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Transnational Organized Crime and Public Health in West Africa

In July 2012 the New York Times reported that the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is expanding its war on drugs to various countries in the regions of East and West Africa. This escalation involves the US sponsored training of elite counternarcotic police units in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya—countries that have evolved into central hubs for the transnational trafficking of cocaine, heroine and people.  Additionally, the annual American counternarcotic assistance for West Africa has soared from $7.5 million in 2009 to $50 million in the most recent fiscal year. 

Such initiatives demonstrate the importance the US Government and the United Nations attribute to Africa as a staging point and transshipment center for illicit trafficking, money laundering and the funding of terrorist organizations across the globe. Yet such efforts may prove to be too little too late if the West wishes to enact a meaningful intervention in a part of the world that is perhaps the most fertile ground for transnational organized crime and radical terrorist organizations. 

The attention now being directed toward Africa by drug enforcement officials is due to overwhelming evidence that South American drug cartels are utilizing West African contacts, territory and smugglers to move large shipments of cocaine to Europe.  In July 2010, DEA officials uncovered an operation that aimed to ship nearly 2,500 kilos of cocaine by plane and boat from Venezuela to Liberia, with the final destination being mainland Europe.  Similarly, in October 2011 a shipment of 1500 tons of pure cocaine (worth an estimated USD 100 million) was seized by police in Cape Verde, an island nation off the coast of West Africa. 

Such drug interdictions are evidence that there has been a shift in the target drug market from the United States to Europe and Russia. This shift is taking place due to the saturation of the North American Market, the volatility of Mexican drug gangs, and the effective interdiction policies along the traditional Caribbean and Central American smuggling routes. 

Furthermore, the European and Russian markets for drugs have been rapidly expanding and the use of the Euro allows dealers, pushers and smugglers to move money in 500 Euro currency notes, far lighter and more valuable then US Hundred dollar bills.  Such a dynamic change in the geography of the market puts West Africa and its weakened states in a key position for illicit trafficking.  As scholar Stephen Ellis puts it: 'Not only is West Africa conveniently situated for trade between South America and Europe, but above all it has a political and social environment that is generally suitable for the drug trade'.

The political and social environment that Ellis references often involves long-established smuggling routes complimented by tribal affiliations and social acceptance, inefficient law enforcement, and politicians who are easily bribed or who are themselves drug profiteers.  These characteristics can be symptomatic of a criminalized state, or a sovereign state whose leadership integrates a criminal enterprise into its stately functions and facilities.  It is such states that are most threatening to North America and Europe, as criminalized states serve as bases for the integration of drug smuggling, money laundering, the funding of terrorism and other criminal activity. For instance, in the 1990’s Osama bin Laden used the criminalized States of Sudan and Afghanistan to take refuge and conduct the operational business of al Qaeda preceding the attacks of September 11, 2001.   Today, the most dominant faction of al Qaeda in Africa is Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)AQIM is known to provide protection for drugs being smuggled from West Africa through North Africa to mainland Europe at USD 2,000 per kilo. Indeed, it is the opinion of many experts that the current takeover of Northern Mali by militant factions of AQIM are not only motivated by religious extremism but by controlling the valuable unpoliced Malian territory between coastal West Africa and Algeria, where many illicit goods make their way across the Mediterranean to Europe.

The influx of illicit trafficking and transnational organized crime in West Africa is having devastating effects on the future of the region as well.  As award-winning journalist and scholar Douglas Farah reports on West Africa, “drug traffickers… pay in both cash and product.”  The payment in product (drugs) to gangs and smugglers in West Africa, as well as the use of the territory as a storage, packaging and transshipment center, results in a spillover of narcotics in the region that has created a soaring rate of drug consumption and addiction in West African nations.  In fact, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that West Africa consumes about one third of all drugs that utilize the area as a transit point. This is particularly troubling when one considers the cross-continental smuggling from East Africa, where an increasing amount of Afghan heroin imported from Pakistan is used intravenously among African populations along smuggling routes.  Intravenous drug use puts African populations, already suffering from the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the world, at further risk of spreading disease due to the sharing of needles and the increased likelihood of unprotected sex among users. 

Several steps must be taken to prevent West Africa from becoming a playground for transnational organized crime and terrorist organizations and, moreover, to improve the public health ramifications for people living in the region.  Firstly, the international community (Europe and Russia especially) must commit to joining the United States in its allocation of resources to fight smuggling in the area.  This involves investigative and intelligence efforts that move past simply following the drugs and into the realm of following the money and the associations of players within the region and without.  Secondly, in depth studies must be funded that aim to understand the new decentralized form of organized crime in West Africa, organized crime which relies on tribal affiliations, familial and political connections, religious intimidation, and often exploits the type of poverty not known in the Western World.  Studies must also be funded which analyze the intricacies of a criminalized state and the effects a criminalized state can have on the public health of a population.  Additionally, public health outreach programs must intervene in affected areas with the aim of educating users on HIV/AIDS and safe drug use.  Lastly, the vast resources of the Western, industrialized world must quicken in the shift away from conventional warfare in localized areas and move toward a more global, human intelligence-based method of combatting the intricacies of transnational organized crime and its growing link to terrorism around the world.