Sunday, May 27, 2007

West must stop drug cartels overrunning W.Africa-UN

DAKAR, May 26 (Reuters) - The international community must act to stop drug cartels from overrunning poor West African nations and turning them into narco-states, the United Nations special representative for the region said on Saturday.

Powerful Latin American drug rings are muscling their way into West Africa as a back-door route into Europe, where the street price of cocaine is often three times as high as in North America.

The rich cartels are spending millions of dollars to establish air and sea routes and create drug stockpiles from the deserts of the Sahara to the steamy creeks of the Gulf of Guinea, alarming U.S. and European counter-narcotics agencies.

Two big drug busts of more than 600 kilos of cocaine in Mauritanian and Niger in recent weeks show authorities can stem some of the flow, but U.N. officials say a far greater volume of narcotics is getting through.

"It's a very large quantity -- according to U.N. figures, in the last eight months more than two tonnes," said the special representative of the U.N. secretary-general for West Africa, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah.

He said the drug gangs had logistical, financial and communications means that were far more sophisticated than those possessed by the African states and they would be difficult to dislodge if they put down roots.

"Faced with fragile governments and huge areas, it is very difficult to control. We do not want to see a criminalisation of these states," Ould-Abdallah told Radio France Internacionale.

"Even better organised countries in Latin America have been taken hostage by these mafias. That is why we are calling attention to this."

In recent months, the U.S. navy has begun to refocus its operations in the Mediterranean southward to deal with the increasing threat of drug trafficking and illegal migration.

A navy ship will arrive on a year-long mission to the region in October, just as the U.S. military activates its new Africa strategic command, officials say. Counter-narcotics agents cite the case of Guinea-Bissau as a particular concern.

The bankrupt former Portuguese colony does not even have a prison to hold convicted drug traffickers, who are drawn there by the sheltered inlets and uninhabited islands of the country's unguarded coastline.

While much of the drugs is transported by sea, the army in Niger recently intercepted a convoy of vehicles heading across the Sahara -- indicating a possible land route as well.

Link to Reuters AlertNet - West must stop drug cartels overrunning W.Africa-UN