Heroin Trafficking and Africa’s East Coast

heroin bust collected by the HMS Darwin

Heroin confiscated by the HMS Darwin from a dhow off the Horn of Africa. Photo by: AB Sarah Ebsworth 

This work forms part of the Stable Seas Maritime Security Index.

In April 2014, HMAS Darwin, patrolling with the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) off the Horn of Africa, seized 1,032 kg of heroin from a traditional dhow fishing vessel destined for East Africa. This record seizure was worth an estimated $195 million. In May and June of 2017, CMF seized a combined 1,250 kg of heroin. These seizures indicate the growing importance of East African waters to the global heroin trade.  

Historically, heroin and other opiates from Afghanistan have been smuggled into Europe through Turkey and the Balkans, which is commonly referred to as the northern route. However, heroin is increasingly being smuggled out of Afghanistan on the southern route, along Africa’s east coast. On this path, heroin is first smuggled through Pakistan or Iran, and then across the Indian Ocean to East Africa. From there, much is smuggled into Europe by boat across the Mediterranean or by individual drug smugglers on commercial flights. Heroin smuggled on the southern route also makes its way into North America, or directly feeds the growing importance of African drug markets.   

map of heroin trafficking flows

The smuggling of heroin across the Indian Ocean may be flourishing because of capacity challenges in maritime law enforcement. The large and under-resourced Western Indian Ocean maritime domain enables dhows to easily evade detection. At the same time, the growth in port container traffic in East Africa allows for more smuggling opportunities in shipping containers. The situation is compounded because CMF lacks the authority to board flagged vessels.   

Combating the increased maritime smuggling of heroin requires cooperative efforts. Better cooperation between CMF and the regional states may increase the ability to detect and intercept heroin shipments. At the same time, it is necessary to help develop the enforcement capabilities of East African states, both on the water and in port facilities.