Track Persia – November 27, 2017
“When it comes to drugs, we see a lot of people importing them. They come stocked in cars and other forms. Only the higher-ups who take care of it. I’ve seen a lot of cases where drugs come in, the next day they’re gone. Who are you going to ask about it? If you ask, you get fired,” explained Babacar Fall who worked at Dakar’s port as shipping security from 2010 to 2015.*
West Africa has been considered an ideal transit hub by drug traffickers for decades, due to its geographical location. Though it wasn’t until 2009 that the amount and frequency of narcotics reportedly trafficked through the region increased exponentially. Today, large quantities of narcotics are bought and sold in the region, not just transited, as in the past.
Experts liken the change to the regions continuingly lax drug protocols and the ease by which foreign expatriates establish and own money laundering businesses throughout the region.
One of the major organizations behind drug trafficking in West Africa is Hezbollah, the Lebanese based, Iranian financed group. The United Nations estimates that international drug trade generates $322 billion annual revenue for the Lebanese organization Hezbollah, known internationally as a terrorist group, making drugs by far the most lucrative illicit activity.
Trafficking drugs through Africa from South America to Europe has become somewhat of a science for the organization.
United States intelligence and Interpol reports indicate that the investigation project ‘The Cedar,” as an example of how drugs work their way through West Africa to Europe. Latin and South American drug cartels ship drugs that usually are ordered by Lebanese business owners who have links to Hezbollah, to be sold in Europe.
The drugs are manufactured in South and Latin America then shipped to West Africa, notably Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Senegal, and Mauritania where they change cargo and are then transported up the coast to Western European countries like Italy, Germany, France and the Pays Basque via boat and shipping containers. Once the drugs arrive in Europe they are sold, then collectors recuperate that money and purchase expensive watches and cars, laundering the money, and these goods are then transported to Lebanon to be resold. The profits from these sales are reused to purchase more drugs and the profit goes to the organization.
At Senegal’s Port Autonome of Dakar shipping agents, also called freight forwarders, are often responsible for receiving imports in place of the companies that order them. These agents and forwarders work as freelancers, hired by major companies to go in and complete the shipping paperwork, and also make sure that the correct procedure is followed through with customs. Often this person is paid directly in cash from his or her client, making it nearly impossible to trace the chain of command of the shipping orders.
The officer of the Central Office for the Repression of Illegal Trafficking of Narcotics (l’OCRITS), Ibrahima Gueye* has been working at the department dealing with crime and illegal drugs for three years.
“Cocaine and methamphetamines have been found in the cars that are brought into the port, normally in the trunk or in the compartments of the car…it is not easy to tell who brings in the drugs. I know that the big Arab companies at the port are Grimaldi and ASEMCO, that’s all I can say.” Gueye said.
In 2014, 25 kilograms of cocaine were found on traveler mules at Dakar’s Leopold Senghor Airport, and in cars and shipping containers at Dakar’s port, according to local police reports. Though the exact number of drugs being transported through Senegal and other West African countries remains unknown, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Dakar, estimate that 18 tons of cocaine have been trafficked through the region since 2010.
Drug traffickers see West Africa’s instability and cultural disparities as an advantage. Because Senegal is a conservative Islamic country with cultural and religious beliefs, women are not properly searched and are more likely to traffic cocaine than men, in addition to the lack of proper scanning equipment. Much of the country operates on a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy by which managers and directors hold the power to bend the law as they see fit.
Such was the experience of Babacar Fall. “When things aren’t declared, either the guardian protecting the goods or even customs who are responsible for the goods, can sell whatever is undeclared. We’ve seen the same instance in drugs. When drug smugglers bring something into the country we’re the ones that alert the higher ups and they are responsible to seize the drugs. But we’ve seen cases where the next day everything is gone. That’s how things work in Senegal.” said Fall.
Lebanese business owners living in West Africa and parts of Latin America are suspected to contribute millions of dollars in remittances to Hezbollah, Hezbollah expert Matthew Levitt says. An estimated 300,000 Lebanese migrants live across West Africa and operate more import and export businesses along the coast than any other ethnic group, further facilitating their involvement in transporting narcotics through the region.
In response to the growing drug trafficking problem in the region, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), has pledged to take action against drug trafficking and transnational organized crime.
The pledge will survey the activities in the region until 2020 in the hope of “bettering the efficiency of the cooperation at the national and sub-regional level in measures of detection of drug trafficking and organized crime as well as putting into place appropriate judicial systems that are adequate and efficient and also reduce the demand by preventing drug abuse among other measures.”
As drugs trafficked through the region become more commonplace, other factors such drug consumption and political corruption do as well. The continuance of trafficking in the region could lead to serious consequences for the citizens and governments of West Africa such as lack of international support, high drug addiction rates, and higher crime statistics; despite the more positive outlook for drug pushers where drug profits are being used as a stimulus for Lebanon’s economy and a driver for Hezbollah.
*Interviews were conducted with communications personnel at the UNODC Dakar office on background, Local Police, Michael Keating, a professor who specializes in global narcotics trafficking, security at the Port of Dakar and research on Matthew Levitt’s findings.
*Because the police would not release any more recent information because investigations regarding any other narcotic seizures were still under investigation.
* Babacar Fall & Ibrahima Gueye are not their real last names, they asked to use pseudonyms for their security.