West Africa Rising: Heroin, cocaine traffickers find more buyers at home

European consumption of South America’s cocaine doubled in the decade. Much of that trade comes through Africa, leaving a trail of domestic users.

West Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

Since Colombian cartels first docked here in the early 2000s, the tiny West African country of Guinea-Bissau was supposed to be the crossroads – just the crossroads – of Africa’s booming drug trade, a four-continent-crossing caravan of cocaine, heroin, and war weaponry.

More and more, however, this country’s cobblestone capital and the region around it constitute a thing more dreadful: a market. It has become a place to sling crack and hook users.

“We have seen a huge increase in crack addiction in West Africa,” says Regional Representative Alexandre Schmidt for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The tonnage is staggering: The UN estimates that 13 metric tons of cocaine – an $800 million snow worth as much as the entire gross domestic product of Guinea-Bissau – were inhaled in West Africa in 2009, the UN’s last year on record.

Those tons were intended, originally, for Europe. They accounted for one-third of the 35 tons thought to have been unloaded that year from the unregistered speedboats, planes, cargo ships, Boeing jetliners – and maybe even submarines – that dock, land, or bubble up onto West Africa as they carry their coke toward Europe’s nightlife.

“They are other people’s problems that have been loaded onto our backs,” says Guinea-Bissau’s Attorney General Amine Michel Saad.

The continent’s cities are larger, younger, and flush with more disposable income than ever. Increasingly, drug traffickers – who are often paid in drugs themselves – are finding way to unload their product inside the region’s overcrowded cities, according to the UN.

“It’s a huge issue for public health,” Mr. Schmidt says. “We don’t have any treatment centers here.”

Or rather, Guinea-Bissau has one: a rural clinic run by an elderly priest.

From South Africa to Europe

Kind as the past decade has been to West Africa’s businesspeople – the region includes some of the world’s faster-growing economies – it’s been even kinder to its people whose business is drugs.

European consumption of South America’s cocaine doubled in the decade, and West Africa juts outward into a particularly profitable stretch between the two.

The region, the size of the US, hides impenetrable wetlands and vast Saharan tracts, whose police often earn, in the case of Guinea-Bissau, around $100 a month. The country’s border agents don’t have uniforms, many police stations don’t have bicycles, cars, or gas, and the coast guard doesn’t have a ship.

“It’s very easy to corrupt them,” says Manuel de Almeida Pereira, a legal officer for the UNODC. “Some of these payments are being done in drugs, and these drugs are falling into the streets.”


In the past year, the UN says they’ve seen the region’s drug trade shift.

Afghanistan’s heroin has found a route through Africa’s Sahara, where it exits the continent through Guinea-Bissau before heading to the US.

“This is a very recent trend we are still studying,” Pereira said. “It’s going directly [from Bissau to the US].”

Much of that heroin is being bought locally, too. In the first six months of 2011, Schmidt says, West Africans consumed 400 kilograms of heroin, a drug that was nearly nonexistent prior.

• Instead of crossing north toward the Sahara, West Africa’s drug cartels increasingly transverse Africa, transit the product toward Somalia, and from there, Persian Gulf states, Russia, and finally Europe.

• West African barons are achieving decision-making ranks in Latin American drug cartels that use them as traffickers.

“What we are seeing in West Africa is like what we saw in Mexico,” Schmidt said. “We have a rise in the number of [drug traffickers] who are becoming more powerful.”

In Bissau, where new Mercedes-Benzes with no license plates navigate the colonial streets, it’s easy to guess who might find themselves inside the region’s flourishing drug elite. Last year, a nightclub threw a “Weekend for the Dug Traffickers.” Few in the country of 1.7 million people could have paid the cover.

“Sixty percent of our youth don’t have a job,” Saad says. “If you put that against the necessity of having money, we are in the process of constructing an atomic bomb.”

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