June 21, 2011 / 6:09 AM / 8 years ago

West Africa drugs trade going the way of Mexico: UN

DAKAR (Reuters) - The drugs trade in West Africa is going the way of Mexico, with local players increasingly taking control of an ever more sophisticated system to smuggle cocaine into the rich market to the north, the United Nations said.

The amount of cocaine bound for Europe seized in West Africa has dropped in recent years, but that only means the trade is getting more sophisticated, said Alexandre Schmidt, West African head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

“It means there has been a repositioning of the drug routes and the drug traffickers have much more sophisticated means and they are using more routes,” he said at a meeting in Senegal.

The flow of cocaine through West Africa’s fragile states to Europe has shot up the international law enforcement agenda, with experts warning the trade risks corrupting states, spreading instability and crippling the region’s economies.

At around $800 million, the value of the drugs passing through West Africa in 2009 was equivalent to large chunks of the economies of some countries in the region.

A few hundred Latin Americans still dominate decision-making in the trade, but West Africans have increasingly influential roles, Schmidt said.

“This is a new tendency, and what we are seeing in West Africa is like what we saw in Mexico,” he said, citing the way in which Mexicans increasingly displaced Colombians in the ferrying of Andean cocaine to the United States.

Concern over the trade has been deepened by fears that al Qaeda’s North African wing had established itself as a player in the trans-Sahara trade, especially after a jet believed to have ferried cocaine was found in the desert.

Schmidt said the role of Islamist group, which has also earned money through collecting multi-million dollar ransom payments for kidnapped Westerners, was still more that of a local fixer than a central organiser.

“The terrorists are facilitating the passage of the traffickers ... and they receive a payment, either in cash or kind. But we don’t have any proof that the terrorist groups are organising the drug trafficking themselves,” he said.

Citing the arrest of American Prohibition-era gangster Al Capone for tax evasion, Schmidt called on nations to do more to fight illegal finance, especially money-laundering.

“If we want to have a real impact on drug traffickers ... we need to hit them where it hurts — on the money,” he said.

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