Breaking Cocaine Networks

Breaking Cocaine Networks

By Dialogo
July 01, 2012

Months of surveillance came to fruition on the night of October 8, 2011, when
50 Cape Verdean elite judicial police members raided a garage in the densely
populated Achada de Santo António neighborhood of the capital. The stash of cocaine
they found was the largest in the history of the island nation and the biggest in
all of West Africa that year: 1.5 tons of Colombian cocaine, $1 million in assets
including cash and high-end vehicles, firearms, and nautical and telecommunications
equipment to traffic drugs from South America to Europe.
The Cape Verdean police had been working closely with Dutch forensic
scientists on the operation, including monitoring a secret handoff of the drugs on
Santiago Island days prior. Just 500 miles off the coast of Africa, and at the
crossroads of three continents, Cape Verde had been a choice transit area for
cocaine traffickers for two decades. Now, the archipelago is an example of the
potential success of cooperation between military and security services in Europe,
Latin America and West Africa. The Cape Verdean Government in recent years has
signed multilateral agreements with Guinea-Bissau, Spain, Senegal, Portugal and
others. Security forces conduct training to better detect and seize drug shipments.
Laws were strengthened and judicial reforms were implemented to close more cases.

“We wagered that training law enforcement agents such as police, military,
magistrates, judges and prosecutors, training them with respect to organized crime,
money laundering and drug trafficking would promote an improvement in interdiction
capacity,” said Júlio Martins, the attorney general of Cape Verde. Diálogo spoke to
Martins as part of several interviews conducted with West African, European and
Latin American security personnel who participated in a February 2012 workshop on
countering narcotics and the illicit commons held in Washington, D.C. “This
permitted Cape Verde to have a qualitative leap in the battle against drug
trafficking in the region and practically dislocated the traffic from Cape Verde.”
Traffickers using West Africa have had to identify other entry points in the
subregion, ranging from tiny uninhabited islands to ungoverned swaths of the Sahel,
for moving an estimated 30 to 100 tons of South American cocaine worth $3 billion to
$14 billion to Europe.
Like Cape Verde, Ghana, Mauritania, Mali, Senegal and other countries in the
region are increasing their cooperation, information sharing and training, and
strengthening their ties to source countries in South America and destination
countries in Europe. With the rise of drug trafficking in the region, crime and
violence have also spiked, with corrupting effects on local government and security
forces. Drug use by West Africans has also risen. The leaders of counternarcotics
organizations across the region have started to enhance South-South cooperation as a
means of sharing best practices and learning from past experiences. “The essence is
to disrupt the flow,” said Yaw Akrasi-Sarpong, acting executive secretary of the
Narcotics Control Board in Accra, Ghana. “So, if we get information from the source
and we are a transit country, it goes a long way [helping us to] intercept it.”

West Africa became a choice trafficking route to Europe after the fall of the
Berlin Wall in the ’90s, according to Laurence Aida Ammour, a consultant in
international security and defense at GéopoliSudconsultance in France. Vast
ungoverned spaces, poor regional coordination and little to no aerial and maritime
radar surveillance provided ease of access. Weak laws and law enforcement meant
getting caught was unlikely, and getting prosecuted less so. Soon, Colombian and
Peruvian drug cartels were setting up shop in Guinea-Bissau. Sometimes these
alliances “of convenience,” Ammour said, are between cocaine traffickers and the
terrorist group al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or the Tuareg rebels, who are
wreaking havoc in northern Mali, strengthening both with cocaine profits.
General Amadou Sagafourou Gueye of Mali noted that arms pilfered during the
struggle for independence in Libya are now being used to protect drug traffickers
and their routes. Colonel António Pinheiro, a professor at the National Defense
Institute in Portugal and expert on African security, explained that drug
traffickers flourish in geopolitical voids and ungoverned spaces, whether land, sea
or air. The biggest challenge, Col. Pinheiro said, is a lack of political
willingness and understanding of how serious the threat is.

Building Networks

When the burned-out carcass of a Boeing 727 was discovered in the Sahara
desert of Mali in 2009, it was not the result of transcontinental security
cooperation. It was a chance discovery, as were 10 others. The United Nations Office
on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says “fleets of large cargo planes” are flying to West
Africa full of cocaine much the same way, with no radar detection and no
communication from the source countries – until now.
AIRCOP, a UNODC, World Customs Organization and Interpol effort launched in
late 2011, is aimed at establishing effective communication exchange between police
and airports in Brazil and seven West African countries. The nations will maintain
round-the-clock units to reduce illicit flows by reinforcing subregional, regional
and international capacities through the initiative, with $32 million in funding
from the European Union and Canada.
West African–European partnerships are also starting to bear fruit in terms
of maritime operations. Communications have flowed through Interpol at the Maritime
Analysis Operations Centre, a multinational maritime security center based in
Lisbon. “The key to solve the problem is intel sharing,” Col. Pinheiro said,
speaking to Diálogo at the workshop held at the Center for Hemispheric Defense
Studies (CHDS) in Washington, D.C.

Speaking in advance of a meeting of the Heads of National Law Enforcement
Agencies in Accra in June 2012, Akrasi-Sarpong discussed Ghana’s commitment to
enhancing the region’s law enforcement capacity to counter drug trafficking. “We are
committed. We have regular meetings. Best practices are shared at those places, but
it’s about sharing of information, it’s about training each other,” he said, adding
that Ghana has conducted training with Benin, Equatorial Guinea, The Gambia, Côte
d’Ivoire and Togo.
Sources: The Africa Center for Strategic Studies, International Narcotics
Control Board, Reuters, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime,,,