Sunday, April 11, 2010

I finally read James Traub's excellent piece on emerging drug trade routes, "Africa's Drug Problem."  Traub highlights the case of Guinea-Bissau, a small West African state that has become a regional hub for narcotics smuggled from South America into Europe.  The sheer volume being transported is staggering:

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that 40 tons of cocaine, with a street value of $1.8 billion, crossed West Africa on the way to Europe in 2006. The number has now dropped significantly, but many law-enforcement officials view this as a pause before further adaptation. 
Three key issues emerge from this piece.

This first is the maladaptive role governments play in this trade.  In Guinea-Bissau, the state, depending on your level of cynicism, is either impotent to stop drug traffickers or is entirely complicit and enmeshed in illegal activities.  Traub presents strong, although anecdotal, evidence of the latter:
Then, Djata says: “We got a call from the prime minister’s office saying that we must yield up the drugs to the civil authorities. They said the drugs would not be secure in police headquarters, and they must be taken to the public treasury.” A squad of heavily armed Interior Ministry police surrounded the building. Djata said his boss replied, “We will bring the drugs ourselves, and then we will burn them.” Government officials refused. Djata and his men relented, and the drugs were taken to the public treasury. And soon, of course, they disappeared — as did the Colombians. 
In either case, the mismanagement of resources by governments has either created additional incentive for public officials to illegal enrich themselves or has deprived the state of the necessary capabilities to intercept well-financed drug traffickers.  The heart of the matter is the prevalence, and acceptance, of corruption.

Secondly, the insatiable global demand for illegal narcotics provides a powerful financial incentive to criminal gangs. 
Anti-drug efforts, most notably the U.S. "War on Drugs" initiated under President Reagan, have done little to stop the demand growth for drugs.  Targeting traffickers has only increased the price, and therefore the financial incentive, and forced criminals to adapt their strategies.  Instead of sailing narcotics into Miami, as was once the norm, traffickers now use other methods.  Smuggling through Mexico has led to instability, and, as Traub shows, using Africa as a way-point to Europe is on the rise.

Finally, one important issue Traub alludes to only briefly is the growing nexus between crime and terrorism.  Thomas Sanderson wrote an eerily prescient piece several years ago examining the relationship between the two, and as Traub describes:
In November, an old Boeing 727, which had taken off in Colombia, crossed West African airspace and touched down on an airstrip controlled by terrorist groups in the desert of Mali. The plane was almost certainly carrying cocaine and perhaps guns as well; no one knows, since the cargo was unloaded before the plane was burned. Late last year, in a separate case, federal prosecutors in New York indicted three Malian men who they say had promised to transport drugs across the desert in league with Al Qaeda, which would serve as the security arm of the operation; officials said one of the men is caught on tape claiming that he regularly supplied extremist forces with gasoline and food. 
While no surprise that extremists and drug traffickers occasionally cooperate when their interests align, it is a troubling phenomenon that warrants further investigation and action.  Separating the two and combating extremists and drug traffickers separately would be beneficial, and stripping away financial and material support given to extremists terrorists is of utmost priority.


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