UN: West African Sahel is becoming a drug smuggling corridor

NIAMEY, Niger — Drug seizures soared in the West African Sahel region according to figures released Friday in a new U.N. report, indicating the conflict-ridden region is becoming an influential route for drug trafficking.

In 2022, 1,466 kilograms of cocaine were seized in Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Niger compared to an average of 13 kilograms between 2013 and 2020 , said the report from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

Cocaine is the most seized drug in the Sahel after cannabis resin, the report said. The analysis comes as Senegal, which borders on the Sahel, announced Sunday a record-breaking cocaine seizure of 1,137 kilograms – the most ever intercepted on land and valued at $146 million – near an artisanal mine in the east of the country. Incidents like this are becoming more common in the region: In one incident last year in December, the Senegalese navy seized a total of 3 tons of cocaine at sea.

The location of the Sahel, lying south of the Sahara desert and running from the Atlantic to the Arabian Ocean, makes it a natural transit point for the increasing amount of cocaine produced in South America and destined for Europe. The trafficking has detrimental impacts for both peace and health, locally and globally, said Amado Philip de Andrés, UNODC Regional Representative in West and Central Africa.

“The involvement of various armed groups in drug trafficking continues to undermine peace and stability in the region,” said Philip de Andrés. The report said the drug trade provides financial resources to armed groups in the Sahel, where Islamic extremist networks have flourished as the region struggles with a recent spate of coups.

Increased trafficking networks in the region is spilling out onto local markets and leading to higher drug consumption, said Lucia Bird, director of the West Africa observatory of illicit economies at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.

“We’ve had reports of rising crack cocaine consumption in Agadez, Niger driven by payment in kind,” said Bird. “Smaller traffickers get paid in drugs and offload it onto local markets because they don’t have the contacts in more lucrative consumption destinations.”

A patrol in southwest Niger on Monday intercepted a shipment of cannabis and Tramadol, an opioid painkiller pill, worth $50,000, according to a national TV announcement.

Another significant trend in the region is the direct exchange of Moroccan hashish for South American cocaine via West Africa, said Bird. This arrangement – which has been developing since 2020 — bypasses the need for cash payments and exploits differences in the prices of drugs across continents, she explained, adding that this increases the amount of drugs trafficked overland which transit from West African ports across some of the most conflict-affected areas of the Sahel.

Corruption and money laundering are major enablers of drug trafficking and recent seizures and arrests revealed that political elite, community leaders and leaders of armed groups facilitate the drug trade in the Sahel, the UN report added.

“States in the Sahel region — along with the international community — must take urgent, coordinated, and comprehensive action to dismantle drug trafficking networks,” said Leonardo Santos Simão, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for West Africa.

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