UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Chaos in lawless Somalia is helping to transform East Africa into a major crime hub, with widespread trafficking in illegal drugs and other contraband, the U.N. crime and drugs boss said on Tuesday.
In a speech to the U.N. Security Council, the head of the Vienna-based U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, said heroin from eastern Africa appeared to be meeting up with cocaine from western Africa in the Sahara Desert.
“Mainly because of the dramatic situation in Somalia, the region (East Africa) is becoming a free economic zone for all sorts of trafficking drugs, migrants, guns, hazardous waste and natural resources, in addition to having the world’s most dangerous waterways because of piracy,” Costa said.
The top U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden, told reporters that there has been a “steady increase in organized crime” in much of Somalia due to the inability of Somalia’s transitional government to enforce the law.
He warned that conditions could get worse in Somalia, which he said was facing a serious aid shortfall next year, partly due to U.S. concerns about handing over aid that could wind up supplying Islamist rebels determined to seize power.
Some 30 tons to 35 tons of heroin from Afghanistan, the world’s top producer of the drug, flow into East Africa each year, Costa said. Some 50 tons to 60 tons of cocaine enter West Africa annually, where Guinea-Bissau is a trafficking hub.
Heroin and cocaine have become “a sort of new currency,” Costa said, with the two substances simply being swapped on the market in the Sahara. He added that the spread of drug trafficking had security implications for Africa.
“Drugs not only enrich organized crime,” he said. “Like in the Andeans and in West Asia, terrorists and anti-government forces in the Sahel extract resources from the drug trade to fund their operations, purchase equipment and pay foot-soldiers.”
The Sahel is a belt of Africa extending across the continent just south of the Sahara.
The scale and speed of drug trafficking in Africa is also expanding, Costa said.
“In the past, trade across the Sahara was by caravans,” he said. “Today it is larger in size, faster at delivery, and more high-tech, as evidenced by the debris of a Boeing 727 found on November 2 in the Gao region of Mali — an area affected by insurgency and terrorism.”
The U.N. drugs office has said the plane was transporting as much as 10 tons of cocaine from Venezuela to West Africa.
Costa said it was possible to combat the rise in drug trafficking by stepping up international and regional information-sharing. He called for the creation of a trans-Saharan crime monitoring network to improve information, exchange evidence and track suspicious activity.
The Security Council unanimously adopted a statement voicing concern about the impact of narcotics trade on Africa and the rest of the world and calling for stronger regional and international cooperation in the fight against illegal drugs.