“In the 19th century, Europe’s hunger for slaves devastated West Africa. Two hundred years later, its growing appetite for cocaine could do the same.” –Antonio Maria Costa, executive director, U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime
Starting in the 16th century, European merchants established a triangular trade route to distribute commodities around the transatlantic sea lanes. Manufactured items from the sellers’ homeland were transported south to Africa where they were sold or bartered for slaves, which were then shipped westward to the New World and, especially the Caribbean, to labor on sugar plantations, with sugar being moved back to Europe to be distilled into rum, completing the cycle.
The second and most famous phase of this excursion is known today as the Middle Passage, the primary route by which most of today’s population of African descent gained entry into the Western Hemisphere.
Today, traders of a different sort are retracing this historic route to deliver another type of cargo eastward to quench the growing European craving for psychoactive substances.
Jeffrey Scott, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, describes this condition bluntly:
“Africa, specifically the West Africa region, is being exploited by drug traffickers based on its strategic geographic location, weak government institutions, political instability, endemic corruption, and ill-equipped law-enforcement agencies,” he states.
Global narcotic consumption is now shifting eastward from the New World into Europe, and smugglers are utilizing the 10th parallel north, the circle of latitude bisecting the Caribbean and onward through Central Africa, so often it has earned the moniker “Interstate 10.”
The path of least resistance
“…trafficking organizations are adept at shifting their operations and trafficking routes to the paths of least resistance . . . . As governments in the Western Hemisphere have increased the pressure on traditional transit routes through Central America and Mexico . . . West Africa has grown from an alternate drug-trafficking route to a full-fledged narcotics distribution hub.” –Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) before the Senate in May of 2012.
As the scourge of cocaine blanketed Florida in the 1980s, the United States stepped up its interdiction efforts to curb shipments from the Caribbean. So successful were these countermeasures, implemented by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, that Colombian cocaine barons (then and now, the major players in coca distribution) shifted the nation’s principal point of entry westward from Miami in 1985, and utilized Mexican smugglers to move their product across the 2,000-mile border between California and Texas.
At the same time, the consumption of illicit drugs in the United States, traditionally dwarfing the appetite of the rest of the globe, has over time plateaued, while consumer demand for cocaine in Europe is escalating, especially in the United Kingdom and Spain.
Former Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) official Mike Braun suggests that “Europe today is approximately where America was in the mid-1970s, in terms of the impact of cocaine.”
Increased surveillance along America’s borders resulted in a saturation of radar coverage in the region, meaning that the process of delivering product to the lungs, noses, and veins of the Yankee end-user has become significantly more difficult.
Steve McDonald, director of the Africa Program and Project on Leadership at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, agrees: “Certainly increased enforcement on U.S. borders and in Mexico has turned suppliers’ eyes to the East,” he says.
In all this, paths can be seen emerging: criminal ventures seek alternative markets away from the increased scrutiny of American law enforcement, while remaining vigilant to new, more lucrative markets in which to ply their goods. Africa in turn offers unique incentives: the availability of a vast “staging area” with thousands of miles of poorly guarded coast line for easy access; and myriad countries with chronic instability and precarious finances.
“Interstate 10” and the “Coke can” transit
Latin American drug cartels have also been helped by the aftermath of a global depression. A floundering economy has meant that international corporations have been forced to tighten their belts by liquidating any non-essential inventory, especially in the airline industry. A study by Cornell University indicates U.S. carriers alone cut some 100,000 jobs and lost $30 billion in the first five years of the millennium. This means that fleets of serviceable aircraft have been sold off dirt cheap and in turn scooped up by smugglers to use as drug transports to ferry large quantities of their illicit goods over the Atlantic across the 10th parallel, a route void of radar or other tracking methodology.
Once over the so-called Dark Continent, drug traffickers face a dearth of detection and surveillance apparatus that doesn’t even measure up to the subpar equipment servicing Europe. Evidence of a novel new trend was found in the Mali desert (a stronghold for Islamic radicals) in December of 2009, where the burnt-out hulk of a Boeing 727 was discovered. Traces of cocaine within the interior of the plane indicated the purpose of its last flight. The realities of the world economy (and wealth of the cartels) were evidenced by the fact that the smugglers merely torched the plane after off-loading its cargo, discarding it as one might an empty Coke can, oblivious to its residual value in this, the era of recycling.
The scope of this new “cottage industry” is, at best difficult to gauge, as Scott Decker, director of the Criminal Justice Department at Arizona State University, attests while affirming the previous observations about security technology in Africa as opposed to the “Western world.”
“The public and governmental surveillance systems that exist in North America and Europe do not exist in Africa,” he notes, “so getting an accurate handle on the problem is difficult.”
In spite of a scarcity of concrete evidence, for instance, directly tying Islamic insurgents to drug commerce, there is overwhelming circumstantial proof connecting the two. Decker explains that “given the weakness of several political states and potential for corruption, it makes sense that this would be a likely route of passage for narcotics.”
“We have already seen, in other parts of the world, the devastation the trade in drugs can cause. It would be a tragedy if drugs were again to plunge West Africa into conflict and destroy the progress and hard-won democratic gains of recent years.” –from a January 2012 editorial in the (UK) Observer newspaper by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan
Aside from its selection as the gateway of choice for narco-terrorists, Africa’s growing prominence on the world stage has been evidenced by a mass stampede to exploit its natural resources then highlighted by the Sept. 11 attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, by a jihadist militia force, and underscored by Mitt Romney’s reference to Mali twice during the presidential debates last October.
The success of International Security Assistance Forces and their NATO allies in Iraq and Afghanistan has cut both ways, forcing al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other jihadist factions to adjust their tactics. Jeffrey Scott rationalizes that their response has shifted because …” traditional funding methods for terrorist organizations have been cut off or disrupted, thus they are turning to drug trafficking and other crimes to finance themselves.”
In these new undertakings, the “true believers” are helped by the diaspora of Middle Eastern expatriates scattered throughout the globe (see accompanying side bar on page 3). A prime example is the Colombian/Lebanese national Ayman Saied Joumaa, suspected by the U.S. Treasury Department of having ties with both Hezbollah (Lebanon’s militant insurgent militia) and Los Zetas (a drug cartel comprised of deserters from Mexican commando and other elite army forces).
Congressman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) spearheaded a report saying as much (including quotes by the DEA’s Mike Braun) this past November.
Hezbollah also has links to the million or so Muslims who reside in Brazil. Other allegations include a partnership with Hugo Chavez’s Venezuelan government, a country positioned just south of the 10th parallel, in a direct line to it’s African counterparts Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau and Mali. (Guinea-Bissau is alleged to be the globe’s foremost narco-state.) Al-Qaeda itself has been tied to the “Coke can,” 727. Aside from financial benefits, these drug gangs offer logistical support gaining entry into the gateway markets of Europe, Russia and beyond.
Suspicions about Chavez were validated when alleged kingpin Wahid Makled (alternately known as “El Turco, the Turk,” or “El Arabe, the Arab”) was brought to trial in April of 2012. Makled, a native Venezuelan of Syrian descent, owns Venezuela’s largest airline, Aerpostal. During the trial, still in progress, he implicated key members of the government and military as participants in his underhanded dealings.
As this new, disreputable industry blossoms, American authorities are moving to respond in kind as they did in past decades to answer the surge in drug-running, first in Florida, and then along the edges of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. The United States Africa Command (or AFRICOM) set up in 2006 to address the growing strategic importance of the African continent has been strengthening it’s liaison with DEA elements since its inception.
The DEA itself is increasing its footprint in order to cope with–in the words of Jeffrey P. Breeden, the DEA’s Europe, Asia and Africa section chief–“the new frontier in terms of counterterrorism and counter-narcotics issues.”
That this expansion is occurring is a given, although the outcome of this emerging intrigue remains murky. Interestingly enough, Africa itself produces no mind-altering substances within its continental borders, aside from “Khat,” a mildly narcotic plant grown in the north, typically chewed to produce an amphetamine like rush. While Africa presently serves as just a way station for the final trek to a more affluent, more sophisticated consumer base, it must be remembered that narcotics in and of themselves are a corrupting enterprise.
“As new markets open in Africa, more than likely, drug-trafficking organizations will find ways to exploit them,” Scott speculates, referencing the widespread rush to exploit Africa’s natural resources.
“Illicit drug proceeds have also been used to gain access to legitimate natural resource businesses,” he says. ” . . . with the growing presence of foreigners, this will create additional avenues for more upscale drug markets (cocaine and heroin), which most Africans cannot afford.
“The proceeds from these upscale markets would eventually flow into the local populace and into the local drug markets,” he concludes.
“The more prosperous the local populace becomes, the more discretionary income they will have which may lead to increased drug usage.”
War on drugs meets war on terror
Corrupting the West
A ruling on a point of Islamic law given by a recognized authority; or, a religious decree issued by a Muslim leader.
“We are making these drugs for Satan, America and the Jews, if we cannot kill them with guns, so we will kill them with drugs.” –Alleged fatwa initiated by Hezbollah.
A basic tenet of the Islamic faith holds that true believers must not partake of intoxicants or anything contributing to addle-mindedness. Some elements of al-Qaeda however, seem to grant believers special dispensation when it comes to vanquishing the enemies of Allah. When it comes to subduing the infidels who undermine the true believers, the end justifies the means.
Amid the hysteria that spread along with the debris from the 9/11 attacks, rumors spread that Osama bin Laden’s minions had concocted a new, more potent strain of heroin to infect the palates of the depraved West. Allegedly developed by South Asian chemists in an effort to spike addiction rates among the infidels, this super-charged, highly concentrated liquid opiate called “Tears of Allah” turned out to be an urban legend. Nonetheless, compelling evidence had bin Laden financing his holy war through revenues garnered from the drug trade.
Presently, the al-Qaeda Islamic Maghreb terrorist group (AQIM), an offshoot operating in North Africa, reaps a tidy sum from its lucrative kidnap-for-ransom racket. Branching out into the comparatively new endeavor of narcoterrorism, according to the Joint Chief of Staff Peter Pace, AQIM has linked up with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC) to ship cocaine over the ocean, through Africa, and up to its final destination in Spain. Even if Muslim smugglers don’t physically handle the actual contraband, numerous methods of obtaining income are available, including the assurance of safe passage through a specific geographic area, or merely “taxation” of goods as they are transported.
Radical Muslims are not the only special-interest groups willing to sidestep ideological precepts to achieve their goals. The collapse of the Iron Curtain put economic hardships upon numerous Marxist outfits throughout the Western Hemisphere. With their primary source of financial sustenance dried up, groups like FARC, and Peru’s Shining Path, were forced to seek out other monetary resources to fund their quest for the liberation of the proletariat class.
Former Drug Enforcement Agency Special Agent Michael Braun estimates that a least half of the 50-odd entities classified as foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) benefit from the commerce of narcotics, a guess that, in his words, is “ultra-conservative.”
This includes the Lebanese paramilitary Shi’a group Hezbollah, literal translation–“Party of Allah” or “Party of God.” The capabilities of this high-profile guerrilla force have been challenged in the wake of the “Arab Spring” and the Syrian uprising, and like other jihadist organizations native to the Middle East, are increasingly shifting their activities and fund-raising efforts to other parts of the world.
Hezbollah benefits from the presence of an expatriate Lebanese community in the South American tri-border area (TBA) where the borders of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay convene. This decades old commune of 25,000 Arabian Shiite descendants has a well established tradition of financial support for Hezbollah, through the proceeds of its legitimate businesses and other, less reputable sources.
In this, they are abetted by their close proximity to the epicenter of cocaine production, the central Andes Mountain range. On the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean, there are a corresponding number of Lebanese communities throughout the African continent. These include immigrants in the west coast nation of Sierra Leone who settled there at the end of the 19th century.
Other significant groupings of Lebanese descendants may be found in the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Senegal.
This is not to say that expatriates are supporters of radical guerrilla organizations, but it bears noting that there is a long-standing tradition of money transfers within the Lebanese diaspora on both sides of the ocean to their homeland, to the tune of $8 billion per annum, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The price of getting high
Myriad factors contribute to the ebb and flow of narcotics prices, but the relative dollar to euro rate, and the comparative price of a given amount of narcotics are among the most direct links contributing to the unequal comparative value of a kilogram of cocaine in the European Union versus the equivalent weight in the United States. Bear in mind that prices fluctuate across the various countries that make up the EU, just as they do throughout the 50 states that comprise the U.S.
Cocaine Prices in Los Angeles:
2001–$10,000-36,000 per kilo
2012–$19,000-22,000 per kiilo
–Source: LAPD Gang and Narcotics Capt. William Hart.
Cocaine Prices in Washington, D.C.:
2000–$20,000-25,000 per kilo
2012–$32,000-36,000 per kilo
–Source: Anonymous District of Columbia official.
Euro to Dollar Conversion Rates:
2002–One Euro = $.87-.99
July 21, 2012–One Euro = $1.2176
–Source: About.com Guide.