ALGIERS, Algeria – Governments in Northern Africa are worried about the increasing presence of narcotics traffickers from Latin America who are using the region as a hub to smuggle drugs into Europe.
The Sahara region and the southern zone of the desert – known as the Sahel – have become a transit point for drugs, especially cocaine and heroin, the Algerian government reported in April 2010.
The report said that 52 tons of narcotics from Latin America were seized in the Sahel region in 2009, a quantity that is 60 times larger than what had been confiscated just a few years earlier.
“Planes loaded with about four tons of cocaine in each flight landed several times in Mali and Mauritania in 2009,” the report said.
More than 20 tons crossed these two countries in 2009, according to the report.
“Latin American drug cartels have intensified their activities in Africa,” said Mohamed Benhammoue, president of the African Federation for Strategic Studies, “especially after they became connected with terrorist networks affiliated with terrorist organization al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).”
Abdelmalek Sayeh, head of the Algerian National Office for Combating Drugs and Addiction, said the “AQIM has close links with Brazilian, Colombian and Mexican drug trafficking gangs.”
“A large part of these drugs has crossed the Sahel corridor,” he added. “[The] money collected from drug trafficking gangs is invested in purchasing weapons from Sahel to strengthen AQIM.”
Sayeh said the Algerian government has evidence indicating the narcotics smuggled into the Sahel are then routed to three primary destinations: the first being the Arab Gulf, the second, Europe; and the third, North America, mainly the United States and Canada.
The Algerian government also has concluded cocaine sent from Brazil and Colombia arrives in Africa stashed in vessels and aircraft. But after arriving in Africa, the narcotics are hidden in different boats and planes bound for North America.
Sayeh said narcotics traffickers “pay a lot of money to some tribal sheikhs and AQIM in Sahel to guarantee the transport of cocaine and cannabis shipments.”
In several cases, narcotics traffickers cooperated with terrorists to transport drug shipments from Sahel to northern Algeria, he added.
Elias Boukraa, acting director-general of the African Centre for Terrorism Studies and Research (CAERT) in Algiers, said in a seminar on security in the region that the tough living conditions facing the region’s residents and widespread poverty “have opened the field for the expansion of drug trafficking scope.”
The narcotics trade has played a major role in aligning Africa’s armed groups with narcotics traffickers from Latin America and the rest of the world. The Colombian cartels are trying to establish a presence in Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania, Boukraa said.
Boukraa said narcotics trafficking networks are deliberately working on compromising security in these countries to cover up their groups’ criminal activities. The lure of using the Sahel as a hub in narcotics trafficking has led organized crime groups to spend their money throughout the region.
“At least 50 tons of heroin are transported every year via Sahel countries, and an amount of €100 million (US$139 million) [in cash] is smuggled every year,” Boukraa said. “This means that an organization like AQIM has a huge budget that may be bigger even than the budgets of some Sahel countries.”
Mohamed Slimani, an academic and researcher in security issues, said “some of the networks that were dealing in Indian cannabis are now going for cocaine and passing it via Sahel countries, through Algeria and toward Europe.”
Slimani said these networks prefer to deal with smaller quantities of hard drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, instead of trying to transport tons of Indian cannabis to Europe. The cannabis is mainly dealt in North Africa.
Slimani said that security reports indicate cocaine trafficking is prevalent throughout the Sahel, especially in Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, and Niger.
“The tight surveillance imposed by European countries on trafficking gangs made them change the course of small, drug-loaded planes from their regular destinations in Portugal and Spain to the African Sahel countries, especially Mauritania, Mali and Senegal,” Slimani said. “This is in addition to cocaine shipped to Nigeria’s ports on the Atlantic Ocean, which comes from Latin American countries, especially Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Brazil.”