LAGOS, Nigeria — Officers of U.S. Customs and the Drug Enforcement Administration seized more than 100 pounds of heroin last year from Nigerian nationals at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. British customs and drug agents arrested about 40 Nigerians as drug smugglers at airports in England, and the British authorities say their counterparts on the Continent are reporting increased Nigerian involvement in drug smuggling.
There is clear evidence, law enforcement agencies say, that Nigerian drug-smuggling networks are operating across four continents, bringing heroin out of India and Pakistan, distributing it as far east as Taiwan and Hong Kong, or taking it westward through Africa to markets in Europe and North America.
In addition to the mounting cases of drug smuggling, U.S. authorities are becoming concerned about Nigerian involvement in crime and fraud. They say Nigerians have been implicated in a variety of illicit rackets, including conspiracies to defraud insurance companies and credit card firms.
Nigerians, because of the number of them involved, are the most conspicuous of the newcomers involved in the international drug trade. They appear to be part of a growing trend suggesting that an increasing number of Africans have discovered that huge profits can be made in the illicit drug business.
In recent months, Zambia has been rocked by a scandal involving a score of prominent figures caught smuggling Mandrax, an amphetamine manufactured in India, into Zambia. Zambian investigators learned that smugglers were concealing the drugs in new luxury cars imported to the country from South Africa. Zambian diplomats have been jailed in Holland and England for smuggling heroin.
Kenya's police commissioner, Bernard Njinu, recently disclosed that an average of two Kenyans a month are arrested at London's Heathrow airport for smuggling hashish, which he said was being produced in large quantities by growers in western Kenya. In West Africa, authorities in Ivory Coast have expressed alarm over the amount of illegal drugs, particularly amphetamines, in circulation among the youth.
Although Africa may seem an out-of-the-way center for heroin-smuggling racketeers, it has enjoyed some distinct advantages. Drug enforcement officials point out that it is a comparatively new route, well situated halfway between Asian sources and Western consumers. Moreover, many African countries have notoriously pliable customs officials. Finally, economically troubled Africa has a ready supply of young men with no jobs and little to lose.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration posted an agent in Lagos eight months ago. One of his assignments is to assist the Nigerian police in establishing a drug enforcement unit. So far, about 30 Nigerian police have been assigned to the unit.
"They're not very well equipped," said the DEA agent, John Pope. "They don't even have cars yet."
Drug enforcement specialists say they believe that about five major smuggling rings are operating out of Lagos and are sending hundreds of Nigerians around the globe, most of them carrying relatively small amounts of heroin--usually five to seven ounces per person. In New York, the wholesale value of an ounce of heroin ranges from $5,500 to $9,000. The "street" value, once it has been diluted, is calculated at about $31,000 an ounce.
Customs officials and drug agents say that so far the preferred Nigerian method of smuggling through European and American ports of entry is "stuffing"--the heroin is concealed in condoms and inserted into body cavities.
"The Nigerians like to use a sort of 'human wave' technique," a customs official in London said. "They may have 10 or 12 smugglers on a plane and figure if we catch three of them they're still ahead of the game."
Drug authorities say they have no idea how much Nigerian-borne heroin is getting through their net, but they assume the amount is substantial. In addition to the smuggling rings under suspicion, authorities assume a large number of free-lancers are operating, due in no small part to the economics of airline travel out of Nigeria, which in turn stems from the troubled economy of Nigeria.
Because the Nigerian currency is drastically overvalued, Nigerians who can get dollars or other hard foreign currencies are able to buy international airline tickets at one-fourth to one-fifth of their real value. The smugglers are among those taking advantage of this travel subsidy.
With travel so profitable to Nigerians, a subsidiary business has developed in Lagos in the manufacture, sale and alteration of passports and other travel documents. The problem has grown to such proportions that the U.S. Embassy in Lagos has assigned a consular officer full-time to investigate cases of fraud.