swamps or inlets on West Africa’s Atlantic coast.

Nigerian traffickers favour mules, who carry the drugs in small packets or capsules of powder in their luggage, clothes or wigs – or in their stomachs. Their point of entry is usually an international airport, such as Dakar or the Malian capital, Bamako, not always by scheduled flight. Cocaine changes its hiding place and form in the course of its journey: it may be pure or cut, in bars, in demijohns, powdered or liquid, in a sports bag or hidden inside frozen fish. The powder that arrives

The Mali intervention Continued from page 1

men in the Afghan theatre of war for a decade without giving them any achievable objective does not diminish the need for stabilisation or “interposition” operations.

The lesson of Afghanistan is not that ground troops should never be committed, as Hollande over-hastily concluded, but that any configuration is possible, as long as it observes four cardinal rules: First, autonomy in the evaluation of threats – the true definition of “terrorism” is to be found neither in PowerPoint slideshows at the Pentagon, nor in the novels of Bernard-Henri Lévy (though we can learn much about the Saheli “terrorists” from books on history and sociology). Second, legitimacy – stabilising a country does not mean imposing a supervisory presence indefinitely, thus risking undermining the government in the eyes of its neighbours and of its own people. Third, operational efficiency – the duration of any frontline military operation (which must have extensive resources at its disposal), should be limited, once the tactical and operational objectives have been achieved, so that local and regional political balances may recover and national armed forces can be built up. Finally, freedom of political action – an exit strategy must be planned and defined before the start of the operation and the assistance of allies is indispensable, provided they are willing collaborators and convinced of their interest in the area.

Does Mali meet these criteria? In terms of legitimacy, unlike the unjustified war in Afghanistan, France’s involvement in maintaining the stability of Africa is based on solid arguments, those of linguistic, cultural and geographical closeness (3). It would be a mistake to lump together the misguided ways of “Françafrique” and the conclusion of useful military agreements with African countries, provided that their sovereignty is

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Printed in the United Kingdom truly respected, and that there is also a lesser degree of economic dependence. France’s 2008 White Paper on defence and national security, by neglecting Africa, for a time, in favour of establishing a base in the Gulf, to keep a check on Iran, disregarded the principle of geo-subsidiarity – that the main stabilisation or interposition efforts of a “power” should ideally focus on areas that are logically of interest to it: China, India and Russia have a greater long-term interest in Afghanistan than France does, but China and the US cannot teach France anything about the subtleties of western Africa, in spite of the rapid growth in the number of “instructors” they are sending to the area.

From a geographer’s viewpoint, co-presence leads to coalescence: the definition works for strategy too. France’s military assistance policy in Africa, for example the Epervier task force in Chad, is revealing (4). The Reinforcement of African Peace-keeping Capacities (Recamp) concept is even more so; set up in 1997, it was considered a success and was transposed to European level in 2004 (Eurocamp, in partnership with the African Union). France continues to apply Recamp with a number of African countries that favour the idea. These

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