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West Africa gets help fighting South American drug traffickers

The U.N. and the European Commission send police officers from the impoverished region, now a major transit hub for cocaine, to Colombia for training.

February 13, 2009|Chris Kraul

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Guinea-Bissau policeman Edmundo Mendes got a tip that South American drug traffickers had dumped 2 tons of cocaine off the coast of his West African country and marked it with a buoy so confederates could pick it up, then smuggle it to Europe.

But Mendes, part of his country's tiny counter-narcotics force, was powerless because he didn't have a boat with which to seize the drugs. Even if he had, he and his colleagues were pitifully short of weapons to defend themselves if a fight ensued.

Finally, he thought of asking European or U.S. counter-narcotics officials for help -- but didn't know whom to call.

"We have the will but not the adequate logistical means to combat the drug traffickers," Mendes said, recalling the July incident.

Aware that law enforcement agencies of poor West African nations are no match for drug cartels using the region as a major transit hub, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the European Commission have launched a program to offer training in operations and intelligence gathering, as well as the chance to network with agents from other countries.

As part of that program, Mendes, 34, and police officers from six other African nations are in Bogota this month for two weeks of instruction. They are rubbing shoulders with counter-narcotics officials from nine Latin American countries, as well as British, U.S. and Spanish agents.

It's the first meeting of its kind, and not a moment too soon, in Mendes' opinion: "We in Africa have become the branch offices of these criminal organizations."

Other African countries represented here in the Colombian capital are Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Senegal, South Africa and Togo.

The flow of cocaine to West Africa from the northern and eastern shores of South America is increasing so fast that counter-narcotics officials call the latitudinal corridor, along the 10th parallel north, that connects the two continents "Interstate 10."

The weakness of police forces in West Africa is a big reason that in the last four to five years the region has become a booming hub for Colombian, Bolivian and Peruvian cocaine headed toward Europe. Another is that as cocaine demand in the United States has leveled off in recent years, it has risen sharply in Europe.

According to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, about a third of the 750 tons of cocaine produced in South America each year is sold in Europe. Of that, a third to a half passes through West Africa en route to Spain, Britain and elsewhere.

One indication of the rising traffic is the fact that since 2005, an average of more than 10 tons of cocaine per year has been seized in West Africa or off its shores. That's 10 times the previous yearly average, according to a U.N. report issued in November.

The result is mounting violence in the streets and increasing stress on already weak governmental institutions. Mendes said killings have risen in Guinea-Bissau, which gained independence from Portugal in 1974. He blamed the growing presence of shadowy Colombian "businessmen" who drive luxury cars and occupy expensive apartments.

The lack of a criminal database means that even when Mendes arrests suspects, he can't do a basic background check. For that reason, he has had to release four Colombian suspects over the last two years, including two in 2007 who U.S. officials believe were members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a leftist rebel group known to traffic in narcotics.

Drugs are delivered to West Africa from such countries as Venezuela, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago by boat or small aircraft, which typically dump the cargo offshore to be picked up.

On Saturday, Mendes and the other representatives visited an anti-drug training facility, where they saw police stage a raid, deal with explosives, and identify drug labs and the chemicals they use.

"They're the best," said one Mexican federal police officer who attended, speaking of Colombian forces.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the Brazilian federal police and the Colombian National Police all have announced that they are sending additional personnel to West Africa to help the Africans cope with the tidal wave of drugs and the traffickers who for now enjoy relative impunity.

Mendes said Guinea-Bissau's police force, thanks to financial help from Portugal, would add 150 officers this year; only 70 policemen now patrol the country of 2 million.

No nation or multinational group has yet come forward to donate a radar system or the half-dozen fast boats Mendes says he needs to police the islands and waters around the port city of Bubaque, which are a favored drop zone for smuggled dope.

"At least the international community is helping us now," Mendes said. "They know we can't do it alone."

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

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