Cocaine trade is airbound — and a danger to U.S.

January 14, 2010

– Douglas Farah is senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center. The opinions expressed are his own. –

The rapid growth of aerial shipments of cocaine from South America to West Africa then onward to Europe poses significant dangers both to the United States and Europe. The trend shows how easily and quickly drug trafficking organizations, now truly transcontinental, can morph to stay ahead of the law, particularly in regions where the states are failing.

Most of the cocaine shipments originate with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-FARC), a one-time Marxist insurgency that is now a criminal enterprise, sustaining itself through kidnappings, extortion and drug trafficking. The FARC, which has been designated a terrorist entity by the United States and European Union, derives most of the economic benefit from the trade, allowing it to continue its 46-year-old war against the Colombian state and its alliance with Mexican drug cartels that threaten Mexico and the United States.

West Africa is an ideal, low-risk destination because drug trafficking is like water running down hill, almost always taking the path of least resistance. Enforcement is increasing and demand slowly decreasing in the United States, while there is little enforcement and rapidly rising consumption in Central Europe and the former Soviet republics.

The fragile and failing states of West Africa such as Liberia and Sierra Leone, just emerging from years of brutal conflict, are no match for the cocaine invasion. There is virtually no radar coverage in the entire region, meaning aircraft can fly in and out undetected.  There are few checks on the aircraft that do land, and customs regulations tend to be elastic. And the cartels can simply outgun the local police and military, should the need arise.

Those benefitting from moving the drugs from West Africa to North Africa and then Europe are traditional smugglers with an added new element — the presence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the region, potentially reaping enormous financial windfalls as the group moves into the protection racket. AQIM is a terrorist group that has sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden and carried out numerous terrorist attacks already in Europe, Algeria, Mali and elsewhere. The influx of cash will give the group, and other criminal organizations, the ability to buy new weapons, recruit new members and become more lethal organizations.

The United States, and Europe have been very slow to recognize the growing threat of the emerging nexus between drug trafficking and terrorist organizations. It has been the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime that has been sounding the alarm, though not many have listened. With few resources to deploy against the new threat, policy responses need to focus on three primary areas.

The first is human intelligence, to understand the networks that are evolving, the possible choke points, while keeping the criminal alliances from consolidating.

The second must be a combination of development and institution building, particularly focusing on the judicial system and rule of law to tackle corruption. Among the first elements needed are vetted police and intelligence units, particularly in a region such as West Africa, where there is little knowledge of local and regional languages, tribal structures and criminal activity. This gives U.S. and European forces a reliable partner in the local law enforcement community to work with. The courts must then be able to carry out justice.

The third element is technical assistance. West African nations are not in the 21st or even the early 20th century in radar coverage and the ability to monitor their borders. Without the basic technology in place, political will, vetted units and the rule of law are of little consequence.

If West Africa is to survive the onslaught of drugs and its parallel rivers of money and corruption, it has to force the flow elsewhere. One cannot think in terms of eradicating the flow of drugs, but one can think in terms of mitigating the effects and dispersing the impact. Otherwise, we will all pay a very high price.

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