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June 26, 2009 / jeni

Could it be… good news?

UNODC’s 2009 World Drug Report is out, and there’s a lot to digest. I’ll probably return to a few items but one point caught my eye while I was skimming through. We have written previously on the disastrous surge of cocaine trafficking through West Africa; UNODC now claims the massive flows have been stemmed thanks to international efforts.

By 2008, seizure volumes were in sharp decline, and as of May 2009, there have been no multi-ton seizures reported. The number of air couriers detected in European airports has plummeted. According to the database of one network of European airports, of all cocaine couriers detected, the share coming from West Africa dropped from 59% in the second quarter of 2007 to 6% in the first quarter of 2009.

While many of the vulnerabilities that made West Africa attractive to cocaine traffickers remain in place, the increase in international attention appears to have been sufficient to persuade them to find paths of less resistance. It is possible, if not likely, that they would return should international attention falter. But for now, West Africa has been spared the corrupting influence of a cocaine flow valued at more than the GDPs of some countries in the region.

If true, this would of course be good news — not least for UNODC, which after all exists to promote international cooperation on counternarcotics. I think I’d like to see some more information on this, however. An enduring problem in evaluating global drug flows is that data on seizures and trafficking arrests are not conclusive; there is no real way to know what percentage of the flow you are capturing. I’m by no means an expert on West Africa — and would be delighted to hear from anyone who is — but let’s keep an eye out for more research and evidence on what’s going on here.

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3 Comments

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  1. James Cockayne / Jun 26 2009 14:19

    The World Drug Report 2009 analysis on West Africa is somewhat surprising. Until we see the data it’s based on, though, we can’t know whether the reduction in seizures and the reduced use of African mules reflects a reduction in flows through West Africa, or in fact increased evasion of interdiction. Support for the latter interpretation comes from a slew of anecdotal evidence from within the UN and national systems suggesting already in 2008 traffickers operating through West Africa had diversified transit points away from those places where international attention has been most focused (eg Guinea-Bissau, Ghana) to other transit points (Guinea Conakry, possibly Senegal). Similarly, there’s some anecdotal evidence suggesting diversification away from use of young African men and women as mules towards a number of other techniques, including overland transfer through the Sahel and then small-shipment transfer from North Africa into Southern Europe. The UNODC report data shows up only as a graph on page 75, with the data to be published in a forthcoming report. Only when we see that will we begin to be able to parse better what is going on. It’s interesting that the report makes less of the fact that, by its own data, both West Africa and the eastern flank of Africa have seen a notable growth in opiate use.

    • jeni / Jul 7 2009 21:03

      Thanks for this James — I agree very much with your take here. Drug flows are inherently fluid — block a route here, another one opens up. The anecdotal evidence you share is very interesting and sounds completely plausible. I would also expect that when international attention fades (seems likely?) traffickers will return to places like Ghana. There’s a new UNODC report out today on trafficking in West Africa, will have to take a look at it…

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