Two British high-school girls now face three years in a juvenile detention center in the West African country of Ghana after being convicted Wednesday of trying to smuggle more than $600,000 of cocaine to England.
The conviction highlights what observers say is a troubling trend for West Africa, as the region becomes a key staging post for illegal drugs heading to Europe from South America.
While cocaine use has leveled off in the United States in recent years, Europe is in the throes of a boom comparable to the one that hit America in the 1980s: According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) there are 4 million users in Europe, triple the number a decade ago. A crackdown on the transatlantic cocaine trafficking route from South America via the Caribbean has led the drug cartels to West Africa, where they take advantage of weak law enforcement and rampant corruption.
"Africa is under attack ... [and facing] a crisis of epic proportions, by and large fueled by Europe's cocaine users," said UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa at a conference in Madrid last week. "A sniff here and a sniff there in Europe is causing another disaster in Africa, to add to its poverty, its mass unemployment, and its pandemics."
The global police body Interpol estimates that as much as two-thirds of all cocaine headed for Europe is now shipped there via West Africa.
In its annual report on the global drugs trade the UNODC calls the shipment of cocaine via West Africa "the main new trend over the last two to three years."
The British girls were arrested in July by officers of Operation Westbridge, a joint British and Ghanaian initiative launched last fall to stanch the flow of cocaine through West Africa. Since then, customs officials at Ghana's international airport have seized more than 180 kilograms (396 pounds) of cocaine.
But Ghana is just one of 16 coastal West African countries in varying states of disarray and poverty. UN figures released last month show that 2007 is going to be a banner year for cocaine trafficking through West Africa: already 5.7 tons of cocaine worth half a billion dollars has been seized – double last year's haul.
It can take as little as three days to ship two tons of cocaine from South America to West Africa on fast boats, according to a special report on West Africa published last month by UNODC.
The illicit cargo is often carried out to sea on Latin American-registered ships where, far from prying eyes in the mid-Atlantic, it is transferred to West African-registered ships which continue the journey to African ports.
Increasingly, the wealthy cartels are simply flying their shipments directly into secluded West African airstrips, says Antonio Mazitelli, the West and Central Africa representative for UNODC. From there a plethora of "drug mules" – small boats or light aircraft are used to get the drugs into Europe – often via Morocco's old and well-trodden hashish route across the Strait of Gibraltar and into Spain.
The cartels are interested in West Africa because the weak governance and oversight make it far less risky to traffic illegal drugs, says Mr. Mazitelli. "West Africa has important advantages in terms of risk reduction [for drug traders], both the economic risk of seizure and the criminal risk of prosecution," he says. "There is permeability of judicial systems and corruptability of institutions in West Africa."
Ghana has become a key drug-trade hub within West Africa because cartels find it more livable and stable than many of the other countries in the region.
"If you're shipping two tons of class-A drugs you want someone at the staging post so part of the reason the Venezuelan and Colombian drug traffickers come here is because it is a nice stable place," says Gary Nicholls, spokesman at the British High Commission in Ghana's capital, Accra.
Immigration figures show that hundreds of Colombians and Venezuelans enter Ghana each year. Two Venezuelans were sentenced to 70 years in a Ghanaian jail last week for smuggling nearly 600 kilograms of cocaine found in a leafy Accra suburb in 2005.