The continued development of the West African narco-state

As PanAmerican Crime continues to delve into the abstract and tangible roles of the institution, in terms of defining and policing the criminal underworld, important events around the Globe have forced us to turn our attention away from the criminal and government institutions of the Americas and focus on the troubling ongoing developments within West Africa. On April 12, 2012, military units in the tiny West-African state of Guinea-Bissau launched a coup d’etat, aimed at overthrowing the current government and placing a military junta in charge of the country. While it has now become clear at this time that the operation was completely successful, to the casual onlooker this event was simply another in a long line of politically and morally compromised regimes falling to the pressures of post-colonial rule and the grinding poverty of sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, while all the necessary historical components were present to make such a diagnosis – greed, corruption and moral incompetence – other, historically unknown actors were making their presence felt in new, extremely powerful ways. What was occurring in the tiny country was not merely a struggle for political power amongst the nation’s political elites or tribal groups but, rather, it was a struggle for power between various Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) who have managed to infiltrate every level of Guinea-Bissau’s ruling establishment.  Such organizations, mainly from Colombia and Venezuela, have established themselves throughout the countries of West Africa’s Gold coast, and are using these weak states as way-stations for their product until it can be safely smuggled into southern or western Europe.

At first glance the allegations that drug organizations have infiltrated West Africa seem somewhat preposterous. In the eyes of most educated observers TCOs infiltrate regions and countries to sell their product, wipe out a rival or as a place to hold their product while it is on its way somewhere else. So, if using such a standard, why go to West Africa? Criminal groups in this region of the World are too poor to engage in major drug dealing operations and, likewise, the impoverished populations simply do not have the disposable income to support any real form of domestic consumption. There are also no real criminal rivals to do away with in such places, where, again, the extreme economic environment means that local criminals do not have the means or the scope to influence international criminal affairs. Even with the recent development of relatively unsophisticated transnational Nigerian criminal groups over the past twenty years, there is no true competition for major South American criminal organizations in any part of Africa. This leaves one reason to go to West Africa if you’re a major international criminal: transportation. West Africa, in an extremely round-about way, is on the way to western Europe, which is now the greatest consumer of cocaine in the entire World.

While the United States (US) is often given the title of the greatest drug consumer on the planet, the population and wealth of affluent European countries, coupled with increasingly open migration policies brought on by the European Union (EU) have made this region the largest narcotics market in the World. As PanAmerican Crime has discussed, the cocaine market in the US, while substantial, has been affected by the dramatic increase in law enforcement since the 1980s. First the Caribbean smuggling routes, which were favoured Colombian cartel groups, were shut down in the 1990s, forcing the bulk of the trade to flow through Mexico. While this shift brought Colombian groups to their knees, it simultaneously catapulted Mexican TCOs to pre-eminent status amongst the global criminal underworld. However, the Mexican border is now under unparalleled scrutiny, which has in turn forced Mexican TCOs to broaden their revenue generation by taking on more criminally risky behaviour, such as kidnappings, robbery and human smuggling. Over the past decade the increasingly powerful Mexican cartels have also spread south in an effort to control and streamline the flow of cocaine and heroin north into Mexico, with the Sinaloa Cartel moving in on Honduras and El Salvador, and the ruthless Los Zetas moving in Guatemala.

During this time-period, as the Mexican TCOs grew and diversified, South American TCOs were again trying to regain their dominance, remembering the days when the Cali and Medellin cartels ran the international cocaine trade. While nowhere near the size and scope of the original Colombian groups, current South American TCOs sought smuggling routes that were no longer dependent upon the Mexicans and their extensive networks in the US and Central America. The result of this quest for new customers and smuggling routes led the Colombians through Venezuelan ports and on to Europe. In Venezuela they found a regime that was not only corrupt, but a country with the size and qualities to disguise their operations until their product made it out to sea. Venezuela’s role in this growing narco-system, from the government on down, should not be underestimated.  The Venezuelan based Cartel of the Sun is apparently made up of Venezuelan generals, who oversee cocaine transit routes beginning in Colombia and Peru and on to Europe. In fact, even the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, has been accused of hiring known drug traffickers into his government, including his secretary of defence, General Henry Rangel Silva. Under such circumstances in such a favourably corrupt environment it becomes easy to see how the South American TCOs found their route around Mexico and on to new customers.

But why not travel right into European ports? Why involve West Africa at all? The answer again comes down to policing, environment and, ultimately, institutional strength. The collaboration between European states on matters such as European continental border security and drug trafficking has increased many times over since the fall of the Soviet Union. Information exchanges between security forces and the adoption of US drug enforcement strategies have forced European states to pay attention to the global drug trade, and consequently South American and Mexican TCOs. Therefore, any suspicious shipment which travels directly to Europe from certain South American ports is extremely likely to be the subject of a thorough search. Packages and shipments that move to other places before they arrive in Europe seem much more natural and law-abiding. And, West Africa is simply the closest other place to western Europe, and is therefore a natural place to reroute goods through that are en route to Europe. From West Africa the illicit product moves either overland through the Sahara and across the Mediterranean into southern Europe or by boat along the African coast to Spain, Holland or Great Britain. However, African geography is not the only reason for West Africa’s successful growth into a collaboration of Narco-states. The main answers lie with the history of social and economic interaction between European countries and West Africa and, of course, with the crippling weaknesses of government institutions within West African states.

People of Latino heritage can easily blend into the populations of countries throughout South and Central America, the Caribbean, as well as in communities of Latinos found throughout the US. In such instances that TCOs from South America or Mexico might seek to set up shop in an American city, the presence of a similar language group and relative cultural understanding provide a stable area of operations for any such organization. These systems of similar language and community are not found throughout Europe, where, despite efforts a uniformity, the continent is still a collection of incredibly nationalistic cultures and ethnic groups. Consequently, the only place that TCOs of Latino, non-European heritage may conceivably fit in comfortably and subtly is in Iberia. Spain and Portugal have long established and continuing relationships with South and Central America as a product of this region being a part of their former colonial empires for several centuries. Iberia is also conveniently a place that has a long history of cultural interaction and colonial dominance with West Africa as well, again due to nearly five-hundred years of colonial rule.

Thus, the real pattern reveals itself. In an effort to get to a place where they can conduct their business safely away from Mexican TCOs and where they can speak the language, TCOs from South America have developed a network of transportation through regions where they have linguistic similarities and can avoid the prying eyes of European navies. West Africa has become the lynch-pin of this operation; the connection between source and sale. And, it is this important relationship that has nearly destroyed the governmental and institutional legitimacy of many states in West Africa. Indeed, the recent coup in Guinea-Bissau is not the first important political event in that country which can be attributed to the involvement of international drug traffickers. In March, 2009, the head of the Guinea-Bissau armed forces, General Tagme Na Mai, was assassinated after defying the edicts of Guinea-Bissau’s then president Joao Bernardo Viera. President Viera was assassinated soon after, with the Prime Minister of Guinea-Bissau at the time (Carlos Correia) stating that he was the biggest drug dealer in the country at the time of his death. In such an environment it should not be surprising that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is now reporting that the entire national income of Guinea-Bissau is less than the profits its leaders make off of the drug trade. In neighbouring Guinea the situation has become equally as bad, with the former President’s son (Ousmane Conte) admitting on national television that he received up to USD $ 300,000 for every illegal shipment he oversaw through his country. Astoundingly, the presidential guard and hundreds of staff from the bureaucracy were involved in transporting or safeguarding the product on its way north to Europe. Besides Guinea-Bissau and Guinea the countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Equatorial Guinea, The Gambia and even Nigeria are all now considered to have entrenched narco-governments in place; (It should be noted that large countries, such as Nigeria, are often not controlled by or involved with one major TCO, instead, local and state governments participate on an ad hoc basis, enriching themselves as they can).

These troubled West African countries were successfully targeted by major South American TCOs not simply because they were already poor and corrupt – Nigeria and Guinea are both considered to be two of the top three most corrupt countries in the World – it is because the institutional strength of such states cannot overcome the monetary and political pressures being exacted on them. Indeed, as seen with the events in Guinea and Guinea Bissau, even the army, which is typically the most effectively functioning institution in West African countries, seems to have repeatedly fallen victim to the efforts of TCOs. The governments of weak nations rely upon the charisma and leadership of those people who oversee these countries’ institutions because the institutions themselves do not have the history, wealth, manpower or institutional strength to define their needs and actions on their own. As is evident in West Africa, what little institutional integrity that existed is now being co-opted by TCOs to ensure governmental subservience to the needs of the drug trade. Geography and language cannot be overcome, and therefore these countries will only be able to halt the infestation of drug trafficking TCOs and improve the horrendous living conditions of their citizens if they manage to reclaim their institutions for legitimate uses. Only then can any real anti-corruption or anti-narcotics program conceivably be effective.

Scott Paulseth, Editor, PanAmerican Crime

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