US President Barack Obama begins his African tour in Senegal this week in the heart of a region becoming a focus for federal agents prosecuting the US war on the international drugs trade.
Investigators from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the US’ anti-narcotics agency, have made a series of high-profile and dramatic arrests in West Africa as part of a widening probe of African drug lords and armed rebels in South America.
Derek Maltz, head of the DEA’s Special Operations Division, which targets global drug crime, described trafficking in the region as a “plague” as he announced charges against suspected smugglers from Nigeria and Ghana on June 3.
“These criminal groups and their facilitators pose a direct threat to the safety and security of innocent Americans,” he said. “Together with our law enforcement partners, [the] DEA is dismantling illicit drug networks in western Africa and around the world, and putting the criminals who operate them behind bars where they belong.”
The suspects were arrested on May 9 in New York and all three were charged with heroin trafficking.
According to their indictment, Ghanaian Solomon Adelaquaye and Nigerians Frank Muodum and Celestine Ofor Orjinweke “conspired to import heroin into the United States” with a Colombian, Samuel Antonio Pinedo-Rueda, who was arrested on May 16 in his home country and is awaiting extradition.
“These alleged narco-traffickers assumed they had secured safe passage for their heroin from west Africa to the United States by paying off an airport insider but, unbeknownst to them, the people on the other side of their transaction were law enforcement insiders working for the DEA,” US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara said.
It was also undercover DEA agents who were behind the dramatic arrest in April of Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, a US-designated international drug “kingpin” and former head of the Guinea-Bissau navy, near the west African island nation of Cape Verde.
The DEA arrested the officer and several alleged accomplices in “international waters,” according to the US, while two Colombians suspected of having been involved were arrested after in their country.
A widening plot involving Guinea-Bissau came into the spotlight on April 18, when the US charged former Guinean army chief of staff Antonio Indjai with drug trafficking and seeking to sell arms to Colombian insurgents.
Indjai, one of the leaders of the 2010 coup in Guinea-Bissau, was accused of four counts of conspiring to sell surface-to-air missiles to Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebels to shoot down US patrol helicopters and of seeking to import huge amounts of cocaine into the US.
Guinea-Bissau, a country of just 1.5 million people, has suffered chronic instability since independence from Portugal in 1974 due to conflict between the army and state.
Drug traffickers have turned the state, sandwiched between Senegal and Guinea where the African continent extends the farthest west toward South America, into a transit point for the cocaine trade.
However, murky relationships exist between politicians, security and defense officials and traffickers across the region, according to the World Drug Report published in February by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The report accuses Guinea, Mauritania and Gambia of being main players in the drugs trade.
It also points the finger at Mali, seen for years as a weak link in the fight against drugs and the scene of the spectacular “drug plane” affair in November 2009, when a Boeing 727 carrying cocaine from Venezuela landed in the remote northeastern region of Gao, the UNODC said.
Coming in on a makeshift runway, it unloaded its cargo and was then destroyed and left as a burned-out wreck in the desert.
“Between 2005 and 2007, a series of more than 20 major seizures were made in the west African region, involving thousands of kilograms of cocaine,” the UNODC said in a report on the cocaine trade in the region. “Most of the seizures were made at sea, but some involved private aircraft or caches detected on land.”
However, the report said “major seizures” are becoming rare in west Africa, adding that “in 2009, a single seizure of 160kg was made.”
“The countries of the sub-[Saharan] region have neither the resources nor the capacity to deal with this phenomenon” of drug trafficking, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a report published at the end of December last year.