Narcotics Trafficking Through West African Waters

seized narcotics

Crews offload nearly 660 kilograms of narcotics that were seized during a patrol. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Luke Pinneo.

This work forms part of the Stable Seas Maritime Security Index. This is the first blog in a series called Five Ways Maritime Insecurity Facilitates Illicit Trade in Africa. Read the introductory post here

Since the mid-2000s, West Africa has emerged as an important transit point for the trafficking of cocaine from South America to Europe. In fact, the 2017 World Drug Report estimates that two-thirds of all cocaine smuggled between South America and Europe traverses the West African region. This shift in prominence to West African waters, is due to increasing law enforcement-related disruption of previously prominent Caribbean trafficking routes.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that $1.25 billion worth of cocaine passed through the region in 2010 alone. The three main areas for cocaine trafficking in Africa are comprised of the northern hub made up of Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, The Gambia, and Senegal; the southern hub of Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Nigeria; and the eastern hub of Mali and Mauritania.

map of cocaine trafficking flows

The primary actors in this trade are Colombian and Mexican cartels who appear to be driven by the increasing profits in Europe. As Bruce Bagley, dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Miami, states: “the exponential rise in the number of [cocaine] consumers has made Europe the fastest-growing and most profitable market in the world.” Other international criminal organizations and militant groups, such as Hezbollah and Italy’s Ndrangheta syndicate, have been implicated in West African cocaine trafficking as well.

Seizure data show that cocaine trafficking through West African waters declined significantly in the period of 2004–2009, but this claim should be treated with some skepticism. While it is possible that trafficking declined, it is also likely that more sophisticated methods—such as the use of container ships—are allowing traffickers to move their illicit goods unnoticed. Several record-setting seizures of cocaine off the western Sahara coast as well as on land show that this route is still viable.

In addition to being a major transit point for cocaine, countries in West Africa are now origin countries for the production of methamphetamine and synthetic drugs. These drugs are shipped to Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Methamphetamine production emerged as a problem in African countries in 2010 when authorities discovered an international cocaine-trafficking ring trying to set up a methamphetamine lab in Liberia. In the following months, methamphetamine busts began to occur in Nigeria as well.

The proliferation of illicit drugs has had devastating effects on African countries. The attendant increase in drug consumption has strained already weak public health systems, and many fear that the drug trade will lead to an escalation of intra-state violence. Increased funding for drug-related treatment and health services, better-equipped law enforcement agencies, and crackdowns on government corruption in the region would likely mitigate the illicit drug trade and its effects. However, even if illegal drugs can be pushed entirely out of West Africa, transnational criminal organizations will almost certainly adapt and find new ways to get drugs to the most profitable markets.