Africa, the new promised land for drug traffickers

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Africa has been presented to us for decades as the continent of hunger, tribal wars, lions and elephants in the savannah, diamonds and explorers. These are all small categories that try to simplify a vast territory that contains 54 countries, around a thousand million inhabitants and exceeds the 30 million square kilometers, more or less 60 times the size of Spain. Africa, after the economic meltdown in the beginnings of this century, is living a slow but unstoppable transformation thanks to neoliberal globalization. What was once a big container of slave workforce and raw material during the early stages of capitalism is now becoming an emerging market for investors and companies who can reach new potential consumers and spaces to “develop”.

This “development” has, through recent years, brought some of the most audacious economic agents to these territories. Amongst them, of course, is one of the activities that benefited the most with the new economic laws that rule the world today: drug trafficking.

Africa, land of opportunities                                 

The Doing Business 2016 report was presented in Madrid in March. An event sponsored by the World Bank and organized by Casa África and the Chamber of Commerce. The document highlights the growth rate in Sub-Saharan Africa, a 4,3 % in 2014, almost 2 points above the world’s average. A growth that in many sectors surpasses 25% and suggests a much greater growth margin than in other economies due to the historical underdevelopment of these countries. A high profit chance in the medium term that many think should not be missed.

In 2010, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former finance minister of Nigeria, former Managing Director of World Bank and candidate to president of the organization in 2012, summed up this idea perfectly in an elaborate article: “Africa is often associated with lacking government, feeble institutions, social discomfort, lack of infrastructures and other difficulties (…) The region hopes to overcome this image of extreme poverty and conflicts and show that it is not only open to business, but actually in business”. Although Ngozi did not mention what kind of businesses, it was already known at the time how a new economic agent had reached African western coasts.

In 2007, two United Nations researchers, Victor Ângelo and Rui Flores, published a study in the Portuguese Institute of International Relations of Universidad Nova de Lisboa. The study explains the exponential increase of drug trafficking in the region: “It is due to States fragility, but also to the fact that the narcotics business is extremely profitable”. Up to 12 out of the 15 States that form the Economic Community of West African States are amongst the 31 poorest countries in the world, according to UN’s Human Development Index.

Highway 10

In 2008  newspaper The Guardian published an article with the following headline: “ How a tiny West African Country became the world’s first narco state. The piece portrayed Guinea-Bissau, the fifth poorest country in the world, where security forces have no adequate means at its disposal. The drug trade that goes through this territory is worth much more than the country’s Gross Domestic Product. Then in 2011, UN warned about local mafia using new and sophisticated systems to deliver drug into the European market. Alexandre Smith, UN Office on Drugs and Crimes head for the region claimed: “This is a new trend and what we are seeing in West Africa now is what we saw happen in Mexico”, referring to the way the Mexican cartels ended up replacing the Colombians in the decade of the 90s. In the African case, it was a reality in just three years.

All these signs led to a higher international pressure on the tiny country, to what mafia answered the way we’ve come to expect from them: they just moved out with the lowest possible cost. In this case it was an almost insignificant shift, since from 2014 we began to hear that the new hottest drug trade spot in Africa was Guinea, next to Guinea-Bissau. The relocation was apparently welcomed. That same year the USA Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) exposed that traffickers were already operating under protection of the country’s civilian, military and police authorities. Moreover, taking advantage of the country’s easy investment policies, they used the succulent profits to invest in real estate, fishing companies and mining companies, in order to laundry the drug trafficking money. It was the DEA that penned the term “Highway 10”, which refers to the tenth parallel north of the equatorian plane, the shortest route across the Atlantic and also the route Latin American traffickers use to reach Guinea and Guinea-Bissau from Colombia.

A new scenario

In the light of the impeccable financial and business development of these mafias and the consequently desperate situation, on February 22nd Kofi Annan, former General Secretary of UN and current member of The Elders and the Drug Global Commission published an article in German weekly Der Spiegel, denouncing the situation. The title was “Why it is time to legalize drugs”, and it summed up clearly the main point made in it. The data shown in the article describe a highly dangerous situation. “The region has now become not only a major transit point between producers in Latin America and consumers in Europe, but an area where consumption is increasing. Drug money, and the criminality associated with it, is fostering corruption and violence. The stability of countries and the region as a whole is under threat”. Annan’s claim warns on the similarities between this region and Mexico and should open our eyes to an even more dramatic future, if that’s possible: the threat that terrorist groups linked to Al Qaeda or Daesh might be infiltrating these businesses for the purpose of financing their attacks and controlling the entry points to the European continent.