Drug Planes Link South America to West Africa

By Dialogo
January 01, 2010



Twisted and charred debris from a burnt-out Boeing 727 was found scattered in
the Sahara Desert about 200 km north of Gao in Mali on Dec. 10. The U.N. Office on
Drugs and Crime, or UNODC, said the plane transported cocaine from Venezuela and
landed on a makeshift airstrip in the West African country. Local officials said the
cargo was unloaded and the plane crashed during takeoff, the Reuters news agency
reported.
A growing number of drug planes have been flying to West Africa from South
America, said a 2008 U.S. Department of Homeland Security report obtained by
Reuters. Factions of al-Qaida are believed to be facilitating the West African drug
trade, the report said.
At least 10 aircraft have been discovered in the West African desert from
2006 through 2009. Alexandre Schmidt, regional representative for West and Central
Africa for the UNODC, said the drug aviation network expanded during 2009 and now
likely includes several Boeing 727 aircraft, Reuters reported. The drug pilots fly
across the ocean with minimal fear of interdiction because there is no long-range
radar covering the Atlantic. They also use false certificates and registration
documents, Reuters reported.
The drug pilots fly across the ocean with minimal fear of interdiction
because there is no long-range radar covering the Atlantic. They also use false
certificates and registration documents, Reuters reported. They land in abandoned
landing strips and makeshift runways in Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau and
other West African states, which are an established refuge for al-Qaida in the
Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.
“I don’t know if you can find any evidence proving a link between al-Qaida
and the drug traffickers, unless you are CIA. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist
to see why they would want to work together. To do terrorism, you need money, and
what are you going to do in the deserts of Mali to make money. You take money where
it is. You work with the drug traffickers,” Rinaldo Depagne, a West Africa expert at
the International Crisis Group in Dakar, Senegal, told The Christian Science
Monitor.
In December 2009, suspected AQIM associates Oumar Issa, Harouna Touré and
Idriss Abelrahman were arrested in Ghana and extradited to the United States. Each
was charged in New York City with narcoterrorism conspiracy and conspiring to
provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, The Washington Times
reported. Michele Leonhart, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, or
DEA, called the case “further proof of the direct link between dangerous terrorist
organizations, including al-Qaida, and international drug traffickers.”
During the undercover sting that produced the arrests, a paid DEA informant
posed as a representative of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC,
and requested help smuggling a large amount of cocaine from West Africa to Spain.
Touré, who described himself as the leader of a criminal organization that worked
with al-Qaida affiliates in Africa, offered AQIM’s protection for the supposed
cocaine shipment, a DEA statement said.
While tons of drugs are being flown from South America to West Africa, U.S.
authorities are worried about the return trips. “It’s reckless to assume that
nothing is coming back,” the Department of Homeland Security report stated. “With
terrorist organizations on either side of this pipeline, it should be a priority to
find out what is coming back on those airplanes.”
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