Pubdate: Wed, 14 Mar 2007
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2007 Los Angeles Times
Author: Sebastian Rotella and Chris Kraul
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


The Shift In Smuggling Routes To Europe Has Law Enforcement Officials Worried

MADRID -- A landmark shift in trafficking routes has transformed West 
Africa into a hub for cocaine smuggled from South America to a 
booming European market, anti-drug officials on three continents say.

Traffickers have established a haven and transit area along the Gulf 
of Guinea to elude aggressive efforts to seize cocaine headed to 
Europe. Anti-drug officials fear the new route will worsen 
lawlessness in African countries already overwhelmed by crime, 
poverty and instability.

Colombian gangsters have brought their swagger to the tiny West 
African country of Guinea-Bissau, setting up elaborate front 
companies, tooling around in flashy cars and allegedly buying 
high-level protection. The use of drug "mules" has increased 
dramatically: A single flight arriving in Amsterdam from Morocco in 
December carried 32 West African passengers who had swallowed cocaine 
packets or concealed them in their luggage.

"What was seen before as a threat has become a reality," said Lt. 
Juan Llorente, an intelligence analyst for Spain's paramilitary Guardia Civil.

On April 1, eight European nations will launch a military-law 
enforcement task force targeting cocaine traffic from Africa. The 
Maritime Analysis Operations Center based in Lisbon will team police, 
navy and customs resources, a model similar to a U.S. interdiction 
unit in Florida.

The United States is the world's top market for cocaine, but use is 
declining. In Europe, demand has hit all-time highs, led by Britain, 
Spain, Italy and the Netherlands. A kilo (2.2 pounds) of cocaine 
brings about $45,000 in Europe, compared with about $25,000 in the U.S.

Because of historic ties to Latin America, the Iberian Peninsula 
remains the gateway to Europe. But aggressive Spanish and British 
patrols have intercepted numerous shiploads headed for a smuggling 
corridor on Spain's northwestern coast, prompting traffickers to turn 
to Africa.

"Effective law enforcement is a particular challenge in Africa due to 
the sheer number of containers that transit through the seaports, the 
lack of trained inspectors and investigative intelligence, weak 
governments and the widespread practice of corruption," Michael 
Braun, chief of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement 
Administration, told Congress last year.

Traffickers stockpile cocaine in countries such as Cape Verde, 
Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Togo, Benin, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and 
Mauritania. It is then moved north, often to clandestine landing 
zones on the coasts of Spain and Portugal, or commercial ports such 
as Barcelona, Rotterdam and Antwerp.

Smugglers use fishing vessels and commercial ship containers, and 
occasionally enlist Moroccan smugglers to cross the Mediterranean. 
Intelligence indicates that small planes and trucks, the latter 
plying desert contraband trails, transport loads to North Africa, DEA 
officials say.

The partnerships combine South American suppliers, transport 
specialists predominantly from Nigeria and Ghana, and European 
distributors, officials say. Colombian traffickers, whether 
freelancers or cartel operatives, are popping up in remote African locales.

"There are so many Colombians in Guinea-Bissau," said a DEA official 
who asked not to be identified. "They are running supposedly legit 
businesses, driving Mercedeses. And they have informants -- they know 
when the DEA shows up."

The former Portuguese colony, one of the 10 poorest nations in the 
world, lacks a secure prison, border controls or police labs.

"All the institutions have collapsed," said Koli Kouame of Ivory 
Coast, secretary of the U.N.'s International Narcotics Control Board.

Guinea-Bissau police firing guns in the air captured two Colombians 
unloading 1,500 pounds of cocaine in September. After a police chief 
announced the seizure, he was threatened by fellow officials 
allegedly allied with Colombian traffickers. Authorities refused to 
let a DEA agent see the drugs or the suspects, whom a judge released, 
U.S. and European investigators say.

Colombians also set up a fish-processing factory, where in 2004 
police found arms, drugs and a clandestine landing strip. Experts 
worry that traffickers could eventually smuggle in precursor 
chemicals and set up labs, enabling them to ship coca base across the 
Atlantic instead of the more expensive finished product.

In addition, Guinea-Bissau is selling some of its islands, raising 
fear that drug lords could buy one, Antonio Mazzitelli, regional 
representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said 
in Senegal.

Even in comparatively stable Ghana, top officials were accused last 
year of protecting a Venezuelan drug lord. Ghanaian police recorded 
the continent's biggest cocaine bust last year, arresting Ghanaian 
and Nigerian suspects with a Mercedes van containing almost 2 tons of 
the drug concealed in boxes of fish.

Misery, disease and strife make it difficult for many African states 
to devote much energy to anti-drug efforts, Kouame said. "If you have 
a hierarchy of concern, this would not be No. 1 or 2 or 3 for them," 
he said. "In the past five years, countries have made great anti-drug 
efforts. But you have so many calamities here and there that you can 
understand that countries devote resources to other things."

Narcotics seizures in West and Central Africa jumped sixfold in 2004, 
according to the Office on Drugs and Crime. But it said in a report 
last year that "only a very small proportion of the cocaine passing 
through the continent is actually being seized."

Portuguese police confiscated 32 tons last year, twice the total of 
the previous year. They attributed the record amount largely to 
intercepted loads from Africa.

The Africa-Europe route developed because of geography, economics, 
interdiction and enterprising criminals. Criminal organizations from 
around the world do business with Colombian traffickers, said Gen. 
Oscar A. Naranjo of Colombia's national police, and both leftist 
guerrillas and their right-wing paramilitary enemies take part in the 
drug trade.

Cocaine also leaves for Africa from Brazil and Venezuela, which U.S. 
and Colombian officials say has become a sanctuary for smugglers.

William Brownfield, U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, said recently that 
the volume of drugs transiting that country has increased fivefold 
since 2001 to 250 tons a year, a figure disputed by the government of 
President Hugo Chavez. Half goes to the United States and half to 
Europe, officials say.

In September, the DEA tipped Spain to a ship from Venezuela hauling 
15 tons of cocaine. The ship off-loaded about 4 tons to a smaller 
vessel in the Atlantic. Spanish authorities intercepted the smaller 
load near Ibiza, where the cocaine had been transferred to fast boats 
operated by Bulgarians and Croatians, the DEA official said. The 
Spaniards caught up to the mother ship off West Africa, one of nine 
major Spanish busts there last year.

In 2005, a Spanish-French operation resulted in the bust off the 
Senegalese coast of the Tobago Clipper, a 39-foot sailboat skippered 
by a Frenchman. The boat set sail from Havana and picked up 2.8 tons 
of cocaine in Venezuelan waters; the cargo was en route to Europe via 
Morocco, officials said.

Colombian traffickers based in Spain often supervise transatlantic 
smuggling ships via satellite phone. And some cocaine shipments to 
Africa are made aboard Gulfstream planes, the DEA official said.

Anti-drug agents are working to understand the role of Morocco, which 
is also the world's top producer of cannabis.

In December, Spanish police intercepted a fast boat from Casablanca 
trying to smuggle 3 tons of cocaine. The case revealed a partnership 
among gangs from Morocco, Colombia and the Galicia region, a longtime 
base of the cocaine racket, police said.

But there have not been many large cocaine seizures in Morocco. 
Moroccan hashish traffickers seem reluctant to risk transporting the 
harder drug, said Llorente of the Guardia Civil.

The emergence of Morocco as a cocaine trafficking front would be 
ominous. Drug agents compare the potential scenario to Mexico in the 
1980s, when Colombian cartels enlisted veteran smugglers of marijuana 
and contraband to move cocaine across the U.S. border. Violence and 
corruption mushroomed.

Meanwhile, the specter of Islamic extremism also plagues Morocco and 
other countries on the African cocaine route. Extremists and drug 
networks occasionally converge in northern Morocco. The suspected 
leaders of a terrorist cell that killed 191 people in the 2004 Madrid 
train attacks came from northern Morocco and allegedly were 
traffickers turned extremists. They allegedly traded hashish for 
explosives and justified drug dealing as jihad against the West.

"We know that drugs and terrorism can join together," the DEA 
official said. "That's one of the reasons we are watching this very closely."

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Rotella reported from Madrid and Paris, Kraul from Bogota, Colombia; 
Caracas, Venezuela; and Tampa, Fla
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman