Drug trafficking in West Africa has increased dramatically over the last two decades, with nearly a quarter of all of Europe’s cocaine being trans-shipped through the region at one point. An essential locale in this trafficking was Guinea-Bissau, often called a “narco state.” In reality, however, the trafficking stemmed from a small politico-military elite that worked in conjunction with independent entrepreneurs. The institutional entanglement implied by the term “narco-state” was not there.
The increase in public attention of heroin trafficking into Africa has prompted an increased law enforcement response by East African states, particularly Kenya. However, there is a dearth of reliable, first-hand, and quantitative data on the heroin trade. Narcotics networks are highly flexible and evolve to evade law enforcement strategies. Understanding drug networks means that law enforcement officials need to be involved in continuous intelligence gathering and analysis to respond quickly to changes in trafficking practices.
The growth of the drug trade in West Africa has been expedited by weak government and judicial systems. Counternarcotics efforts have had limited success but have not resulted in an overall decrease in operations. West African governments and stakeholders should create a strategy that addresses the structural problems that allow this industry to prosper. These include treating drug use as a public health issue, unifying state drug legislation to close loopholes, and focusing on law enforcement deterrence over military offensives.
The introduction of the cocaine trade in northern Mali in the early 2000s scrambled the region’s loose, informal power dynamics. Militias became more numerous and many state institutions were soon corrupted. This illicit economy eventually contributed to the collapse of the state in 2012 and even continued during a brief occupation by Islamist militias and a subsequent French military deployment. A comprehensive effort to build capacity as well as accountability in the Malian security services is vital to reducing the persistent instability bred by trafficking.
Large quantities of cocaine have flowed through Guinea-Bissau for nearly a decade, accelerating a cycle of coups and crises that demonstrate the broad threats posed by narco-trafficking in Africa. The direct involvement of military and political leaders in the trade has also hollowed out state structures, creating a significant obstacle to stabilizing the situation. Addressing these challenges will require fundamental reforms to the presidency, a top-heavy military, and international counter narcotics cooperation.
Africa features prominently in the global heroin trade as a transshipment point and a significant consumer market. Traffic to and through the continent is dominated by Africans, who account for 50 percent of all drug arrests in Pakistan. Sharply higher traffic through African commercial air and seaports suggest a need for more robust customs regimes and stronger investigative and judicial follow through to better understand and frustrate smuggling networks.
Africa Drug Trafficking RoutesAfrica is facing an increasingly menacing threat of cocaine trafficking that risks undermining its security structures, nascent democratic institutions, and development progress. Latin America has long faced similar challenges and its experience provides important lessons that can be applied before this expanding threat becomes more deeply entrenched on the continent – and costly to reverse.
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Security Topics: Counter Narcotics