Over the last decade there’s been a cocaine boom in Europe not seen since the heady days of 1980s America (check out Johnny Depp’s 2001 movie ‘Blow’ for an entertaining history lesson). In America coke use has plateaued since the late 1990s; in Europe it has trebled.
Thanks to coast guards from the U.S. and Europe the South American cartels who control coca production in Columbia, Peru and Bolivia are having a tough time ferrying their drugs to Europe via the traditional route through the Caribbean and across the North Atlantic.
So, in the last few years, they have started to send their supplies through West Africa, a region made up of states in varying degrees of disarray and poverty. It may not be the most direct path but it is the one of least resistance.
When Ghana held its successful national vote late last year there were fears that its democratic gains may be undermined by the growing cocaine trade
. Recent events in two of West Africa’s weakest states show just how well founded those fears are.
On Monday morning in tiny Guinea-Bissau (about the size of Taiwan, with a population of 1.6-million) the army chief was assassinated in a bomb blast. A few hours later the president was shot to death in a revenge attack by the general’s loyal soldiers who blamed the president for their leader’s killing.
So now Guinea-Bissau, a benighted nation where drugs traffickers operate with impunity is leaderless and observers fear an outbreak of ruthless fighting for control. Some reckon that the bomb attack looked worryingly like a Colombian drugs hit and certainly whoever fills the power vacuum stands to profit from the cocaine trade.
Diplomats and others have accused the army of not only allowing but ensuring that South American cartels were free to operate in the country. When the head of the navy — tasked to protect Guinea-Bissau’s long, wiggly coast, and therefore in prime position to make sure speedboats and yachts packed with plastic-wrapped blocks of cocaine were not stopped — was accused of plotting a coup and forced to flee the country last July many attributed his fall to a battle for control of the cocaine trade.
And from neighboring Guinea came the news last week
that the late president’s eldest son had been arrested and had confessed to involvement with a Colombian drugs trafficking cartel. The fact that members of the former First Family were involved in the cocaine business reveals how high the rot rises. But this arrest is surely a positive sign? Not according to some sources who reckon it’s more about witch-hunting and a bid to throw out the Colombian cartels so that the Nigerian gangs can take over and have a monopoly on the African branch of the trafficking operation.
This is all terrible news for West Africa. Just a few years ago the region emerged from years of bloody civil war in Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Military coups in Mauritania and Guinea last year, and now this mess in Guinea-Bissau have set West Africa back horribly.