West Africa has become a major trafficking route for cocaine headed from Venezuela to Europe where a kilo of cocaine is twice as valuable as in the U.S. It is estimated that some 27% of cocaine consumed in Europe – some 40 tons – transits West Africa. Senegal accounts for the largest volume of West African drug smugglers via commercial aircraft arrested on entry to Europe – 17%.
The wholesale value of cocaine entering Europe from West Africa is about $1.8 billion – with perhaps $450 million accruing to the traffickers. These illicit profits far exceed the resources regional governments have to combat the trafficking. The bloody internal wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia were largely fought over “blood diamonds” worth some tens of millions of dollars per year. Ominously, one single consignment of cocaine often exceeds the value of a full year’s worth of “blood diamonds.” With illegal profits like these in the offing, the potential for igniting violent destabilization in the region is very real.
West African Foreign Ministers met under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Praia, Cape Verde in October, 2008 to assess the danger of narcotics to the region and to coordinate a response. The Foreign Ministers explicitly concurred with the assessment of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that narcotrafficking posed a serious and growing threat that had to be addressed. They endorsed a joint “Political Declaration” and “Action Plan” for formal issuance by the respective Heads of State of ECOWAS in December 2008, to deal with the situation.
Leading up to, during and following the Praia conference, the international donor community expressed broad support for regional states, ECOWAS and the UNODC to increase proactive measures against transnational narcotrafficking in the region. All parties understood that taking effective measures against narcotrafficking would require increased assistance on the part of donors and clear demonstration of concrete political will by regional governments. West African states needed help building their counternarcotics capabilities across the board – including legal code reform, detection, apprehension, prosecution, trial including safeguarding the defendants’ rights, and incarceration. Conversely, the international assistance needed could only be sustained if recipient governments reigned in the wide-spread corruption that created de facto impunity for the narcotraffickers. Both steps would be difficult, but neither could succeed without the other.
U.S. Law Enforcement Goals