West African nations should do more to vet investors from Latin America, especially Colombia, to curb an influx of drug dealers posing as legitimate businessmen, a top British law enforcement officer said.
Over the last five years, Latin American cocaine-smuggling cartels have turned the unstable region into a transit point for about 40% of the 200-300 tonnes of cocaine destined for Europe each year, Neil Giles, deputy director of Britain’s Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), estimated.
“There is lots of evidence of groups of Colombians arriving in countries in West Africa, with money, setting up small businesses,” Giles said in an interview last week.
“But beware of Latin Americans bearing gifts is the message I am selling here,” he said after a trip round the region.
“I know Africa is keen to have inward investment, and I understand that, but I would just encourage them to see what value they have derived from that investment over the last decade.”
Giles said thousands of Latin Americans had come to the region, some of whom are using hotels and nightclubs as bases for operations such as overseeing the transit of jets packed full of cocaine.
The drug is worth some $25 000 per kg in Africa but fetches around $73 000 per kg once in Europe, he said.
“Experience has shown us that wherever flights arrive, we tend to discover there is a Latin American community,” he said.
“I wouldn’t seek to tar all Colombian or Latin American investment in West Africa.
I’m just saying you need to ask more questions,” he added.
In the past three years, Latin Americans have been linked to a series of cocaine seizures, all in excess of 600 kg, made in Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone and Mauritania.
International narcotics investigators say fishing lodges in Guinea Bissau have in the past provided a cover for the trade, which is seen benefiting from high-level protection in the tiny coup-prone state. The United States has named two of the country’s senior military officers as drug dealers.
Constantly plotting, ahead
Giles said that drug flights are running again after a pause of a year after several anti-drugs operations in 2008, though arrivals are more sporadic and not near 2007 levels, when one or two jets packed with cocaine would land in Africa every week.
A discovery in November of a burned-out jet in the Malian desert, which investigators think could have ferried some four tonnes of cocaine, has fuelled speculation that the drug is now plying ancient trans-Saharan smuggling routes too.
Some fear a spike in cocaine smuggling in the desert could help swell the coffers of al Qaeda-linked groups there.
Though Giles doubted the November incident was the only flight, he said most drugs appear to be sent on other routes, hidden in legitimate trade, such as timber or food exports.
European, US and United Nations drug experts are trying to boost collaboration within the region, where the threat ranges from political instability to a rise in local consumption.
Giles said more work should be done on the threat cartels pose to the states. “I don’t think anybody has done the work to understand how undermining of good governance this stuff is.”