Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Pentagon: West African Drug Trade Raises Concerns

News in Balance

News in Balance:

WASHINGTON, March 3, 2009 -- West Africa has seen an “absolutely shocking” increase in drug trafficking, U.S. Africa Command's top civilian said yesterday.

Over the past several years, an estimated $2 billion of cocaine was channeled from Latin America to Europe via West Africa, which disrupts local communities and threatens the region, Mary Carlin Yates told reporters in Sekondi, Ghana.

“It is absolutely shocking what has happened -- the increase in drugs,” said Yates, the former U.S. ambassador to Ghana from 2002 to 2005, who now serves as Africom’s deputy to the commander for civil-military activities.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates at least 50 tons of cocaine transits through West Africa annually. Narcotics also are becoming more widely available in the region, as drug traffickers reportedly pay transport costs in cocaine instead of money.

The executive director of the U.N. agency characterized the situation in dire terms at an international conference in Cape Verde in October.

"This is more than a drug problem,” Antonio Maria Costa said. “It is a threat to public health and security."

Meanwhile, the tiny West African nation of Guinea-Bissau has been rocked by the recent assassinations of its army chief and its president, which the U.S. State Department condemned in a news release yesterday.

“The U.S. strongly condemns the violence that occurred in Guinea-Bissau over the weekend that resulted in the assassination of President Joao Bernardo ‘Nino’ Vieira and Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces General Batista Tagmé Na Waï,” the release said.

It’s unclear whether West African drug trafficking played a direct role in the recent political instability, though a report published last year by the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center characterized Guinea-Bissau as “quickly developing into a narco-state.”

The Army report also states that narcotics trafficking accounted for almost 20 percent of Guinea-Bissau’s gross domestic product, and that the nation’s soldiers “have been caught facilitat¬ing the transfer of narcotics to mostly European markets.”

Furthermore, the CIA World Factbook cites Guinea-Bissau as an increasingly important transit country for South American cocaine en route to Europe. The country’s “pervasive corruption” and archipelago-like geography around the capital facilitates drug smuggling, according to the CIA.

Yates emphasized that U.S. counternarcotics efforts require coordination among agencies and ministries, as well as international partnerships.

She told reporters yesterday that Africom is supporting Ghanaian counternarcotics and customs programs by funding drug screening equipment and upgrades at the country’s international airport. It also is helping to fund a police facility to aid in the storage and processing of evidence related to drug cases.

The programs represent part of a larger U.S. government program aimed at stemming the drug trade, she said.

(Report by John J. Kruzel, American Forces Press Service.)

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