West Africa could soon change from a transit point for trafficking illegal drugs into a centre for manufacturing them, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said.
In a speech to the UN Security Council during a meeting on Guinea-Bissau, UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa told the 15-nation panel that drug seizures across West Africa have declined significantly over the last 18 months.
But Costa said Interpol and the Vienna-based UNODC have been investigating several sites in West Africa since July where they discovered “large amounts” of chemicals used to make cocaine and ecstasy.
“West Africa is now on the verge of becoming a source of drugs, not only a transit area,” he warned the council. “Organized crime is growing indigenous roots.”
European demand for cocaine remains strong, Costa said, and international efforts to stamp out trafficking could have pushed operations further south or inland.
“These developments have not taken place right in Guinea-Bissau but just beyond its borders,” he said. “Yet, something similar is likely to happen in Bissau where drug traffickers have acquired vast swathes of land.”
He added that the country “is very vulnerable because of its poor judicial system, uncontrolled sea and air space and open land borders.”
However, he predicted that reform of Guinea-Bissau’s criminal justice system would eventually bear fruit.
“The impunity of drug traffickers a fact of life in Guinea-Bissau until recently will soon come to an end,” Costa said.
The Security Council issued a statement saying that the situation in Guinea-Bissau is “extremely fragile, in particular as a result of the increased drug trafficking and organized crime that could pose a threat to regional stability.”
Costa said the threat posed by the narcotics economy “has not diminished.” He was especially concerned about reports of drug smuggling via privately owned islands in the Bissau archipelago.
“The government needs better assistance to gain control over the islands which provide a safe haven for light aircraft and fast boats,” Costa said.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special envoy to Guinea-Bissau, Joseph Mutaboba, told the council the country needs financial support from international donors to help address its development and fiscal needs and to reform its security sector.
Guinea-Bissau is one of the world’s poorest nations, ranking 175th out of 177 in the United Nations’ Human Development Index. Plagued by instability and with a legal economy that is dominated by cashew nuts, it has struggled to attract investors.
The Bissau military has been at the root of the country’s instability for decades, meddling in politics and fuelling a series of coups, mutinies and assassinations.